London — Resembling the stuff from which science fiction movies are made, the invasive potential of artificial life and so-called biomimetic robots are now being hailed as reality, reports Lloyd’s. The London global insurer says these robots are among 25 alarming threats to the ecosystem identified by U.K. environmental scientists and policymakers. As well as risks associated with insect-like mini robots, the list includes threats linked to nanotechnology and biotechnology.

The result of an exercise called horizon scanning, the list also points to hazards associated with climate change such as coastal flooding, increased fire risk, and the growing demand for biofuels and biomass.

Published online in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, the list came out of a two-day meeting held in Cambridge involving 35 representatives from government, environmental non-governmental organizations and academia.

“We hope that horizon scanning will help cut down the number of times that policy dealing with foreseeable issues needs to made in the absence of the appropriate research,” the lead author, Professor Bill Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, said.

The implications of not identifying issues that may be foreseeable is illustrated by the contentious responses to genetically modified crops and by the challenges posed by avian flu and climate change, the report states. “It isn’t always possible to predict the consequences of new scientific methods,” Professor Sutherland stressed. “But you can usually identify the possible risks.”

The Cambridge team’s work on horizon scanning ties in with Lloyd’s 360 Project, which is helping to drive debate on emerging risk. “The difficulty is that there is so much ‘noise’ that it is hard to sift through the many threats that are raised to identify which ones need more research,” Trevor Maynard, manager of emerging risks at Lloyd’s, believes. “The Cambridge team’s approach provides a useful filter.”

Maynard says that Lloyd’s also is contributing to horizon scanning through its work with Lighthill Risk Network, a not-for-profit organization that brings together scientific researchers, the insurance industry, government and third-party organizations to exchange risk-related expertise. Lloyd’s recently hosted a Lighthill conference on nanotechnology.

“The list produced by the horizon scanning exercise was interesting because it contained threats with obvious implications for insurers, such as an increase in extreme weather events,” Maynard says. “But it also produced other threats with less obvious implications. For example, the introduction by companies of invasive plant species to meet demands for biofuels, and whether any liability issues might arise as a consequence.”

Maynard thinks the list also poses important questions related to liability and insurability. “The risks attached to geo-engineering—fertilizing the oceans to encourage plankton growth and increase the size of the carbon sink, for example—are huge,” he says. “We don’t fully understand the repercussions of such actions, so insurers will need to think carefully about the extent to which it is insurable.”

The 25 threats identified by horizon scanning

1. Nanotechnologies
2. Invasive potential and possible ecosystem impacts of artificial life and biomimetic robots.
3. Unintended consequences of pathogens developed by modern biotechnology methods.
4. Direct impact of novel pathogens.
5. Impacts of control efforts for novel pathogens.
6. Facilitation of non-native invasive pecies through climate change.
7. Large-scale restoration for iconic wildlife and habitats.
8. Action to facilitate species range change in the face of climate change.
9. Frequency of extreme weather events.
10. Geo-engineering the planet to mitigate the effects of climate change.
11. Implications for biodiversity of the adoption of an ecosystem approach.
12. Increased fire risk.
13. Increasing demand for biofuel and biomass.
14. Step change in demand for food and, hence, pressure on land for agriculture.
15. Ocean acidification.
16. Reduction of coldwater continental shelf marine habitats.
17. Significant increase in coastal and offshore power generation.
18. Extreme high-water coastal events.
19. Sea level rise resulting in loss of coastal and intertidal habitats.
20. Dramatic changes in freshwater flows.
21. Nature conservation policy and practice not keeping pace with environmental change.
22. Internet and new e-technologies connecting people with environmental information.
23. Decline in engagement with nature.
24. Adoption of monetary value as the key criterion in conservation decision-making.
25. Public antagonism toward wildlife due to perceived human health threat.

Source: Lloyd’s, INN archives

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