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Explained: Can green technology harm marine biodiversity?

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A new study has flagged emerging threats that could have a major impact on marine biodiversity over the next 5-10 years.

The study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution on July 7, also talks about the negative impacts of adopting green technologies that should not be ignored. A technique called “horizon scanning” was used by a team of 30 multidisciplinary experts to arrive at their conclusions.

Impact of green technology

With increased public pressure against marine plastic pollution, there has been an attempt to replace fossil fuel-based plastic with biodegradable polymers, such as “biodegradable plastic bags” made from plant starches. However, the researchers say these materials do not biodegrade under natural ocean conditions, and their widespread adoption can also cause marine litter. As their long-term impact on the environment remains unknown, they can lead to a whole new set of problems.

Researchers say the growing demand for renewable energy technologies, such as lithium batteries for electric cars, also poses a potential threat to marine ecology.

Deeper, more saline “brine pools” contain higher concentrations of lithium and could become future mining sites. The study reveals that these ecosystems are home to a variety of species, many of which are largely unknown. A growing demand for lithium electric vehicles could put these environments at risk.

Other challenges

Overfishing has already been recognized as an immediate problem, with the WTO calling for a ban on subsidies to those fishing overfished stocks, at its last ministerial conference on June 23.

The authors foresee more fishing in deep waters, in order to meet growing global food security concerns.

There are about 10 billion tons of small lantern fish in the mesopelagic zone (a depth of 200 m to 1,000 m), which are not fit for human consumption but can be sold as food to fish farms or used as fertilizer.

However, large-scale harvesting of mesopelagic fish would cause immense environmental damage, as these species act as an ocean pump and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Horizon scan

It is a technique that seeks to identify new but poorly understood issues that may have significant consequences over the next decade.

The study researchers argue that this methodology is meant to “serve primarily as signposts, highlighting particular issues and providing support for researchers and practitioners to seek investment in these areas” before they don’t have a major impact.

It is also an effective way to bring together experts from various fields to examine common problems and formulate more comprehensive solutions.

The horizon scanning method has already been used to identify issues that are now known to have a universal environmental impact. A 2009 analysis gave an early warning of the danger that microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic debris less than 5mm) pose to marine environments. Since then, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have banned cosmetics from containing microbeads.