Horizon Scanning Exercise

Horizon Scanning Exercise

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Project Period: May 2016-December 2016

What Issues Will Be Important For Forests And People In The Years To Come?

The Sustainable Development Goals herald a new era for international development and cooperation. Forests and the environmental services that they create and protect will play a central role in emerging national and international sustainability agendas, making it a critical time to reflect on how sustainability agendas will shape future relationships between forests and the people that depend on them, directly and indirectly.

FLARE conducted a global “Horizon Scanning” exercise with policy makers, practitioners, and academics to collaboratively identify critical emerging themes linked to forest conservation and human well-being in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. We sought your input!


Horizon scanning is a forecasting tool: rather than highlighting current knowledge gaps, the aim is to identify what the next big themes will be.


Process and Timeline — click to expand

Our horizon scan used an iterative process (based on the Delphi method; Sutherland et al. 2010) and ran in four distinct phases:

Phase 1 (June – July 31, 2016)

Opened, worldwide call for submissions of critically important emerging themes from a wide array of people and groups working in the domain of forests and human wellbeing.

Phase 2 (1st round of voting, August 2016)

Invited core participants individually rank and review all submitted themes. Rankings and reviews were compiled by the FLARE working group to generate a ‘long list’, which formed the basis for the second round of voting (Phase 3).

Phase 3 (2nd round of voting, October-November 2016)

Core participants individually ranked, reviewed and refined the ‘long list’ of submitted themes. Rankings and edits were compiled by the FLARE working group to generate a “short list”, which formed the starting point for the final discussion.

Phase 4 (Workshop, December 2016)

Core participants took part in a 1-day workshop (December 5, 2016, in Edinburgh, U.K.) to review and revise the ‘short list’ and collectively identify the top 15-20 emerging themes. This final list was compiled into a draft working paper immediately after the workshop.

Criteria for emerging themes

We were specifically looking for new themes that the SDGs agenda would bring to the forefront, or critical issues that are relevant to the SDGs but for which existing knowledge was insufficient. Themes had to be:

  • Related to forests and wellbeing.
  • Formulated as a general theme (not as a question).
  • Of a spatial and temporal scope that could reasonably be addressed through a realistic research design.

Examples (from Sutherland et al. 2010) — click to expand

Possible impact of REDD on non-forested ecosystems

The focus of the proposed United Nations mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is on minimising carbon emissions caused by destruction of living forest biomass. Enhanced forest protection may increase pressure to convert or modify other ecosystems, especially savannahs and wetlands, for food or biofuel. Some of these ecosystems may also have high carbon sequestration potential or contain very large volumes of non-living soil carbon. Globally, peatlands cover only 3% of the land surface but store twice the amount of carbon as all the world’s forests, whilst mangrove forests and saltmarshes are examples of relatively low-biomass ecosystems with high levels of productivity and carbon sequestration. REDD thus has the potential to negatively affect species and ecological processes in non-forested ecosystems and to reduce carbon sequestration.

Horizon project pic

Credit: Laura Rasmussen

Large-scale international land acquisitions

One effect of the recent global food and financial crises is accelerating acquisition of large areas of arable land in developing countries by foreign governments and private companies. The purchasers aim to ensure food supply in their home country and investment returns. Parcels of several hundred thousands of hectares are being bought or leased in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe by food-importing countries with domestic land and water constraints but abundant capital, such as the Gulf States, or by countries with large populations and food security concerns, such as China, South Korea and India. These land acquisitions have the potential to inject investment, technology and market access into agriculture and rural areas in developing countries. However, conversion of forests and grasslands to intensive agricultural production and monocropping may threaten biological diversity, carbon stocks and water resources. Enforcement of environmental laws might be simpler when there are few large-scale land owners rather than many small-scale farmers. However, such large-scale land acquisitions also raise concerns about the potential impacts on local people, who risk losing access to and control over resources on which they depend.


Sutherland W. J., Woodroof H. J. 2009. The need for environmental horizon scanning. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24: 523-527.

Sutherland W. J., et al. 2010. A horizon scan of global conservation issues for 2010. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25:1-7.

A manuscript for this project is now under review at Nature Sustainability.