Audio Catherine Early Policy - 19/March/2020

Biodiversity must not be sacrificed to the energy transition

With the world facing an energy and a biodiversity emergency, realisation is growing that solutions need to be made compatible with sustainability in both areas

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All renewable technologies can have positive or negative impacts on wildlife


CO-EXISTENCE Biodiversity loss is increasing just as scaling up the size of renewable energy facilities has become an urgent requirement. A win-win for flora, fauna and the climate can be achieved by the renewables industry and conservation groups working strategically in close harmony

DEGRADED LAND Global clean energy goals could be met 17 times over using agricultural land and the sites of former mines in preference to unspoilt countryside

KEY QUOTE “We have had some really good examples of nature inclusive design which can improve environmental conditions. We should be talking about positive opportunities to make things better”


A nine-fold hike in energy generation from wind and solar facilities is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, estimates the International Energy Agency. But these facilities and associated infrastructure, such as roads and power lines, use up a lot of land. As biodiversity loss increases and the need to scale up clean energy becomes more urgent, scientists and conservation groups are banging the drum about the lack of effort to link the climate and biodiversity agendas. Consequences for wildlife could be fatal if nothing changes, they warn.

Over 11 million hectares of the world’s remaining natural lands could be lost to renewable energy development, estimate scientists at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a US campaign group. Three million of these hectares are of high importance for biodiversity, potentially putting the habitats of 1574 endangered species at risk.

Wind and solar energy technologies can negatively impact fauna and flora through disturbance and loss of habitat, including noise pollution and bird fatalities from collision with physical structures, and other indirect pressures.

Government policy, particularly in the EU, has dealt with impacts on biodiversity through permitting processes with renewable energy developers required to carry out environmental impact assessments to identify potential threats to wildlife and to propose measures to mitigate them.

Wind power is probably most often in the media as a potential threat to some wildlife. But all renewable technologies can have positive or negative impacts and these impacts have been underappreciated, says Alexandros Gasparatos from the University of Tokyo. Solar facilities have generally been thought of as having negligible ecological impacts, but the footprint and land use efficiency of panels and associated infrastructure such as access roads and electrical equipment can vary considerably.

The space requirement of a solar plant can be around 2.5 times the area of the panels and can modify and fragment habitats, says Gasparatos. Potential impacts of renewable energy development on wildlife should be analysed early on in the siting process and locations for renewable energy projects should be identified at a national level, he adds. Such steps would save time and effort, he believes.




Conservation bodies have long advocated a more strategic approach to the siting of renewables. Countries like Germany, Scotland and France with long histories of renewable energy have already introduced good practices, says Tris Allison from Birdlife International. UK conservation organisation the RSPB and government regulator Scottish Natural Heritage led the way, developing a sensitivity map for Scotland in 2006 to identify areas where renewable development should be avoided.

In 2010, TNC brought spatial planning for renewables to California’s Mojave desert, a hot spot for solar project development, mapping out the region’s most biologically diverse and unspoiled places across the 65,000 km2 desert. It identified 5665 km2 of previously developed or degraded sites such as old ranch-lands well-suited to solar projects. Three solar farms, with a combined capacity of 480 MW, were approved in less than ten months, less than half the time taken by similar projects in the past.

Pressure for such projects to become the norm is increasing: proposals being discussed by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for a new global nature protection deal, due to be finalised in China in October 2020, include setting aside 30% of land and seas for nature protection. Meanwhile, the scaling up of country-level renewable energy ambitions pledged in national climate plans will come under intense scrutiny at the UN climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020.

Work is underway to make strategic siting more mainstream in renewable energy. WindEurope, a lobby group, is helping to move forward the issue, engaging more with environmental organisations to understand their concerns. “We need to co-exist with biodiversity and so are pushing for a higher level of spatial planning for onshore and offshore,” says WindEurope’s Marylise Schmid.

In November 2019, the organisation published a report calculating that 450 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind need to be built by 2050 if EU member states are to meet their Paris goals. Such growth would mean a substantial increase in annual build rates from around 3 GW a year to 7 GW by the second half of the 2020s, to more than 20 GW a year after 2030. The cheapest and most space-efficient way to build this much capacity is through the multiple use of the same maritime space by different sectors, it says.



To put this approach into practice, WindEurope has worked with the Belgian government on a study on multiple uses for offshore wind sites, such as fishing and nature conservation and restoration. Belgium is planning new concession zones for offshore wind, partly located in protected Natura 2000 areas with important sea bed habitats. These areas have been damaged by dredging and bottom trawling, says Mattia Cecchinato, WindEurope’s sustainability and offshore analyst. The presence of wind turbines will prevent this practice, winning support from campaign group Greenpeace. “We’ve had some really good examples of nature inclusive design which can improve environmental conditions,” says Cecchinato. “We should be talking about positive opportunities to make things better.”

WindEurope is working with governments and developers to improve the consistency of data collected to better monitor the environmental performance of offshore wind farms. Developers would be more comfortable sharing data if its collection was streamlined, Cecchinato says. The information could be uploaded to an open-source repository, along with that collected by the state and conservation groups to aid the understanding of cumulative impacts, says WindEurope. Most developers are keen to engage on this issue, says Schmid. “They know that if this is not addressed correctly, they might get objections at a project level,” she adds.

The EU Maritime Spatial Planning Directive, which comes into effect in 2021, is also beginning to drive better collaboration around offshore projects at a national and international level. This approach is new for many coastal member states, says Cecchinato, but should ensure better decision-making with governments being forced to mediate between industry and environmental groups.



At a global level, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has formed a partnership with energy companies Électricité de France, Energias de Portugal and Shell to promote the best ways of reducing biodiversity impacts of wind and solar power along the entire life cycle of a project.

The idea originated from informal discussions with the three companies, says Giulia Carbone from IUCN’s global business and biodiversity programme. “They have well-established experience in managing impacts on nature. They realise the importance of mainstreaming these practices across the renewable energy sector, from large to medium and smaller operators, to ensure it takes its potential impact on nature seriously,” she says.

IUCN plans to publish a framework on risk screening, best practice for mitigating or offsetting these risks and regulatory and policy recommendations at its World Conservation Congress in France in June 2020, and the UN CBD talks in China.

Global clean energy goals could be met 17 times over by siting renewable energy on, for example, agricultural lands, where crops can be grown alongside wind turbines, and mine sites rather than natural land, estimates TNC. In 2019, it launched a tool called Paris2Practice to support lawmakers and developers identify degraded land where renewable energy can be sited without coming into conflict with wildlife.




The Indian government, which has huge renewable energy ambitions, including 100 GW of solar, and 60 GW of wind by 2022, announced in February 2020 it would use the tool to help it avoid installations impacting on the great Indian bustard, one of the most endangered birds in the world.

Collision with power lines, many serving the state’s renewable energy developments, is now the biggest cause of deaths of the bird, says Birdlife’s Allison. “I have been predicting for a long time that the next avian extinction will be caused by climate change, but there is a slight chance the next extinction is caused by renewable energy and that would be a terrible irony. Luckily India has woken up to that, they can see the bad headlines that would come,” he says.

In response, the Wildlife Institute of India, an independent body under the government’s environment department, is identifying the most problematic power lines for birds. In February 2020, India’s Supreme Court ordered power lines in Rajasthan’s Desert National Park to be buried underground and the Indian government announced it will pay for the Bombay Natural History Society, a pan-India wildlife research organisation, to develop a national map of areas where wind farms could impact birds.

Birdlife International has set up an energy task force to share best practice between countries. Operating under the 130-government strong UN Convention on Migratory Species, it includes governments, banks, secretariats of international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention, the International Renewable Energy Agency and WindEurope.

Renewable energy targets can be met successfully with just a little thought for biodiversity, considering all the other issues that need to be considered when deciding on a site, such as airports and military installations, insists Birdlife International’s Ashton Berry, who coordinates the task force.

“Adding an extra layer for biodiversity is achievable and needs only a relatively small amount of funding to be able to do that through sensitivity mapping,” he says.


TEXT Catherine Early


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