24 Feb 2017

Green tradeoffs: renewable energy vs. biodiversity

Mike writes*

One of the most persistent issues in modern environmental culture is the threat of climate change and its unrelenting effect on ecosystems and biodiversity worldwide. One of the main drivers of climate change is fossil fuels. Their extraction has led to significant anthropogenic loss and the continued degradation and fragmentation of habitats. A large fraction of species around the globe face increased extinction risk under projected climate change during the 21st century [pdf]. Climate change and biodiversity loss embody the environmental challenges faced on a global scale.

Limiting the magnitude and effects of climate change has triggered a shift towards an emphasis on the rapid, large-scale expansion of low and zero carbon renewable energy sources. A term that has come to development throughout the late 20th century is that of a ‘Green Economy’ [pdf]. As an economic system, it aims to improve human welfare and social equity, focusing on significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity. Driven by public and private investments, its aim is to offset the continued increase in energy demand via two key strategies: investing in natural capital and increasing energy and resource efficiency. The former is a major strategy for economic sectors that depend on biological resources, whilst the latter is vital to reducing resource intensity and environmental impacts of economic sectors that are dependent on the transformation of natural capital.

Looking towards the future, the large-scale implementation of renewable energy is a fundamental intervention towards greening the economy, given its potential to mitigate climate change and save fossil fuel energy. In the course of the next decade, there’s bound to be an increase in both quantity and size of proposed renewable energy projects. The European Union has promoted the use of renewable energy via several directives, aiming to meet 20% of its total energy through renewable sources by 2020 [pdf]. The main drivers of this expansion have been for economic development, energy security, and conserving biodiversity, as renewable energy pathways are often considered environmentally benign due to their role in combating climate change.

However, despite climate change being one of the greatest drivers for biodiversity loss [pdf], the interplay between ‘Green’ energy and biodiversity has demonstrated that some renewable energy pathways can have major impacts on biodiversity, having been directly and indirectly associated with all five drivers of ecosystem change and biodiversity loss. It’s not simply about birds colliding with wind turbines; it’s the major modification of habitats that severely impacts biodiversity. Solar energy requires large amounts of land alteration resulting in habitat fragmentation [pdf], wind power disrupts migrations patterns, and hydropower can result in a major alteration of water flow regimes.

Whilst the mechanisms differ within the pathways and environmental contexts in which they operate, it is clear that the development of renewable energy can have several biodiversity tradeoffs. I believe that these must be taken into consideration when developing policies that can promote renewable energy, if economic growth is to be attained. Though harnessing the potential for renewable energy is of vital importance towards mitigating the effects of climate change, the conservation of biodiversity outweighs the large-scale development of renewable energy sources.

Bottom Line Employing technology and energy sources aimed at mitigating climate change - one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss - would not be logical if these go against the primary aims for which they were created. Consequently, this will require further consideration of the potentially adverse effects that these developments can have, and this will have a considerable role in determining the scale and pace of renewable energy development.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data, etc.