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Combatting climate change: the renewable energy vs. conservation dilemma

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Alain Kilajian
Senior Sustainability Specialist at International Hydropower Association

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  • Combatting climate change: the renewable energy vs. conservation dilemma

A recent IEA report on achieving net zero models a doubling of global electricity generation led by the three musketeers of the renewable revolution – solar, wind and hydropower. At the same time, world leaders are set to agree new targets for biodiversity, increasing the number of protected areas among other conservation measures. This article explores the trade-offs between these pathways and outlines what the hydropower sector is doing to bridge the gaps.

After the delays and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, two major international summits in 2021 will attempt to find solutions to the twin challenges of environmental degradation and climate change. At the UN Biodiversity Conference in October, hosted in Kunming, China, governments will assess progress against global targets made under the Convention for Biological Diversity. A month later, in November, officials will meet again in Glasgow, UK, to renew and strengthen pledges to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement.

These back-to-back summits will leave governments with a gargantuan challenge: how to meet increasing energy demand while protecting the world’s ecological biodiversity. On one hand, they need to increase renewable energy capacity to meet the electrification needs of a growing population. On the other, they need to protect natural assets such as forests, wetlands and other biodiversity habitats, to maintain the benefits of these ecosystems as well as their aesthetic beauty. To stand any chance in our fight against climate change, governments will need to do both, simultaneously.

For most, these two pathways appear sans conflict, but scratch beneath the surface and cracks begin to appear. The most obvious crack is to do with space. Like any other infrastructure development, renewable energy projects require space, whether on land or water. The problem with renewable energy projects is they require a lot of it and much more than traditional fossil fuel plants. For example, solar and wind projects may need around 50 times more space than coal plants and 100 times more space than gas plants to generate an equivalent amount of electricity. In countries with limited space and ambitious clean energy targets, renewable energy development linked to deforestation has come at the expense of biodiversity and conservation.

Beyond the issue of space, renewable energy development can impact biodiversity and conservation efforts through numerous direct and indirect pressures. Wind power has often been associated with impacts on migratory birds, solar power on land erosion and deforestation, and hydropower on river health. Such impacts have led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to partner up with leading industry players like Électricité de France (EDF) and Energias de Portugal (EDP) to develop guidance on best practices in mitigating biodiversity impacts from wind and solar projects. Though the guidance doesn’t cover hydropower, it clearly highlights the trade-offs between the clean energy and conservation movements.

The challenge for governments will be how to reconcile renewable energy development and biodiversity protection

At the heart of this dilemma is the fight against climate change. Conservation and clean energy development are the two most important weapons in our arsenal against climate change. Mitigating the effects of climate change will require us not only to reduce our future emissions of greenhouse gases but also capture some of the carbon already in the atmosphere. Renewable energy development helps us achieve the first objective – reducing future emissions. For example, hydropower instead of traditional fossil fuels has contributed to the avoidance of more than 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the past 50 years alone. That’s roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon footprint of the United States for 20 years. With increasing amounts of renewable energy penetrating energy markets, the number of avoided emissions will continue to grow.

For the second objective – capturing existing carbon in the atmosphere – carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies linked to clean coal seem to dominate the discussion around this topic (which is not surprising considering the significant number of investment and vested interest in the sector), but the fastest way to capture carbon from the atmosphere is actually through photosynthesis. This is why conservation is so important. Mass reforestation, habitat restoration and protection of existing habitats are vital to increase the rate of global photosynthesis and thus reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.

In terms of protecting existing habitats, legally designated protected areas are one of the most important conservation tools to mitigate climate change and halt the global loss of biodiversity. These protected areas help provide basic goods and ecosystem services, such as the provision of and access to food, fibre, shelter and security, and in many cases clean water. They can also offer valuable options for society to mitigate and adapt to climate change through ecosystem benefits such as water and climate regulation, and carbon storage. In truth, conserving and restoring habitats is among the most cost-effective emissions strategies available.

The challenge for governments will be how to reconcile renewable energy development and biodiversity protection. While clear synergies exist between the objectives of biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation, there is also a risk that the agendas, if misaligned, could easily undermine one another. The hydropower sector, led by the International Hydropower Association (IHA), has been working closely with governments, NGOs and financial institutions to address some of these challenges and set a path for renewable energy development that does not come at the expense of biodiversity.

Over the last year, IHA has raised the bar for the sector through the publication of a series of practical How-to Guides providing guidance on good practices in hydropower development. Most notably, the How-to Guide on Biodiversity Capture and Invasive Species, co-authored by the International Institute of Energy and Development (IIED) and reviewed by the Inter-American Development Bank and IUCN, outlines how the mitigation hierarchy (avoid, minimise, mitigate and compensate) should be applied in practice to achieve a net gain or no net loss.

In parallel, to tackle the renewable energy development vs. conservation dilemma head on, IHA has convened a multistakeholder working group on protected areas to review good practices for hydropower development and operation in relation to World Heritage Sites and designated protected areas. The outcome of the working group’s programme will include a good practice guide for hydropower and protected areas, as well as a set of commitments for the sector in relation to protected areas. The commitments will be incorporated in a wider declaration recognising sustainable hydropower as essential to addressing climate change, while requiring good sustainability practice as a minimum expectation for the future.

The San José Declaration on Sustainable Hydropower, named in honour of the official host partner of the World Hydropower Congress, the Government of Costa Rica, will be drafted following extensive and proactive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders and registrants. The Declaration will bring biodiversity protection to the forefront of the sector’s agenda and will be influenced by the outcomes of multiple reports, forums and working groups, including the World Commission on Dams and the forthcoming Hydropower Sustainability Standard.

The synergies and trade-offs between renewable energy development and conservation are clear. While the path forward may be bumpy, the hydropower sector, through multistakeholder decision-making and proactive engagement, has charted a future where clean energy and biodiversity protection can coexist. This future is not only achievable; it is necessary for our fight against climate change.

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