The dilemma

27 May 2010 | Article

Clean energy does not always mean green energy and when biodiversity is threatened by renewable energy projects, environmentalists face a difficult dilemma.

Many countries focused on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions are showing a keen interest in renewable energy. But environmentalists are concerned that the portrayal of low carbon energy sources as ‘clean’ is leading to the implementation of renewable energy projects without a full assessment of their other ecological impacts.

Anyone interested in sustainability is keen to support renewable energy, however, conservationists know that it can create a whole new suite of problems for ecosystems and biodiversity. No energy source is entirely ‘biodiversity- neutral’: nuclear power has obvious waste-disposal problems, the manufacture of solar cells can create hazardous waste, hydropower alters freshwater ecosystems and wastewater from geothermal plants affects aquatic ecology.The transmission lines, roads, and other infrastructure associated with all ‘clean’ power projects can have extensive impacts on ecosystems.

Biofuels are being promoted in many nations. Unfortunately, biofuel proponents often underestimate the environmental and social consequences of unsustainable biofuel crops and processing methods. “Biofuels represent a threat to biodiversity.Many countries are destroying natural habitats or putting pressure on biodiversity to make way for biofuel crops.This can and should be limited,” says Jean-Christophe Vié of IUCN’s Species Programme. “We should not accept the assumption that global energy consumption will increase. Much of the energy we produce today is wasted so the priorities are to reduce our consumption wherever possible and improve the efficiency of existing production and distribution.”

The proliferation of wind farms on land and at sea is causing serious problems for bats and birds. Collisions are not the only problem; bats can also be killed by internal bleeding caused by changes in air pressure around the turbine blades. Growing numbers of dead bats found underneath wind turbines in the US and Europe has led to concerns that research into the siting of these structures is not sufficiently rigorous—some wind farms have been erected along bat and bird migration routes.

Professor Paul Racey, co-chair of IUCN’s Bat Specialist Group says that good progress has been made in surveillance and monitoring, but governments and energy companies are not acting on the information. “In many places, the authorities are so concerned with meeting their targets for renewable energy that they’re not taking any notice of the impacts on bats. But it all depends on the will of the country,” explains Prof. Racey. “In Germany for example, some wind turbines are shut down at certain times to minimize the impact on bat populations.” Fortunately, he says, the issue is an emerging priority for some key environmental organizations. He and his colleagues are working on mitigation measures to deter bats from areas around wind farms.

“We do face a dilemma and there is no easy fix,” says Prof. Racey, “but we have to work through it by getting conservation groups, energy companies and government agencies around the same table. There are signs that the energy sector is more willing to engage in the debate than was the case 10 years ago.”

Dr Scott Harrison is a Senior Environmental Specialist with BC Hydro, one of North America’s leading providers of hydroelectric energy and a Liaison Delegate to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) where BC Hydro co-chairs the Ecosystems Focus Area. He says BC Hydro and otherWBCSD companies recognize that biodiversity underpins the supply of ecosystem services and that all businesses interact with, and depend on, these services.

Although society is currently focused on carbon, which is linked to one ecosystem service: natural carbon sequestration by plants and plankton, there are many other ecosystem services that are in need of immediate attention, he adds. “BC Hydro’s environmental priority is to achieve the long-term goal of no net incremental environmental impact, so the company has programmes to encourage consumers to conserve electricity and programmes to measure and reduce environmental effects on air, land and water. The company works within the WBCSD to implement the Ecosystem Services Review Tool and to make ecosystem valuation an integral part of planning and decision making by business, governments and consumers.”

Given that energy consumption is set to double by 2030, both the environmental community and the business community must find ways to assess and manage the tradeoffs between energy and biodiversity. Conservationists are racing to gather the necessary information about the impacts and make sure it feeds into the decision-making process. Dr Harrison is optimistic that global discussions about greenhouse gases will lead to greater awareness about the links to biodiversity, ecosystem services and sustainability. “When society sees the value in using resources sustainably, people can use existing mechanisms, such as adaptive management and structured decision making to integrate social progress, economic development, and ecological resilience.”