Desert power

As climate change escalates, the world is increasingly looking to engineered solutions to reduce carbon emissions and provide sustainable energy. Recently the focus has turned on deserts and how they can be used to supply large amounts of renewable energy which is causing some concern among environmentalists.

Camels in Ksar Ghilane in South Tunisia

After many years on the drawing board, in July this year, a large scale solar power project for the Sahara desert in North Africa was launched. The plan is to install solar panels across thousands of square kilometres and transmit the electricity to Europe. The project is being developed by the Desertec Foundation, under the auspices of the Club of Rome and the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation.

Supporters say that the project will keep Europe at the forefront of the fight against climate change, meet a significant portion of Europe's electricity demand and generate thousands of jobs. Critics say that Europe would become too dependent on the geopolitics of North Africa and that there is a greater need for electricity in Africa where almost a quarter of people lack access to it. There are also concerns about the amount of water needed to clean the solar panels and for turbine coolant and the additional stress on local populations who already face severe water shortages.

Amid the debate, IUCN is anxious that environmental and social concerns are taken into account by the project developers at an early stage. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and the provision of sustainable energy is essential to future societal development. It hopes that Desertec will bring much needed economic opportunities to North Africa but it is also concerned about the areas where the development will occur.

“The environmental community is keen to support the development of renewable energy but no renewable energy solution is biodiversity neutral,” says Margarita Astrálaga, Director of the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation. “The Mediterranean dryland ecosystems and the communities that depend on them are among the most threatened in the world. It is important that the project recognises and addresses the environmental and social risks. Deserts are not homogenous ecosystems and there is critical biodiversity in these areas with particular adaptation mechanisms that need to be considered.”

IUCN is exploring the option of collaborating with the Desertec team. Through its extensive networks of staff, members and experts in the region, the Union is well placed to offer guidance on how to address potential threats as well as opportunities to biodiversity and local livelihoods. It can also ensure that the project complies with international standards on impact assessment and mitigation.

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