India aims to install 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030.
Renewable Energy India aims to install 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030. © Creative Commons

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For renewable energy projects, location is key to protect biodiversity

By planning solar and wind renewable energy projects in areas with a lower conservation priority, project developers can avoid the most severe potential negative impacts on biodiversity, according to a new set of guidelines released today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), The Biodiversity Consultancy, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners.

According to the publication, Mitigating biodiversity impacts associated with solar and wind energy development: Guidelines for project developershabitat loss and fragmentation as well as bird and bat collisions are the predominant impacts associated with renewable energy developments.

“Large-scale expansion of solar and wind energy is vital for a sustainable, low-carbon future. However, developers must take care to ensure that these technologies do not unwillingly pose risks to nature and livelihoods,” said Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General. “These new guidelines provide much-needed advice on how to mitigate the potential impacts of wind and solar projects on biodiversity and local communities.”

To minimise biodiversity risks, solar and wind project developers should avoid areas of high environmental significance such as protected areas and conserved areas, World Heritage sites and Key Biodiversity Areas, according to the guidelines. Other measures recommended by the guidelines include the use of technology that can temporarily shut down select wind turbines to protect birds and other species at particularly active times, or when they are detected in the vicinity by field observers, image-based detection or radar.

The new guidelines provide advice on protecting biodiversity throughout the project life cycle, from early planning through to decommissioning and repowering. They offer a framework for applying a mitigation hierarchy to avoid, minimise, restore and – where necessary – offset impacts on biodiversity. The guidelines take into account potential social impacts that may arise when mitigating biodiversity loss, particularly when implementing offsets. They also offer recommendations for investors and policy makers on how they can play a positive role, e.g. through the restoration of degraded habitats.

“These guidelines show how the transition to renewables can be achieved without an unacceptable cost to nature. By putting nature at the centre of project decision-making, developers can deliver positive outcomes for people and biodiversity alongside energy that is genuinely green,” said Dr Leon Bennun, Chief Scientist, The Biodiversity Consultancy.

The guidelines also identify a number of areas that urgently need further research, in particular the biodiversity impacts associated with the sourcing of materials for renewables, such as in the construction of solar panels and wind turbines, and the processes for optimising their reuse.   

The publication resulted from a joint effort between IUCN and The Biodiversity Consultancy, in collaboration with IUCN Member organisations BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International, The Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as energy companies Électricité de France (EDF), Energias de Portugal (EDP) and Shell.

“The overarching threats posed by climate change confront conservationists with two interrelated challenges," said Dr Joseph Kiesecker, lead scientist, The Nature Conservancy.  "First, the world must achieve a rapid transition to low-carbon and renewable energy sources.  Second, this transition must happen in a way that does not sacrifice nature for new energy expansion. These challenges must be solved simultaneously, drawing on innovative science and financing mechanisms to produce plans, policies, and practices that achieve balanced outcomes for energy and conservation. The mitigation practices outlined in the report are a step towards that goal.”

The new guidelines, along with more than 30 case studies, are available here. Guidance for financial institutions on how to select projects with low biodiversity risks will be released soon by IUCN.

Additional quotes:

Patricia Zurita, CEO, BirdLife International:  “BirdLife International insists on urgently reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and that transitioning to a renewable energy led future must ensure that technologies - such as wind and solar - have the right safeguards in place to avoid negative impacts on key areas of biodiversity and vulnerable species. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have now to build back better should guarantee we don’t undo the progress we make on one hand with damage done by the other.”

Joe Walston, Executive Vice President of Global Conservation, Wildlife Conservation Society:  “The global move toward renewable energy is urgent and critical, but we should avoid assuming that all these strategies do not harm nature. The IUCN Renewables Guidelines help provide evidence-based guidance to speed the transition to a lower-carbon energy model which is both carbon neutral and nature positive.”

Carine de Boissezon, Chief Sustainability Officer, EDF:  “Our determination to preserve biodiversity goes hand in hand with our climate ambition. From the identification of a project to its finalization, any investment has to be consistent with EDF’s raison d’être which is to build a net zero energy future with electricity and innovative solutions and services, to help save the planet and drive wellbeing and economic development.”

Miguel Setas, Executive Board Member, EDP:  “For the successful achievement of the Paris Agreement, renewables need to grow at a faster pace requiring an adequate management of the challenges ahead. Partnering with IUCN gave us a wider perspective on how biodiversity must be addressed and these guidelines will help us achieve EDP’s biodiversity no net loss commitment.”

Elisabeth Brinton, Executive Vice President Renewables & Energy Solutions, Shell:  “The world’s journey towards net-zero emissions must go hand-in-hand with practises that protect the environment and enhance biodiversity. Shell welcomes these guidelines that align with our new strategy and serve as a timely reminder of the critical role nature will play in the energy transition.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.