Power sector impacts on biodiversity

11 Dec 2019

A new UKERC study has shown the extent to which countries drive biodiversity loss overseas through their demand for electric power. For some countries more than half of the impact on species is overseas.

While the study found that the shift towards renewable electricity needed to combat climate change would likely reduce the impacts on biodiversity, the overseas impact makes it difficult to understand how “green” our electric really is.

The research, led by Dr. Robert Holland, calls for countries to enact stronger regulations to ensure that energy transitions are done in such a way as to protect biodiversity, and to consider both the local and global impacts of steps taken to combat global warming.

Power sector impacts on 4000 species

The research analysed the impact of fossil and renewable power sectors on nearly 4000 threatened birds, mammals and amphibians. The threats each species faced from the electric sector was traced along global supply chains. This included the obvious infrastructure that we see, such as wind turbines or power stations, but also examined the impacts on biodiversity from all of the materials that go into building our electricity infrastructure.

The displacement of international impacts

In some countries, the demand for electric power shifts much of its impact on biodiversity to other countries, with threats displaced along international supply chains. The region with the largest international impact was Europe with more than half the total biodiversity impact associated with its electric demand being displaced overseas.

The UK was in the top five countries to pass on much of its risk to other countries along with Japan, China, the United States and India. This contrasts with other countries and regions where far more of the biodiversity impacts are going to meet demand for electric in other countries. For example, a quarter of the biodiversity threat in Latin America is driven by demand for electric in Europe and North America. In the case of countries such as Colombia and Indonesia the threats embodied in exports to meet global demand for electric are greater than the threats associated with their own electric demands.

The researchers advise that future energy policy must consider these unequal international impacts to identify the best routes to decarbonisation.

The impact of different renewable sources

Solar and wind power were found to have the least impact on biodiversity globally, with coal having the highest impact. As the size of the solar and wind sectors increases over the coming decades, driven by our need to decarbonise society, the impact that these renewable sources will have on biodiversity will also likely increase.

At the moment it is impossible to predict the implications of such an energy transformation. As such governments must work to properly understand all the options that they have for decarbonisation—it is unlikely that there is an easy fix. For example while deserts such as the Sahara are often seen as perfect places for large scale solar arrays the biodiversity in this area is extremely fragile and could be lost if adequate care is not taken.

Dr. Holland said:  “Much of our thinking around the climate change focuses on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and does not consider the wider environmental implication of our choices. What this study shows is that there are ways to address climate change while at the same time delivering benefits for global biodiversity.

Given that recent studies have highlighted the loss of species globally, identifying such win-wins is essential for government to act to address the two most pressing challenges of our time”.

Professor Gail Taylor from the University of Southampton and UC Davis says “‘The U.S. is identified in this study as one of the nations where the electric sector has a significant impact on biodiversity, outside of territorial boundaries. As such, we should be mindful of this and any future policy initiatives that exacerbate this situation further.

On the other hand, we can afford to be optimistic that as the deployment of new renewable technologies accelerates, the US is in a strong position to minimize any adverse consequences on global biodiversity.”

The study undertaken as part of the UK Energy Research Centre research programme, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was a collaboration between the University of Southampton, Manchester University and UCL in the UK, and UC Davis in the U.S.