There’s no denying that renewable energy development will always have some level of impact on the natural world. But the key to a sustainable future is identifying how to generate the energy we need with the least impact so that we can avoid contributing to the biodiversity crisis while trying to resolve the climate crisis.
There is, thankfully, a global consensus that we must move away from fossil fuels to significantly reduce our emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. This will reduce the impacts of climate change on our already-struggling wildlife. And now, thanks to a collaborative project between NGOs and academia* we better understand how this shift to renewable energy could put wildlife at risk around the world. In particular, we have a global picture of the bird and bat species that are the most vulnerable to collision with onshore wind turbines, and where these species tend to be concentrated. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who led this work, have summarised the findings of the new report, and you can find the paper here. Some key findings include:
- migratory birds face a greater risk of collision that sedentary ones,
- species of bat which dispersed further, on average, had a higher risk of collision than those that did not
- thirty one of the fifty five birds considered ‘threatened’ by wind farms were birds of prey,
- collision rates were predicted to be higher for bats than for birds.
By identifying areas where risks are greater for birds and bats, this new research can help to inform strategic national and regional consideration of where wind energy could play a critical role in the transition to a renewable energy future, without having adverse impacts on important populations of species.
Photo credit: Nick Upton (rspb-images.co.uk)
This is only one part of the puzzle though. Future research is still needed, which covers a wider range of species, marine as well as terrestrial environments, and other energy generation options. Most importantly, research on this global scale will never remove the need for project-specific impact assessments that consider both the individual and cumulative/in-combination impacts of developments.
With the publication of our 2050 Energy Vision last year, the RSPB has been renewing its call for strategic spatial planning by the governments of the UK to help to minimise impacts on wildlife. We explain more about how to map sensible renewables sites for the future here. Ensuring planning and subsidy regimes then support a roll-out of renewable energy in the right locations and help to reduce future conflict, speed up the energy transition and protect our precious wildlife.
But the UK acting on its own will not be enough. Wildlife does not respect political boundaries so it will need governments across the world to recognise the importance of this spatial approach.
We need renewable energy, and we need to protect and nurture healthy ecosystems. At the RSPB we know that there is space for energy and wildlife to thrive together: what we will need to get this energy transition right is careful planning!
* This study was a collaboration between BTO, RSPB, IUCN, BirdLife International, Conservation Science Group Cambridge, Imperial College London, University of Stellenbosch, and JNCC and funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
Jim Densham, Senior Policy Officer RSPB Scotland
‘Harvey is what climate change looks like’ - shouted media headlines recently, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/28/climate-change-hurricane-harvey-215547 highlighting that the impacts of climate change are happening here and now, not a future threat. ‘Kittiwake chick starvation is what climate change looks like’ or ‘capercaillie dying out is what climate change looks like’ could have been headlines too because the evidence shows these species are being affected now in our own country. Read more in our RSPB report – The nature of climate change http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/natureofclimatechange_tcm9-409709.pdf
The need for political commitment to act on climate change and help our precious wildlife has never been greater. Opportunities to get Governments to boost climate targets don’t come round very often – remember the long wait for the Paris Agreement and the joy afterwards that, at last, the world community was stepping up the action? So that’s why we are jumping on the rare opportunity of a new Climate Change Bill for Scotland, to push for ambitious new targets and action. With our partners in the Stop Climate Chaos coalition we have worked hard through the summer and have thousands of people already supporting the ‘Act for Our Future’ campaign. There are just a few days left to add your support at https://act.foe.scot/sccs-climate
We need your help because the Scottish Government’s proposals for the Bill are too weak. Sure, they want to increase the emission reduction target but not by enough, and they are not proposing any new policies to help us meet those targets. We need to see Scotland aiming for a zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest – it’s what the planet and our wildlife needs. We also want to see more action in the Bill when it goes through Parliament, such as to cut emissions through insulating all homes, and to cut emissions by making farming greener. We have already had one huge win from this campaign - Government announced just this month that they plan to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles by 2032.
You may not live in Scotland but you can still help this campaign and your voice counts. Scotland has been leading the way in the UK with targets and action, and with exerting pressure at Westminster to do more to halt climate change. The deadline for responses to the Scottish Government is Friday 22nd Sept so please sign the letter to the First Minister here https://act.foe.scot/sccs-climate before then.
The UK Government has today announced a new set of contracts that it’s awarding to support renewable energy technologies. The price offered to offshore wind has fallen by around half compared to 2015. This demonstrates how substantially the cost of renewable energy has fallen over recent years. Offshore wind is becoming very cost competitive compared to fossil fuel technologies.
Offshore wind turbine, rspb-images.com
But while offshore wind farms may now be more cost-effective than ever to deploy, it is important they are not sited in areas that are damaging for wildlife. As we work to address the urgent climate crisis we must avoid contributing to the biodiversity crisis. We have seen some great examples of progress in this area recently in developments off the East Anglian coast where the RSPB has worked closely with the developer to ensure wind farms can progress in a way that minimises the risk of harm to birds. Fixed offshore wind can, however, pose serious risks to seabirds and other wildlife, so ensuring it is sited sensitively is crucial. The development of floating offshore wind, an emerging technology which can be located further offshore, may help to reduce these risks.
Onshore wind and solar farms can already be delivered without support and the RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision sees a significant role for these technologies to meet our climate targets in harmony with nature. But support for onshore wind had substantial cuts to subsidy in recent years.
At the same time the UK Government continues to support outdated fossil fuel technologies such as fracking, which is both costly and more environmentally risky. The environmental costs of this technology are not factored into spending decisions.
We know that fracking poses serious risks to both the climate and to wildlife. And geologists have recently determined that it may be much harder and more costly to extract gas or oil from the UK’s geology than previously thought.
All of this leaves us asking why the UK Government is pursuing an environmentally risky and costly strategy. Instead they could be doing a lot more to support low-cost technologies where we know the environmental risks can be sensibly and meaningfully minimised through spatial planning. We hope that some of these policy anomalies will be addressed through the forthcoming Clean Growth Plan. This plan needs to bring the UK back on track for meeting our carbon targets and put us on a path to a clean low carbon future.
By Melanie Coath, Senior Policy Officer, and Matt Williams, Policy Officer.