The conflict between using land for renewable energy and protecting land essential for biodiversity isn’t as severe as it sometimes seems, according to new research that recommends policy and regulatory controls as a solution.
“As far back as 2015, studies highlighted the worrying overlap of species-rich areas of the world with wind and solar resource potential,” writes environmental scientist Sebastian Dunnett in a recent post for Carbon Brief.
Replacing fossil fuels like-for-like with renewable energy could require a global area “three orders of magnitude larger” than energy production currently uses, he writes, while conservationists call for 30% or even 50% of the Earth to be set aside for nature. But the conflicts aren’t as common or necessarily as severe as they might appear, he says—and to the extent that the two goals conflict, the first step is to reduce electricity demand by maximizing energy efficiency.
To “get a feel for how renewable expansion might occur with respect to important conservation areas,” Dunnett writes, he and his colleagues at the University of Southampton looked at how the most likely 30% of land for renewables in each region of the world overlapped with the most important 30% of land for biodiversity.
Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, give some cause for optimism: For the majority of the world’s regions, the overlap between land required for renewables and for biodiversity was “either lower than or as expected, given country land constraints.”
Exceptions were Central Europe and the Middle East, where solar expansion is impinging on wildlands, and northern Europe, where wind farms are cutting into biodiversity needs.
However, “for as many as one in eight wind or solar installations that overlap with a protected area worldwide, the protected area was designated after the energy infrastructure was built,” Dunnett says. And the research team found “no evidence” that building wind and solar in protected areas “may require removal of protections or downsizing the area” itself.
The findings indicate that “with appropriate policy and regulatory controls, we can continue to pursue the crucial climate intervention of transitioning our ailing energy systems while also protecting areas that are rich in biodiversity,” Dunnett writes. However, “with truly massive expansion like that required if we were to replace our current energy systems like-for-like, there could be more overlap between energy projects and nature.”
The solution, he says, is to embrace “measures to improve energy efficiency and reduce demand.”