World can meet climate and energy goals without harmful hydropower - new report | WWF

World can meet climate and energy goals without harmful hydropower - new report

Posted on 13 May 2019
Cover of WWF & TNC report on renewable revolution
© Richard Hamilton Smith / 2019 iStockphoto LP
The thousands of hydropower dams planned globally are threatening the world’s free-flowing rivers and the benefits they provide. Yet these dams are not necessary for the global goals of fighting climate change and bringing clean electricity to all, thanks to the plunging costs of solar power, wind generation and storage technologies, a new report from WWF and The Nature Conservancy reveals.

With contributions from multiple academics, the report finds that accelerating the development of wind and solar could prevent nearly 165,000 km of river channels from being fragmented, while still helping to limit global temperatures to below a rise of 1.5⁰ C, as agreed in the Paris Climate Accord. Along with tackling climate change, this would help slow the catastrophic decline in freshwater species populations, which have fallen by 83% since 1970.

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at  WWF’s European Policy Office, said:
“Clean energy does not equal green energy. In Europe we have at least 25,000 hydropower plants in operation, and it is the rivers, wildlife, and communities living alongside them who are paying the ultimate price. It is time that EU governments recognised that dams have had their day in Europe. They must now wholeheartedly commit to their obligations under the EU Water Framework Directive, take dam removal seriously, and say no to any damaging projects in the pipeline."

Alex Mason, Senior Energy Policy Officer at  WWF’s European Policy Office, said:
“Renewable energy is the future. But we need to choose renewables which are good for the climate and which can be built without damaging nature - for example solar and wind. Cost-competitive with fossil fuels and way cheaper than nuclear, there is simply no reason not to ramp up wind and solar provided they are properly planned, while investing in smart grids and storage. EU Member States must put their money on the right renewable energy horse when they finalise their climate plans  this year.”

Launched on the eve of the World Hydropower Congress in Paris, Connected and Flowing: A renewable future for rivers, climate and people details the transformations that are already underway and how the world can capitalize on these opportunities to achieve sustainable power systems.

The construction and operation of hydropower has terrible impacts on rivers – fragmenting channels and altering the river’s natural flow, destroying habitats, blocking fish migration routes (thus preventing them from spawning and reproducing), and threatening already vulnerable specie.[1] With the plunging costs of solar power, wind generation and storage technologies – as well as significant advances in energy efficiency and grid management – it is now possible for the world to expand electricity generation to provide power to the billion people who currently lack access, while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and preserving tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometres of free-flowing rivers. 

Despite the fact that the EU’s potential for hydropower has already been largely harnessed, thousands of hydropower dams are still projected to be built all across Europe. Eastern Europe and the Balkans, which hold some of Europe’s most pristine and last few remaining free flowing rivers, are especially vulnerable. There has also been a worrying surge in hydropower in parts of Central and Western Europe, where rivers have been heavily modified and degraded for centuries. 

While the renewable revolution will not signal an end to hydropower development, it does herald a significant reduction in new dams and a shift towards low-impact projects, which support the expansion of solar and wind – such as retrofitting existing hydropower dams, adding turbines to non-powered dams, and off channel pumped storage.

Sarah Azau
Senior Communications & Media Officer (Climate and Energy) 
+32 473 57 31 37

Sophie Bauer, Communications Officer (Freshwater)     
+32 471 05 25 1

[1] Healthy free-flowing rivers deliver a number of critical ecosystem services. They support freshwater fish stocks that improve food security for hundreds of millions of people, deliver sediment that keeps deltas above rising seas, mitigate the impact of extreme floods and droughts, and prevent loss of infrastructure and fields to erosion.

Key facts and figures:
  • Costs for solar and wind are now approaching US$0.05/kWh – comparable to the low end of the fossil fuel range and the average cost of hydropower.
  • Renewable sources represented two-thirds of new global power generation capacity in 2018, led by wind and solar.
  • The addition of hydropower capacity has been declining since 2013 due to the falling costs of competing technologies as well as a broader set of challenges, including high-profile cancellations, growing hydrological risks, cost and schedule over-runs, technical challenges, and increasing social resistance.
Cover of WWF & TNC report on renewable revolution
© Richard Hamilton Smith / 2019 iStockphoto LP Enlarge