The rapid transition to renewable energy offers opportunities to reset the broken relationship between energy production and nature, according to a new report by the Coalition Linking Energy And Nature for action (CLEANaction) of which WWF is a founding member.
In its first major report, CLEANaction
confirms that even when the full range of environmental impacts - from sourcing raw materials to final operation - is considered, generating and storing energy from renewables is typically far less environmentally damaging than using fossil fuels. The report argues that a transition focused on wind and solar can result in significantly reduced environmental impacts compared to other renewable energy types, although other renewables can be the most appropriate solution depending upon the local circumstances.
To limit global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst risks of climate change, renewable energy will need to account for more than 90% of electricity generation at global level by 2050, according to International Energy Agency projections
. The report explains how, in a vital decade for action, the potential for negative impacts from the energy transition can be carefully managed to ensure that renewable energy technologies causing the least damage to nature are prioritised and those that are counterproductive in climate terms are avoided.
Unfortunately the EU’s approach falls well short of this, with new legislation agreed as part of the ‘RePowerEU’ initiative creating harmful exemptions from environmental protection rules, and ongoing EU support for burning more trees and crops for energy.
“This report shows again that the transition to a renewable energy system, based on wind and solar, will provide a better environment for people and nature, compared to the current destructive fossil fuel based system. But we need to plan the expansion of such technologies carefully to minimise impacts on nature and communities and avoid false solutions such as burning trees and crops, or building new hydropower plants,”
said Alex Mason, Head of Climate and Energy at WWF Europe and contributing author to the report
“We are facing major problems in this regard, as EU policy-makers are trying to speed up the expansion of renewables by undermining essential laws on nature protection and public consultation. The rapid deployment of renewables needs good wildlife sensitivity mapping and an ecosystem-based approach to spatial planning, to guarantee the best outcome for people and nature. We also need much tighter restrictions on what types of biomass can be burnt and counted as renewable, something that remains a stain on EU climate leadership”
added Alex Mason
Existing global-scale mapping of sites for wind and solar indicate there is enough energy available in areas which have low conflict with biodiversity to achieve projections from the International Energy Agency for a power system consistent with holding global temperature rise to below 1.5ºC. This Paris Agreement goal is a crucial threshold to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change on people and nature.
Significant changes are also needed in how we source and trace materials, such as rare earth elements, for developing our energy infrastructure. A new, circular economic model is essential to reduce environmental impacts, according to the report. Here too, recent legislative proposals from the European Commission on Critical Raw Materials seek to undermine nature legislation rather than facilitate its effective application.
A circular economic and energy efficient model should prioritise the reduction of primary materials, as well as reuse and recycle to minimise further extraction and impacts related to the disposal of end-of-life equipment. When mining occurs, rigorous environmental and social safeguards must be in place to avoid the degradation of natural habitat and other harms, according to the report.
To achieve a clean energy future that takes full account of the impact on nature, CLEANaction is urging governments to
Read the full report.
Climate Communications Officer
WWF European Policy Office
+32 479 33 92 11
Media Relations Manager
+44 7 58 66 78 350
CLEANaction is a coalition of NGOs, leading businesses, government bodies and financial institutions established in recognition of the urgent need for a global and just transition to a low-impact and nature-sensitive renewable energy system. The founding members are WWF, IRENA, ICLEI, The Nature Conservancy, Birdlife International and the Alliance for Rural Electrification (full list of members on the website)
Whilst all members of the CLEANaction Advisory Group have been consulted regarding the details and views contained within this report, the wide range of perspectives and priorities associated with these different organisations means that some of the content may not reflect the views of all members. The broad message from the report of the need to consider the biodiversity impact of any future energy scenarios is, however, supported by all CLEANaction members.