Shift to renewable energy must protect nature, says clean energy coalition

Posted on April, 20 2023

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.
A transition focused on wind and solar PV can result in significantly reduced environmental impacts compared to other renewable energy types
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:
  • Undertake strategic-level energy planning at national or regional scales to identify potential energy savings, suitable renewable energy sources, and sites for energy expansion in areas of low biodiversity sensitivity.
  • Consider the impact on nature at the earliest stage of integrated clean energy planning, taking account of the full value chain (from sourcing material to disposal).
  • Develop national regulatory schemes that require energy developers to contribute to national conservation targets.
  • Invest in timely nature-sensitivity mapping to help direct technology siting through proper data, and require industry to avoid protected areas, Key Biodiversity Areas, and other areas of particular sensitivity and value.
  • Apply stringent environmental impact assessment processes and required standards to all new developments according to best practice.
  • Adopt a circular economy approach with optimised energy efficiency, to maximise reuse of energy materials, and minimise demand for natural resources.
CLEANaction is calling on renewable energy investors and developers to:
  • Integrate biodiversity, social and environmental risks early into renewable energy planning and investment decisions.
  • Apply effective biodiversity safeguards and environmental impact assessment procedures to avoid and minimise impacts, and offset any residual impacts to achieve net-positive outcomes.
  • Ensure there is traceability of raw materials and account for supply chain impacts within corporate commitments to nature.
  • Apply a circular approach to minimise the use of primary materials and maximise the reuse and recycling of materials.
  • Strengthen corporate disclosure and reporting on biodiversity, environmental and social impacts.
Read the full report.


Florian Cassier
Climate Communications Officer
WWF European Policy Office
+32 479 33 92 11

Robin Harvey
Media Relations Manager
WWF International
+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.
Windmill in nature
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