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4 February 2021

Renewables prevent ‘devastating’ cost to nature, must be sustainable

A highly anticipated report by Sir Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge has reiterated the “devastating” cost to nature caused by a bulldozing approach to economic development. Nature must be imbedded into macroeconomic models immediately, if we are to prevent further irreparable damage to our planet. The energy sector, arguably, has the clearest route to this way of green-economy thinking, driven by low cost solar and wind power, but the overall outlook on the matter needs to be viewed more holistically.

Rethink Energy seldom dives into mechanics of climate change and biosphere protection, focusing instead on the environments necessary to facilitate a rapid and efficient transition to clean energy. However, every once in a while, it is essential that we step back and evaluate the cause of this pursuit.

It wouldn’t be fair to classify this cause as simply ‘climate change’ and the need to stop burning fossil fuels. Taking one step further back, the cause of the problem is the way in which humans interact with the planet, which itself has caused a plethora of other consequences: plastic pollution, mass extinctions, and loss of wilderness to name just a few, all in the name of economic and – in theory – social development.

The term Anthropocene often brings up connotations of science fiction, but with 96% of mammals on the planet accounted for by humans and the livestock we rear for food, economy and ecology must be synthesized for any sort of hope for the planet’s future. Since 1970, there has been on average almost a 70% decline in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. For the energy sector, what is the point in having a fully renewable electricity, in a world unfit for living?

The school of thought that Dasgupta hopes to usher in centers around a view of “Nature as an Asset.” Indeed, the view of solar and wind being sources of power is core to this, with the report noting “Development of cheap renewable energy sources would help to reduce carbon emissions to the point where carbon concentrations are kept within acceptable levels.”

However, this answer is not that simple. Hydropower is often viewed as a similar approach to decarbonization that has – in the long run at least – failed. In the US, for example, over 75,000 dams over 3-feet high are in operation – the equivalent of one being built every day since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Despite being theoretically zero carbon, hydropower has consistently proved a cultural and environmental nightmare; sacred lands have been flooded, while some fish populations (mostly salmon) have been wiped out entirely. As such, the growth of hydropower globally has largely tailed off in economies outside of China and India.

To some extent, this thinking has also propagated into the wind sector – not helped by Donald Trump’s reference to wind farms being ‘bird graveyards.’ In recent months we’ve seen the consent of Orsted’s 2.4 GW Hornsea 3 project delayed by over a year due to concerns from the RSPB and Natural England around the endangered gannet and kittiwake populations. Orsted has faced similar barriers

in Germany and Scotland, while onshore developers have also faced difficulties in nearly all countries, most recently in India and Iran.

Several projects have even been forced into cancellation, including the 540 MW Docking Shoal project in England on the grounds that it could kill 90 small birds per year, and the 240 MW extension to the London Array offshore wind farm. In the US, the approval of the Icebreaker offshore wind project came on the condition that it wouldn’t be able to operate overnight between March and November, removing a significant chunk of the project’s intended revenue alongside any chance of economic viability.

This stems something of a moral dilemma. Do the beneficial emission reductions from wind turbines outweigh the loss of species that the technologies endanger? The sad truth is that the answer is probably yes; all species are majorly screwed if emissions result in more than a couple of degrees of global warming, but that’s not to say that every effort should be made to reduce the holistic environmental impact of this endeavor.

Scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research, for example, recently discovered that a simple lick of black paint to one of a wind turbines blades could reduce associated bird deaths by 72%, while others have explored the use of ultrasonic ‘boom boxes’ to deter birds with a frequency of between 20 Khz and 100 Khz – reducing bat deaths by between 21% and 51%.

Similar methods are now being applied to hydropower. A Europe-wide initiative called FIThydro is exploring a range of systems to reduce the technology’s impact of habitats, including improved fish-ladders for upstream migration. However, the other thing to consider with hydropower is that the water used in the turbines often means that value is lost elsewhere due to reduced water flows – increasing the price of industrial water and reducing crop yields.

The report also points to reforms needed in the use of materials in the renewables sector – primarily batteries and solar power, while wind power has a huge problem to solve in the recycling of its composite materials. Solar panels typically require minerals such as aluminum, cadmium, and zinc, requiring energy intensive mining processes and often the fragmenting of forests. Dasgupta identifies this as “Decoupling the global ecological footprint,” which “also serves to remind us that measures to reduce environmental pollution, can raise our demand for the biosphere’s products.”

The other thing that Dasgupta points to is that these projects should look to improve environments where they can. Conservation has been highlighted at offshore wind farms, where artificial reefs can be created to enhance marine biodiversity. The Norther offshore wind farm is undergoing a novel project to grow seaweed on a large scale as a food source, while similar initiatives are in the works for floating solar projects by Oceans of Energy and The Seaweed Company.

Through his 600-page review, Dasgupta points to these considerations as essential for modern economic theory. In the past, many have argued that there are conceptual problems of trying to incorporate the intricacies and complexities of nature into financial terms. However, the shift seen towards green and climate-conscious investment policy is as good a reason as any to include it, especially as carbon taxes start to rise in price and global footprint.

Ahead of the UK’s COP26 summit in November, the country’s Treasury has already started to examine the findings of the report. The influence it is likely to have over British policymaking will hopefully be seen prior to the summit, with international governments taking notice.