The shift to a system reliant on renewable technologies is well underway. With the risks of using fossil fuels more prominent than ever, there’s a sense of urgency to develop and implement these technologies as quickly as possible.
What this urgency often forgets is that producing and using these technologies also has an impact. Not only on our own species through conflict minerals, but also other animals with which we share this planet, according to a recent research paper led by Luke Gibson of SUSTech in China. Although it is without a doubt in the best interests of everyone to transfer to a renewable system — assuming we follow consequentialist ethics — it is at least worth considering the effects of such technologies on biodiversity.
The paper in question covers three main technologies, which will be discussed here.
During my school days, I was always fond of hydroelectric power. The way it was taught indicated to me that it was incredibly green and effective. Some far off Scandanavian dream.
However, it turns out that these dams can have a profound impact on the environment, and not just the visual disruption they often cause. Dams are shown to block animal migration and disrupt river flows. The creation of dams leads to large amounts of flooding, destroying natural habitats and potentially driving certain species to extinction.
Not only this, but evidence shows that reservoirs are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Typically this is also methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Rivers are also a carbon sink. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and flush into into the oceans. Blocking them with dams prevents this from occuring.
According to the paper, wind power is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds and bats per year. Due to the danger they pose, they can also affect migratory patterns and trigger population declines. They’re also said to increase the ambient temperature and noise in the areas they’re installed, harming native species; this is also true with offshore farms affecting marine animals.
However, the negative impacts of wind energy are fairly easy to manage according to Gibson. For example, building the turbines at a lower height can lessen the impact on birds. Alternatively, more attention could be brought to their placement i.e positioning them away from migratory paths.
In comparison to the other two described technologies, there is less available information about the impacts of solar energy on biodiversity. However, Gibson does highlight some issues. The areas where solar is more useful (deserts for example) tend to have fragile ecosystems which are easily disrupted by the construction of solar farms.
To rebuke his own point, he added that location is important. There a large amount of available degraded lands which could be used, where the impact to ecosystems would be minimised.
There is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that hydroelectric power may not be as useful as it is said to be. In comparison, despite the problems they pose, solar and wind technologies provide little danger to wildlife and it appears as if the associated risks can be minimised with the proper planning; not to mention they are easier to install and maintain.
It’s important to realise that although these problems do exist, the continued use of fossil fuels is guaranteed to destroy our planet. Funnily enough, this would also be – and already is – a major disruption for ecosystems.
The implication is that no matter how we generate our energy, there is a level of cruelty involved. However, as humans we should be doing all we can to reduce suffering as much as possible. To me, this means that we should be reducing our need for energy generating technologies. Because as the study shows, it seems as if all of our technologies – no matter how ‘green’ they are – are in competition with nature.
Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.