Many Countries Drive Biodiversity Loss Overseas Due to Demand for Electric Power

A new research has revealed the degree to which countries induce biodiversity loss overseas through their demand for electric power. For specific countries, over half of the impact on species is overseas.

Image Credit: University of Southampton.

While the researchers learned that the transition toward renewable electric required to fight climate change would probably decrease the effects on biodiversity, the overseas impact makes it hard to comprehend how “green” electricity really is.

The scientists, led by Dr Robert Holland, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton have been requesting countries to legislate stringent regulations to make sure energy changes are carried out in such a way as to safeguard biodiversity, and to consider both the local and universal impacts of steps taken to battle against global warming.

The researchers investigated the effects of fossil and renewable power sectors on approximately 4000 endangered mammals, birds, and amphibians. For each species, they traced the dangers these species suffered from the electric sector along international supply chains.

This included the evident pieces of infrastructure such as power stations or wind turbines. But the scientists also investigated the impacts on biodiversity of all the components and materials that are required for building an electricity infrastructure.

In certain countries, the demand for electric power transforms much of its effect on biodiversity to other countries, as threats get displaced along global supply chains. Europe was the region with the largest international impact, with over half the total biodiversity impact related to its electric demand being displaced overseas.

The United Kingdom was among the top five countries to shift much of its risk to other countries together with Japan, China, the United States, and India. This is contrary to other countries and regions were far more of the biodiversity effects are going to match the demand for electricity in other countries. For instance, one-quarter of the biodiversity risk in Latin America is triggered by the demand for electricity in Europe and North America.

In the case of countries such as Colombia and Indonesia, the threats as part of exports to meet worldwide demand for electricity are greater than the threats related to their own electricity demands.

The scientists recommend that future energy policy must look into these unequal international effects to find out the ideal routes to decarbonization.

To obtain their findings, they explored the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which signifies the most complete resource on threats to species worldwide. They then integrated this with a model of the international economy that describes trade between all countries to establish where the impacts on biodiversity-related to the electricity sector occurred.

Wind and solar power were found to have the least influence on biodiversity internationally, with coal having the highest effect. With the increase in the size of wind and solar sectors in the coming years, triggered by man’s need to decarbonize society, the effect that these renewable sources will have on biodiversity will also probably increase.

At present, it is not possible to predict the repercussions of such an energy transformation. As such, governments must find ways to correctly understand all the options that they possess for decarbonization—it is improbable that there is a simple fix. For instance, while deserts such as the Sahara are generally seen as ideal places for large-scale solar arrays, the biodiversity in this area is very fragile and could be lost if sufficient care is not taken.

Much of our thinking around the climate change focuses on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and does not consider the wider environmental implication of our choices. What this study shows is that there are ways to address climate change while at the same time delivering benefits for global biodiversity.

Dr Robert Holland, Study Lead and Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton

Holland continued, “Given that recent studies have highlighted the loss of species globally, identifying such win-wins is essential for government to act to address the two most pressing challenges of our time.”

According to Kate Scott from the University of Manchester who guided the economic analysis, “Major energy transitions are being planned around the world to keep average global warming to well below 2 degrees.”

She continued, “Countries are currently debating how to do this at the COP25 in Madrid. Our study shows that countries like the UK that rely on imports to develop its clean energy infrastructure will drive environmental impacts in other, often less economically developed, parts of the world. I think it’s imperative that the UK government takes steps to address these ecologically unequal trade exchanges.”

The USA is identified in this study as one of the nations where the electric sector has a significant impact on biodiversity, outside of territorial boundaries. As such, we should be mindful of this and any future policy initiatives that exacerbate this situation further.

Gail Taylor, Professor, University of Southampton and UC Davis

Taylor continued, “On the other hand, we can afford to be optimistic that as the deployment of new renewable technologies accelerates, the US is in a strong position to minimize any adverse consequences on global biodiversity.”

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was a collaboration between the University of Southampton, Manchester University, and UCL in the United Kingdom, and UC Davis in the United States, as part of the UK Energy Research Center. It aimed to understand how choices that we are presently making about pathways to decarbonization would influence biodiversity.


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