Impacts of renewable energy on global biodiversity – an overlooked cost of climate change mitigation?: May 2016 interim blog entry

1 May 2016

Previous global assessments have highlighted the significant threat climate change poses to species. However, effective mitigation of climate change will require the large-scale deployment of renewable energy technologies, which could also have detrimental consequences for biodiversity. This project will undertake a global assessment of the impacts of different levels of renewable energy generation for birds and mammals. For further information, please visit the project page on the CCI website.

The following blog is written by James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science, BTO (Project Lead)

Literature reviews and initial project meetings

Put simply, the project will estimate the sensitivity of species to renewable energy which in combination with a measure of exposure to renewable energy, will indicate vulnerability.

A start-up meeting on 2 October 2015 was attended with representation from all organisations. At this, the approach was agreed for each component of the project, and a series of milestones identified. 
The focus of the project so far has been the collation of literature to assess the sensitivity of species’ to different renewable energy sources, using studies that document impacts on population abundance or occurrence, or on demographic rates, such as mortality or reproductive success.

On 19 November 2015 a meeting was held at which BTO, IUCN and BirdLife were represented to discuss the literature review and agree the database structure for extracting information from the literature. The plans for analysis and links to existing species’ traits databases held by IUCN and BirdLife were also confirmed. A further meeting between RSPB, 4CMR and BTO identified how the macroeconomic outputs may be linked to species’ distributions to assess potential species’ exposure to different renewable energy options. Agreement was also reached about the scenarios to be undertaken.

Focusing on wind farms and measurement of exposure to renewable energy

We have concentrated on the impacts of wind farms so far, as the form of renewable energy with the greatest evidence-base, and one with some of the most complex pathways of impacts on biodiversity, involving direct mortality as well as habitat conversion and loss. Using structured search-terms we have identified 140 references from which useful information has been extracted for birds, with additional data available for bats. We are now analysing these data to assess both mortality rates per turbine and potentially variation in demographic rates. These parameters will be modelled as a function of ecological information, such as life-history traits, habitat association or morphology, which when finalised will produce an output dataset predicting the sensitivity of all bird species to wind farms.  It is anticipated that this alone will generate a manuscript for publication.

This same process will be repeated for other renewable energy-types, although the main impacts of most other energy sources will probably be assessed primarily through changes in habitat extent, and should therefore be easier to assess.

Progress has also been made in the measurement of exposure to renewable energy. This will be derived from existing macroeconomic models to estimate the amount of different forms of renewable energy under two climate change scenarios (a business as usual scenario and a high sustainability scenario, the latter being equivalent to the CoP 21 agreement). Model outputs at the country level will be downscaled to a 50x50km grid, and overlapped with information about the distribution of bird and mammal species in order to assess exposure. 

Bringing together a complement of skills

The project combines expertise in macroeconomic modelling from 4CMR (http://www.4cmr.group.cam.ac.uk/) to estimate the distribution and amount of renewable energy likely to be produced around the world, with information about the global distribution of bird and mammal species from BirdLife International and IUCN. BTO-led systematic review and meta-analysis of published impacts of renewable energies with species’ traits databases held by BirdLife and IUCN will produce new databases of species’ vulnerability to renewable energy. Spatial analysis by RSPB will combine exposure and sensitivity measures to estimate vulnerability.

So far, the different elements of the project, mesh well, as originally envisaged. Data on the impacts of windfarms on birds has been extracted and linked to BirdLife’s database on species’ traits for analysis, and the same process is underway for bats. Discussions around the conversion of the macroeconomic modelling into spatial outputs for analysis against species’ range polygons also confirmed the original proposed analysis. 
An external advisory group has also been established, and is comprised of six individuals from a range of organisations with expertise of regulation, the energy industry, conservation and climate change policy. This group will meet three times, the first meeting of which was the 8 March when they were introduced to the project.

Planning for outputs

We anticipate the following outputs over the next six months:

  • A paper summarising the impacts of wind farms on birds and bats, to support a database of species’ sensitivity to wind farms, will be drafted and submitted to a journal. An associated database will be produced and made available once published, for example through the Species Information Service.
  • A second paper summarising the results of the global vulnerability assessment to renewable energy for birds and bats will be being drafted.  Accompanying maps identifying hotspots of vulnerability to renewable energy generation will be produced for dissemination once published.
  • Policy-focussed summaries of the work will be drafted for dissemination through CCI, organisation websites and other institutions, such as the CMS Energy Task Force.

All of these outputs will be available from the project page on the CCI website. In the meantime, if you have any questions about our project, please drop the project lead, James Pearce-Higgins, a line on james.pearce-higgins@bto.org.