Dr Anjani Ganase considers the lessons learned from fossil fuels as we shift to renewables and urges a shift from continuous growth to an ideal of well-being.
COP26 called for rapid transitions over the next decade to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 C for the benefit of humankind. But the need to transition our energy sources away from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives in the face of climate change brings different risks. And unless the lessons learnt from the rampant expansion and exploitations of the fossil fuels industry are not applied (through regulations) to the development of the renewable industry, we will continue to experience significant losses in biodiversity through habitat loss and degradation. Scientists have estimated that the Anthropocene – era of humankind – has produced the sixth mass extinction with a range of 150,000 - 260,000 species lost over the last 500 years which is about 100 – 1,000 times higher than background extinction rates. On islands such as TT, ecosystems are suffering far greater extinction rates compared to large land masses, owing to the high numbers of unique and native species.
Panthers and porpoises
The expansion of renewable energy use worldwide – requiring infrastructure for wind, solar, hydroelectricity and geothermal – will ramp up land use and marginalise local wildlife and lead to loss of biodiversity. Such impacts have already been observed by ecologists across varied habitats around the world. In the Florida Panhandle, researchers from Florida Atlantic University have studied the impacts of solar panel facilities on habitat degradation, loss of connectivity on Florida’s native big cats, the Florida panther. Florida panthers have already been reduced to less than five per cent of their historic area because of development. Researchers found that most of the facilities occupied grasslands, pastures, agricultural lands, and forested areas. These also disrupted a major corridor for a breeding population, and the loss of connections to sub populations in the region further reduced the already very restricted habitats for the panthers. California is opting to implement rooftops for solar panels rather than taking away valuable agricultural and natural lands considering their high vulnerability to climate change through record breaking droughts and wildfires.
Researchers in Scotland have investigated the ecological impacts of tidal turbines on the local harbour porpoise, a nationally protected species. Tidal turbines work at the optimum during period of large tidal changes, but it was also observed that this was when the porpoises were more active in the area and therefore more likely to encounter a turbine. Fortunately, scientists have recorded that the porpoises actively avoid the turbines, but this meant that they were avoiding a habitat that they are dependent on.
Thousands of dead bats are recorded under wind turbines annually in the US and similar findings have been observed around the world. Further investigations reveal that a likely explanation is that the bats are attracted to the windmills because they may mistake the turbines for areas for roosting or for hunting. The suggested mitigation is to minimise blade rotation during periods of high collision risk, such as the early evenings and mornings when bats are leaving or returning to their roosts.
Bees and birds
Less considered are the invertebrates. Insects have the largest number of species that have been described by scientists (more than 1,000,000 species), followed by molluscs (almost 100,000), yet birds (almost 11,000) and mammals (almost 6,500) receive the most research attention and are therefore more likely to receive protections. The vulnerabilities of the small creatures deserve critical attention as we shift the infrastructure of the world’s energy resources.
While start-up issues are expected, governments must work closely with scientists to ensure suitable site selection and employ mitigation strategies to make these facilities less destructive and more efficient. At the same time, citizens must push for the protection of biodiversity hotspots. We must have legislation to protect the biodiversity, habitats, and agricultural lands that sustain us from unnecessary and unwanted destruction. We must research and implement best practices that consider ecology and wildlife when developing renewables and their sites.
Perhaps more importantly, we need to shift our human desire for perpetual growth to one that sustains biodiversity and well-being, considering that human populations continue to escalate biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. Whether through exploitation of fossil fuels or renewable energy, human populations occupy and require vast tracts of land to sustain the species.
Cowie, R. H., Bouchet, P., & Fontaine, B. (2022). The Sixth Mass Extinction: fact, fiction or speculation?. Biological Reviews.
Leskova, O. V., Frakes, R. A., & Markwith, S. H. Impacting habitat connectivity of the endangered Florida panther for the transition to utility‐scale solar energy. Journal of Applied Ecology.
Palmer, L., Gillespie, D., MacAulay, J. D., Sparling, C. E., Russell, D. J., & Hastie, G. D. (2021). Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) presence is reduced during tidal turbine operation. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 31(12), 3543-3553.
Richardson, S. M., Lintott, P. R., Hosken, D. J., Economou, T., & Mathews, F. (2021). Peaks in bat activity at turbines and the implications for mitigating the impact of wind energy developments on bats. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 1-6.