Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The risk of accelerating the installation of renewables at the expense of the environment

Climate change is a devastating “disease” to the health of our planet. In this context, it is imperative to find appropriate remedies to combat it, which includes decarbonization of the economy through deployment of renewable energy, apart from a necessary economic fallout that few want to accept.

However, like diseases affecting living things, not all “medicines” – in this case, large-scale renewable energy projects proposed by energy companies – will be appropriate after weighing the benefits and risks to the environment and the costs to society. This is why detailed pre-appraisal of these projects is important.

Recently, the European Union approved a regulation to speed up the processing of some renewable energy projects at the cost of reducing guarantees that they will not cause environmental impacts because they are considered to be in the better public interest.

The Spanish government, almost simultaneously, approved a royal decree that, like European regulation, does not allow renewable energy projects (except those located in the Natura 2000 network and marine environments) to undergo an environmental impact assessment process and a process of information and public participation.

Both regulations violate two basic principles: the principle of environmental non-refoulement and the principle of public participation in environmental matters, enshrined in the Aarhus Convention. The revision of the European Renewable Energy Directive is currently being processed, which will mean that this environmental and democratic regression will be permanent and not temporary.

First, energy efficiency

These regulatory changes are harmful for several reasons. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the best way to fight global warming is to conserve ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems are a nature-based solution to mitigating the effects of climate change. Therefore, projects harmful to valuable ecosystems should not be approved where the adverse impacts may easily outweigh the expected benefits.

On the other hand, science has already shown the heavy dependence that renewable infrastructures have on rare earths, which means they cannot meet current energy demand, so a reduction in energy consumption is essential.

Similarly, the extraction of materials, transportation and construction of these renewable infrastructure developments require large amounts of fossil fuels. This, together with their low rate of energy return, raises serious doubts about the potential of renewable energy to mitigate climate change without adequate treatment of energy efficiency and savings.

In this sense, it is very worrying that the above proposal to accelerate renewable energy openly admits that it intends to produce the same amount of energy with renewables now without reducing the global demand for energy. Is. This of course means abandoning the principle of “energy efficiency first”, established by Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 on the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action, which until now characterized EU climate policy.

This principle means that the most important energy is that which is not generated. It establishes that before deciding on new energy investments, alternative energy efficiency and energy saving measures should be taken into account which avoid increasing production capacity.

risks of mega wind farms

Spain has various renewable energy megaprojects both on land and offshore which are of concern due to their environmental and socioeconomic impact.

Offshore wind projects in the area of ​​Cape Creus and the Bay of Roses (Catalonia) are a perfect example. Based on our research and our experience in the field, scientists are warning that the risks of these facilities to the health of marine ecosystems may easily outweigh the expected benefits.

Fears about the adverse effects of these large renewable energy infrastructures – up to 65 turbines more than 250 meters high connected to the bottom by large chains and anchors – on the biodiversity of an area where 10 marine protected areas co-exist (mostly natural region). 2000) were embodied in a declaration signed by over 100 scientists belonging to over 20 universities and research centres.

The risks to marine ecosystems are not only local. They can also affect much larger scales, with significant ecosystem effects demonstrated by a recent study published in Communication, Earth and Environment,

questionable regulatory mechanism

The truth is that there are regulatory mechanisms in place to ensure that renewable energy projects do not cause serious environmental impacts. But, unfortunately, the regulatory procedures adopted by the public administration are highly questionable on many occasions. Projects with measurable and very rigorous environmental impact studies (carried out by the companies themselves) are approved.

Furthermore, the administration is becoming overwhelmed with the number of projects to be appraised.

Finally, we cannot ignore the influence of economic interests and lobby Companies – including some foundations with economic interests in the green energy and blue economy sectors – that promote renewable energy mega-projects that sound reasonable but actually practice Greenwashing / Bluewashing,

A good example of the flaw in regulatory processes is a recent study on the deployment of solar plants in the south-east of Spain. In this work we show that this deployment is done at the cost of areas of significant environmental value and that photovoltaic energy as currently implemented cannot be considered a sustainable economic activity.

The study also shows that with proper regional planning it is possible to install predictable renewable energy with minimal impact on biodiversity. It concludes that the involvement of experts in the public notice period is necessary so that the administration can take an informed decision in acceptance or rejection of these projects.

evaluate before approving

Much of the scientific community has expressed our concern that the energy transition to renewable energy guarantees the conservation of spaces and species. Furthermore, if existing regulations are already insufficient to protect biodiversity, their relaxation will exacerbate environmental problems, of which biodiversity loss is, along with climate change, one of the most important on the planet.

Thus, more than 450 scientists from more than 100 national and foreign universities and research centers recently signed an open letter addressed to the Council of Europe calling for a reduction in environmental controls in favor of faster and more widespread deployment. Don’t be approved. renewable energy. The paper concludes that the implementation of renewable energy should be done without endangering biodiversity.

Despite the urgency of tackling climate change, it is necessary to study first and in-depth the adverse impacts these renewable energy megaprojects could have on landscapes that sustain biodiversity and the local socioeconomic fabric. and also assess other options, that is, alternative projects that can be implemented in other locations where environmental risks and costs to society are significantly lower or smaller projects that do not compromise biodiversity and associated ecosystem services.

Preserving areas of high biodiversity is important for the health of ecosystems, for our health and well-being, and for mitigating the effects of climate change. Like drugs to cure diseases, regulatory authorities (in this case, energy and environment) must cross-reference all studies and listen to the opinions of independent scientists before approving any renewable energy project. Because, despite the potential benefits advertised by energy companies, the side effects of these infrastructures can be severe and even result in patient death.


This article was written in collaboration with Luis Bolonio, Technician in Biodiversity Conservation and Development Cooperation, who serves as an external consultant to EEZA/CSIC.


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