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Renewable energy development threatens many globally important biodiversity areas

Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is fundamental for halting anthropogenic climate change. However, renewable energy facilities can be land‐use intensive and impact conservation areas, and little attention has been given to whether the aggregated effect of energy transitions poses a substantial threat to global biodiversity. Here, we assess the extent of current and likely future renewable energy infrastructure associated with onshore wind, hydropower and solar photovoltaic generation, within three important conservation areas: protected areas (PAs), Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and Earth’s remaining wilderness. We identified 2,206 fully operational renewable energy facilities within the boundaries of these conservation areas, with another 922 facilities under development. Combined, these facilities span and are degrading 886 PAs, 749 KBAs and 40 distinct wilderness areas. Two trends are particularly concerning. First, while the majority of historical overlap occurs in Western Europe, the renewable electricity facilities under development increasingly overlap with conservation areas in Southeast Asia, a globally important region for biodiversity. Second, this next wave of renewable energy infrastructure represents a ~30% increase in the number of PAs and KBAs impacted and could increase the number of compromised wilderness areas by ~60%. If the world continues to rapidly transition towards renewable energy these areas will face increasing pressure to allow infrastructure expansion. Coordinated planning of renewable energy expansion and biodiversity conservation is essential to avoid conflicts that compromise their respective objectives.

Jose A. Rehbein, James E.M. Watson, Joe L. Lane, Laura J. Sonter, Oscar Venter, Scott C. Atkinson, James R. Allan
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, School of Chemical Engineering Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation, and School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Australia
Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Conservation Program, Bronx, New York
Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
Natural Resource and Environmental Studies Institute, University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George, Canada
United Nations Development Programme, New York
Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Global Change Biology. Published online ahead of print March 4, 2020. doi: 10.1111/gcb.15067 [1]

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