Energising Nature: Rethinking the Sustainability of Renewable Energy Usage Vis-à-Vis Wildlife Conservation
By Ashna D
Today the world is facing an extraordinary environmental crisis. The devastating impact of anthropogenic climate change has resulted in the rapid decline of global biodiversity. From habitat degradation to unprecedented temperature changes, the unpredictability surrounding this crisis demands incentive-based approaches to biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of resources . In recent years, the switch to renewable energy sources has received considerable global attention. Renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro, and solar energy can effectively replace fast-depleting fossil fuels, thereby drastically reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality, and enhancing human health . Although the feasibility of producing renewable energy can vary across demographics and between the seasons, with the help of advanced technology, these sources can be utilised all year round to help cut down energy production costs in the long term.
Nevertheless, as recent studies caution, a transition to renewable energy production can crucially affect weather patterns and existing habitat characteristics, resulting in critical biodiversity loss . These changes include altering species habitats, animal migration patterns, damaging croplands, and increasing human-wildlife conflict . Therefore, climate change problems, wildlife conservation, and energy production cannot be addressed in isolation. This article briefly discusses some aspects of this complex relationship between human-wildlife conflict and renewable energy production and argues in favour of a community commons-based approach to address some emerging problems.
Irreversible Ramifications of Unchecked Renewable Energy Production
The term human-wildlife conflict refers to a combination of socioeconomic and political conflicts driven by the actions of humans and wildlife that adversely affect each other – posing threats to human life, crops, livestock, property, essential ecosystem functions, and biodiversity at large . The growing use of renewable energy often involves the construction of energy infrastructure in wildlife habitats. According to Brunette et al., this can cause direct collisions of species with physical structures (bats, raptors) and indirectly lead to loss of habitat, landscape changes, altered food chains, obstacles to birth, and hibernation activities for mammals . Communities living close to biodiversity hotspots frequently come in conflict with wildlife. These instances are on the rise due to climate change-induced migration that drives out species from their natural habitats into areas they have never occurred in before . A case in point is the Himalayan brown bear, a species with high-level protection that has been raiding villages in the Himalayan region due to a loss of habitat and extreme climatic changes that have altered its hibernation cycles .
In the context of wind energy, powerful soundwaves from offshore wind farm turbines are particularly harmful to bats as the pressure generated from these turbines can damage their lungs . For instance, proposed energy programmes such as the National Offshore Wind Energy Policy can result in large-scale collisions of birds and bats with power lines and moving turbines and disturbances to their conventional movement patterns . Other concerns for human and animal wellbeing include chemical and noise pollution that can substantially alter ecosystem services and affect human health. The indirect cascading effects of such projects deprive local communities of their livelihood by stripping them of their farmland without compensation and significantly reducing the grazing land available for their livestock and other wildlife .
Although governments have repeatedly defended the projects by claiming that they are spread across ‘unused land,’ reports indicate that the land in question belongs to traditional pastoral communities to rear goats, sheep, cows, and buffaloes . Similarly, a research study carried out in India, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa revealed that instead of utilising available degraded land for establishing these projects, 922 renewable energy projects overlap with important conservation habitats . Notably, in Rajasthan, the expansion of power lines for these projects in ecologically sensitive areas is the “largest cause of mortality for the Great Indian Bustards,” a species that has been listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and was recently included as a ‘migratory species facing extinction’ under Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) . Governments and project stakeholders have consistently ignored the disproportionate impact of such renewable energy production efforts. This crisis is only worsened by the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) 2020, which exempts solar parks and other renewable projects from various clearance procedures . Such a homogenous exemption fails to consider the varied spatial impact patterns (certain unique geographical, socioeconomic factors could be affected more than others) and different degrees of risk of human-wildlife conflict .
Concerning marine renewable energy, even though some studies show that sources like wave energy converters and electric cables underwater do not pose significant risks to marine mammals, individual offshore projects can result in physical harm that hampers echolocation and other communication methods that certain mammals use for navigation and hunting . Similarly, hydropower projects can cause immediate and prolonged damage to fish habitats and the sustenance of bird, mammal, amphibian, reptile, and plant species in the area .
For centuries, local communities in India have established harmonious relationships with nature and have played an essential role in conserving unique floral and faunal species. Designated Community Conserved Areas (CCAs) provide dual benefits to both local communities and biodiversity. Local communities especially guard critical ecosystems such as wildlife corridors and biodiversity hotspots by maintaining the flow of natural resources required for habitat quality and using customary conservation practices and traditional knowledge to proscribe destructive hunting and agricultural activities, including land overuse . Indigenous communities are vital in mitigating human-wildlife conflict and balancing socioeconomic development processes with conservation outcomes. The Bishnoi community in Rajasthan has contributed remarkably to the abundant presence of the Blackbuck and Chinkara in the Abohar Sanctuary . In Andhra Pradesh, key nesting sites for waterbirds are protected by locals who provide these birds with food and shelter in harsh weather conditions . Similarly, the controversial MW Etalin hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh endangers precious endemic flora and fauna in Dibang Valley – a region that the Idu Mishmi community has protected for generations .
The widespread establishment of renewable sources substantially disrupts these conventional systems, resulting in perilous consequences for wildlife conservation and human livelihoods. Many of these projects are set up near ecologically sensitive regions like wildlife sanctuaries and biodiversity hotspots. For instance, the Andhra Lake Wind Power Project in Maharashtra was promoted by a German multinational company and ignored several environmental permissions. The project, situated 3.5 km from the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary, threatens the existence of endangered mammals such as the Indian Giant Squirrel and the Indian leopard and simultaneously imperils the livelihoods of local tribes . Large-scale hydro projects can also result in the permanent loss of aquatic biodiversity and wetland habitats . Environmentalists predict that the Sillahalla Pumped Storage Hydro-Electric Project (SPSHEP) in Tamil Nadu will have disastrous consequences for the area’s rich biodiversity, including Nilgiri langurs, tigers, and horseshoe pit vipers . Similarly, the Karnataka Power Corporation’s pumped hydro storage project may severely harm the vulnerable lion-tailed macaques in their native range .
Environmental Risk Mitigation Through Incentive-Based Approaches
As we move forward, it is imperative to think about how human populations can peacefully coexist with wildlife – an exercise that is not just achievable but immensely rewarding in the long run. For instance, communities belonging to the Gaindakhali village in Uttarakhand have devised an alternative to conventional solar fencing to ward off elephant attacks while generating green energy . The locals have successfully employed ‘tentacle’ fences hung high above the ground with non-lethal low-intensity shocks to scare away straying wild elephants. While there is no straightjacket fix to this problem, we need interdisciplinary research efforts that go beyond the visible impacts of a given renewable energy project on conservation and land use but instead engage in ground-level efforts to understand the idiosyncratic relationships between different human communities and wildlife in diverse regions .
The construction, operation, and maintenance of these energy sources is particularly challenging and involves constantly foreseeing and assessing their varied effects on circumambient wildlife populations. Project engineers must use scientific research on the behavioural patterns of different species before finalising energy production sites . While designing mitigation strategies, project developers must avoid ‘conflict zones’ where the interaction between human resources and wildlife is exceptionally high. Likewise, the proactive involvement of local communities, as seen with the installation of wildlife-friendly solar-powered fences in human-wildlife conflict-prone regions in Assam, helps villagers guard against animal attacks or raids, simultaneously earning their trust .
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), prior research requires applying established mitigation strategies to project designs and operational standards . One innovative method to reduce the risk of habitat fragmentation and human-wildlife conflict in project sites is to use biodiversity risk screening frameworks that require project developers to take mandatory precautionary measures such as strategic environmental impact assessments (SEIAs) . This involves scoping, exploring different technological alternatives, reviewing scientific literature, and engaging with indigenous knowledge from local communities living near project sites . Such assessments that prioritise ecosystem health and biodiversity protection can shift projects from ecologically at-risk sites to wastelands or areas that are already fragmented . Further, they help minimise human-wildlife conflict and signal to local communities that project developers consciously factor in sustainability and wellbeing considerations that do not threaten their economic activities . The information from these biodiversity assessments must inform future policies while also identifying and quantifying the cumulative impacts from different projects early on, thus saving time and resources . These assessments must also use highly effective remote sensing systems and sensitivity maps to identify the dangers posed to vulnerable species located in a project’s vicinity .
In addressing the altered movement patterns of animals in light of the unpredictable effects of climate change, experts must study wildlife’s behavioral responses to understand how they might respond to an energy project and further suggest ways to mitigate foreseeable changes . These interventions must also factor in the reactions and compatibility of future measures with adjacent human populations. As wildlife journalist Prerna Singh observes, ecological security must be India’s goal in developing the renewable energy sector . In this context, she makes four important suggestions: the need for more decentralised renewable energy that uses less land-intensive, eco-friendly methods; the importance of conducting environmental and social assessments; parallelly diversifying into other forms of energy such as bio-gas; and balancing growing demands with energy-efficient means of transmission and distribution .
Ultimately, to resolve the tensions between the growth of the renewable energy industry and biodiversity conservation, we must adopt human-wildlife mitigation strategies that prioritise environmental health while also accommodating community interests. In this context, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s suggestion of adopting a community-commons approach - that incentivises local communities to engage with wildlife conflict while sustainably meeting their energy requirements - is most likely to ensure effective compliance . At the heart of this debate on the renewable energy industry is the collective human failure to recognise the intricate, interconnected, and symbiotic relationship between sustainable development and wildlife conservation . The COVID-19 pandemic is but one powerful reminder to the world to recognise the frailty of human life and our obligations to the environment. Before we embark on our journey to the renewable energy world, we must first embrace our indispensable human responsibility to adopt sustainable energy practices that peacefully coexist with the wildlife around us.
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