Australia is facing a dilemma: how to achieve its ambitious renewable energy goals without harming its rich and diverse biodiversity. The recent decision by the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, to block the development of a “renewable energy terminal” at Port of Hastings in the Western Port wetland east of Melbourne highlights the growing tension between the two commitments.
Australia has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. To do so, it needs to rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, hydro, and bioenergy.
Renewable energy has many benefits for the climate, the economy, and the society. It can help Australia meet its international obligations under the Paris Agreement, reduce its dependence on imported oil and gas, create new jobs and industries, and improve public health and well-being.
According to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), renewable energy accounted for 24% of Australia’s electricity generation in 2020, up from 19% in 2019. The agency expects this share to reach 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2050.
Biodiversity is essential for life on Earth
Australia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, home to more than one million species of plants and animals, many of which are endemic and endangered. Biodiversity provides vital ecosystem services, such as pollination, pest control, water purification, soil formation, carbon sequestration, and climate regulation. It also supports human well-being, culture, and livelihoods, especially for Indigenous Australians.
However, Australia’s biodiversity is under threat from multiple factors, such as habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species, overexploitation, pollution, and climate change. According to the State of the Environment Report 2021, more than 1,800 species and ecological communities are listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and the number is increasing.
Biodiversity loss has serious consequences for the functioning and resilience of ecosystems, and for the ability of humans and other species to adapt to changing conditions. It also undermines the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, a global agenda for peace, prosperity, and justice.
Finding the right balance
While renewable energy and biodiversity are both crucial for a sustainable future, they are not always compatible. Renewable energy projects can have negative impacts on biodiversity, such as:
- Land clearing and habitat degradation for solar farms, wind farms, hydro dams, and biofuel plantations
- Collision and disturbance of flying animals, such as birds and bats, by wind turbines and power lines
- Alteration of water flows and quality by hydro power and bioenergy
- Mining and extraction of critical minerals and metals for renewable energy technologies, such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths
These impacts can be avoided, minimized, or mitigated by applying best practices, such as:
- Strategic planning and assessment of renewable energy projects at regional and national scales, taking into account the cumulative and synergistic effects on biodiversity and other values
- Site selection and design of renewable energy projects to avoid or reduce conflicts with high conservation value areas, such as wetlands, forests, and grasslands
- Implementation of mitigation measures, such as fencing, revegetation, monitoring, and adaptive management, to reduce the residual impacts of renewable energy projects on biodiversity
- Compensation and offsetting of the unavoidable impacts of renewable energy projects on biodiversity, through restoration, protection, or enhancement of equivalent or better habitats elsewhere
These best practices require collaboration and coordination among multiple stakeholders, such as governments, developers, investors, communities, researchers, and conservation groups. They also require adequate data, tools, and resources to support informed decision-making and effective implementation.
A win-win solution
Renewable energy and biodiversity are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist and complement each other, if done right. Renewable energy can help protect biodiversity by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change, which is the biggest threat to biodiversity in the long term. Biodiversity can help support renewable energy by providing ecosystem services, such as biomass production, water regulation, and carbon storage, that enhance the performance and resilience of renewable energy systems.
Australia has the potential and the opportunity to become a global leader in both renewable energy and biodiversity conservation. By finding the right balance between the two, it can achieve a win-win solution for the climate, the economy, and the society.