2. Biodiversity, infrastructure and the low-emissions transition: Context for action

Built infrastructure is ubiquitous in modern day life. It supports myriad services such as electricity generation and delivery, mobility and accessibility, telecommunications, flood defence, water provision and waste treatment. Delivery of infrastructure services is central to sustainable development: infrastructure is the focus of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and supports many other SDGs, such as SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities and SDG 13 Climate Action. Sustainable infrastructure investment has a crucial role to play in ensuring a strong, resilient, sustainable and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, as highlighted by the 2020 OECD Ministerial Council Statement (OECD Ministerial Council, 2020[1]).

A key sustainability challenge is to ensure infrastructure investment is harmonious with nature. Biodiversity1 and the ecosystem services it provides underpin human well-being, livelihoods and economic prosperity (Dasgupta, 2021[2]; OECD, 2021[3]). Halting and reversing biodiversity loss is a global objective reflected in SDG 14: Life Below Water and SDG 15: Life Above Land, and the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (Box 2.1). However, infrastructure investment in pursuit of other policy objectives often drives biodiversity loss. Infrastructure has contributed (directly or indirectly) to all five of the key pressures on biodiversity: land and sea-use change, over-exploitation of natural resources, climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive alien species (Balvanera et al., 2019[4]).

To mitigate infrastructure’s negative impacts on biodiversity, decision makers must systematically consider and address infrastructure’s dependencies and impacts on biodiversity at every stage of policy, planning, programme and project cycles. This is a process referred to as biodiversity mainstreaming in the CBD. While effective mainstreaming requires collective action from an array of actors (national and subnational governments, business, the finance sector, civil society organisations and citizens), national governments play a pivotal role in driving mainstreaming through planning, regulation, economic incentives and procurement.

Bolstering efforts to mainstream biodiversity into infrastructure over the coming decade will be particularly important owing to two inter-related trends in infrastructure. First, demand for infrastructure will continue to grow and, without adequate consideration of biodiversity, lead to further biodiversity loss. This demand growth is driven by macro trends such as global population growth, urbanisation and rising global gross domestic product, although the extent of demand growth will also be determined by societal and political choices. Second, the architecture and characteristics of infrastructure networks are transforming as new technologies develop and countries pursue sustainable development objectives. This transformation can bring new opportunities and challenges for biodiversity.

One sector where these trends are prominent is the electricity (power) sector. Electricity comprises an increasing share of total energy consumption. Global demand for electricity is projected to roughly double by 2050 and almost quintuple by 2100 (IPCC, 2022[6]). At the same time, the power sector is transforming. The share of renewable power (e.g., solar, wind, bioenergy) in the electricity generation mix is increasing, owing to their falling costs and climate policy (IEA, 2021[7]). Furthermore, distributed energy resources (e.g., rooftop solar) are facilitating the decentralisation of power systems (OECD, 2019[8]).

The growth and transformation of the power sector has mixed implications for biodiversity. Understanding and managing these implications will be critical to ensure that the expansion of renewable power reinforces rather than compromises efforts to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, in line with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

The report aims to help governments simultaneously scale up renewable power and protect biodiversity. Its objectives are: 1) to synthesise evidence on the biodiversity impacts from infrastructure for renewably sourced electricity generation and from power lines for electricity distribution and transmission; and 2) to share insights and good practices for integrating biodiversity considerations into power sector planning and policy for renewable energy.

For an in-depth analysis of impacts and targeted policy recommendations the report focuses on solar power (photovoltaics [PV] and concentrated solar power [CSP]), wind power (onshore and offshore) and infrastructure for electricity transmission and distribution. Wind and solar power are the focus because they are expanding faster than other technologies and are set to be dominant in the global energy mix. Furthermore, the resource potential for these technologies is globally widespread. Unless otherwise specified, the terms “renewable power” and “renewable energy” are used synonymously in this report.

While the report underscores the importance of considering impacts across the full life cycle of renewable power infrastructure (e.g., mining impacts from material sourcing), it is primarily geared towards addressing the impacts arising from the construction (installation) and operation of renewable power infrastructure.

The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the growth and transformation of the power sector, its changing spatial footprint and implications for biodiversity. It then elaborates on the economic case for mainstreaming biodiversity into renewable power infrastructure and the low-emissions transition more generally. Chapter 3 examines the evidence from biodiversity impacts resulting from solar PV, solar CSP, onshore and offshore wind and power lines. Chapter 4 explores opportunities for mainstreaming biodiversity into low-emissions pathways and power sector planning. Chapter 5 examines the policy instruments governments can use to maximise synergies and reduce trade-offs between renewable power infrastructure expansion and biodiversity.

Global energy demand grew on average by 1.3% per year from 2010-22 (IEA, 2023[9]). A large share of this growth in demand was for electricity as countries pursued electrification. Worldwide the current share of electricity in total final energy consumption is 20% (IEA, 2023[9]). Despite increased energy supply and substantial progress in global energy access, 675 million people in developing countries remained without access to electricity in 2021 (UN, 2023[10]).

The balance of electricity generation infrastructure still favours fossil fuels but is shifting to renewables and other low-emission technologies. The global share of fossil fuels in electricity generation declined from around 67% in 2010 to 61% in 2022 (IEA, 2023[9]). Renewables are the second largest source of global electricity generation behind coal. Owing to sustained policy support and sharp cost reductions for solar PV (i.e., solar panels) and wind power, installing new renewable capacity has become the cheapest way of increasing electricity generation in most countries. As a result, growth of wind power and solar PV accounts for most of the growth in global electricity output in recent years (IEA, 2023[9]).

Mitigating climate change and ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy (SDG 7), will require an even greater increase in renewable power and associated transmission infrastructure. Several possible global pathways exist to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” (IPCC, 2022[6]). These pathways vary in the use of energy resources, in energy supply and conversion technologies, in supply and end-use efficiency gains and in the extent of reliance on negative emission technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. However, all pathways likely to limit warming to 2°C or lower include a decline in the carbon intensity of energy, owing to electrification of transportation, heating and industrial sectors and an increase in low-emissions electricity generation (IPCC, 2022[6]). Electricity supplies 48%-58% of final energy in 2050 in pathways consistent with 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot and 36%-47% of final energy in pathways that limit temperature increase to 2°C (IPCC, 2022[6]).

In the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions Scenario, which is one of the pathways consistent with limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C with limited overshoot, the share of electricity in final energy use jumps from 20% in 2022 to 53% in 2050 (Figure 2.1). The share of renewable energy in electricity generation globally increases from 30% in 2022 to nearly 90% in 2050 (IEA, 2023[9]). The largest growth comes from solar PV and wind (Figure 2.2). Global energy supply declines slightly by 2050 in the net zero emissions scenario due to reductions in energy intensity, but it increases in a scenario based on current and stated policies. Electricity supply increases sharply in all scenarios (Box 2.2).

Transforming the global energy system in line with the Paris Agreement goals and the SDGs requires a major reallocation of energy investments. In IPCC 1.5°C pathways, annual investment needs in low-carbon energy reach between USD 0.8 and USD 2.9 trillion globally to 2050, overtaking investments in fossil fuels by around 2025 (IPCC, 2018[11]). Most of these investments are directed at clean electricity generation, particularly solar power (USD 0.09-1 trillion/year) and wind power (USD 0.1-0.35 trillion/year). Investments for electricity transmission, distribution and storage also increase in 1.5°C pathways to support electrification of end-use sectors (IPCC, 2018[11]).

Economy-wide electrification and renewable power expansion is not only vital for achieving climate and development objectives but also biodiversity objectives. Fossil fuel combustion for energy is the primary source of anthropogenic climate change, which is the fastest growing driver of biodiversity loss. Climate change has already shifted species distribution, disrupted species interactions, and led to mismatches in the timing of migration, breeding and food supply (IPBES-IPCC, 2021[12]). Climate trends and extremes are pushing marine and terrestrial ecosystems closer to thresholds and tipping points (Harris et al., 2018[13]). Allowing global average temperature to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) could significantly increase adverse impacts for some species and ecosystems (Smith et al., 2018[14]) (Nunez et al., 2019[15]). For example, if warming is limited to 2°C, 8% of vertebrates, 18% of insects and 16% of plants could lose at least half of their current range by 2100. However, if warming is limited to 1.5°C, this risk is halved for vertebrates and plants, and cut by two-thirds for insects (Warren et al., 2018[16]).

Furthermore, the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, including production of charcoal in many developing countries, leads directly to land- and sea-use change (including deforestation) and pollution, and indirectly to the spread of invasive species, and illegal exploitation of natural resources (e.g. timber and wildlife) (Butt et al., 2013[17]; Harfoot et al., 2018[18]; Giam, Olden and Simberloff, 2018[19]). Coal mining, in particular, is associated with high biodiversity loss compared to other energy sources (Holland et al., 2019[20]); it can substantially alter the land surface and subsurface, resulting in a near-complete loss of terrestrial and wetland habitats for mammals and amphibians (McManamay, Vernon and Jager, 2021[21]).

While having much lower carbon footprints (UNECE, 2021[22]), renewable sources of electricity generation are not environmentally benign. They too pose a risk to biodiversity. For example, renewable power projects can result in direct mortality of flora and fauna, habitat loss and fragmentation and declines in ecosystem services (Gasparatos et al., 2017[23]; Murphy-Mariscal, Grodsky and Hernandez, 2018[24]). These and other impacts are examined in detail in Chapter 3.

Electrification and the shift towards renewables will increase the physical footprint of the power sector, owing to the greater demand for electricity and the relatively high land-use intensity (low power density) of renewable power sources. This in turn could drive land-use change (Lovering et al., 2022[25]; van Zalk and Behrens, 2018[26]). For example, a 25-80% penetration of solar in the electricity mix of the EU, India, Japan and Korea by 2050 could result in solar energy facilities alone occupying 0.5–5% of total land, contributing directly or indirectly (e.g. through displacement of agriculture and forestry) to biodiversity loss and land-based greenhouse gas emissions (van de Ven et al., 2021[27]). In the US, where energy sprawl (renewable and non-renewable) has already become the biggest driver of land-use change (Trainor, McDonald and Fargione, 2016[28]), the power sector’s footprint is estimated to increase by 15 million hectares (ha) in a scenario where renewable power provides 80% of electricity generation in 2050, which is more than 50% larger than the baseline year of 2018 (van Zalk and Behrens, 2018[26]).

While the majority of electricity generation infrastructure is located on land, the spatial footprint of offshore electricity is also expanding. Under one of the European Commission’s (EC) scenarios for a climate-neutral energy sector in 2050, offshore wind capacity increases to a total of 450 GW. An estimated 85% of this is from installations in the northern seas. This is the equivalent of 76 000 square kilometres (an area just under the size of Ireland) (European Commission, 2020[29]). On the one hand, harnessing more offshore energy can reduce pressure on scarce land resources; on the other hand, it may pose a risk to marine biodiversity (see Chapter 3) and conflict with other marine economic activities (e.g., fishing).

The spatial footprint of electricity distribution and transmission infrastructure will also increase (Luderer et al., 2019[30]). The growing share of electricity in final energy consumption, the increasing share of renewables in electricity supply and the need for system flexibility necessitate significant expansion of electricity grids (IEA, 2021[31]). In a scenario where temperature increase is held “well below 2°C”, the annual pace of grid expansion needs to more than double in the period to 2040. Around 50% of the increase in transmission lines and 35% of the increase in distribution network lines are attributable to the increase in renewables (IEA, 2021[31]).

The growing spatial footprint of the power sector may coincide with areas of particular importance to biodiversity. One-third of areas with high potential for solar and wind energy globally, and half of areas with high potential for bioenergy, are areas with high biodiversity values (Santangeli et al., 2015[32]). Of 12 658 fully operational large scale (nominal generation capacity >10MW) onshore wind, solar PV and hydropower facilities, around 2 206 (17%) are in at least one of three important biodiversity areas: protected areas (PAs), key biodiversity areas (KBAs) and Earth’s remaining wilderness areas2 (Rehbein et al., 2020[33]). Wind power overlaps with the largest number of important conservation areas. A further 922 facilities under development are in one of these three areas; 100 of these are in strict protected areas. Combined, large-scale operational facilities and those under development (n = 3 128) overlap with 886 PAs, 749 KBAs and 40 distinct wilderness areas. Western Europe accounts for the largest number of operational sites overlapping with important biodiversity areas, while Africa and the Middle East have the largest share of their facilities that overlap (38% and 33% respectively). For the facilities under development, over half of overlapping sites are in India, Southeast Asia, South America or Africa (Rehbein et al., 2020[33]).

The spatial and ecological footprint of renewable power expansion extends beyond electricity generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure. Wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, batteries and other low-emission technologies are resource-intensive. An onshore wind plant, for example, requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired power plant (IEA, 2021[31]). Low-emission technologies depend on a variety of critical minerals, such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper, cadmium and rare earth elements (e.g. dysprosium and neodymium used in some wind turbines; indium and tellurium used in certain photovoltaic cells) (Sovacool et al., 2020[34]; Luderer et al., 2019[30]). Demand for these minerals is expected to increase considerably, although resource efficiency may help curb demand growth for some minerals depending on rebound effects (OECD, 2019[35]; Luderer et al., 2019[30]; IEA, 2021[36]). In 2050, annual demand from energy technologies for graphite, lithium and cobalt could be nearly 500% greater than 2018 production (Hund et al., 2020[37]).

Renewable power expansion will lead to increased mining activity for critical minerals (but reduced coal mining). Current mining activity (based on 62 381 pre-operational, operational or closed sites) potentially influences 50 million km2 of land, which is 37% of global land area excluding Antarctica. Approximately 8% of this area coincides with PAs, 7% with KBAs, and 16% with remaining wilderness areas. Most current mining areas3 (82%) target materials required for renewable power production (Sonter et al., 2020[38]). In addition its biodiversity impacts, the rapidly growing market for critical minerals could be subject to price volatility, increasing costs due to inflationary pressures, geopolitical influence and potentially supply disruptions that could hamper the low-emissions transition.4

A clear economic case exists for mainstreaming biodiversity into renewable power infrastructure and the low-emissions transition. Biodiversity underpins all economic activities and human well-being. It provides critical life-supporting ecosystem services, including the provision of food and clean water, but also largely invisible services such as flood protection, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, water filtration and pollination. More than half of the world’s gross domestic product – USD 44 trillion – is moderately or highly dependent on biodiversity (WEF, 2020[39]). Biodiversity is also fundamental to combatting climate change (Box 2.3).

Despite nature’s importance, society is accumulating produced (and human) capital at the expense of natural capital (Dasgupta, 2021[2]). The population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have declined by an average of 69 percent since 1970, and many of the world’s ecosystems are degraded (WWF, 2022[40]). Current extinction rates are tens to hundreds of times higher than the baseline rate and increasing (Diaz, S. et al., 2019[41]). The accelerating loss of biodiversity increases the risks and costs to the economy, the financial sector and society (Dasgupta, 2021[2]; OECD, 2021[3]). It undermines the provision of critical ecosystem services and nature’s resilience. As ecosystems are non-linear, even small increases in pressure could lead to abrupt and irreversible ecosystem collapse, leading to economic shocks.

Renewable power developments that are not strategically planned and well-managed will further pressure biodiversity and could thereby compromise efforts to achieve climate goals. Kiesecker et al. (2019[47]) estimated the required renewable energy to meet Paris Climate Agreement emission reduction targets for 109 countries5 based on nationally determined contributions submitted by May 2016. They concluded that if CSP, solar PV and onshore wind energy facilities would be deployed where energy resources are highest, they could convert over 11 million ha of natural land (approximately the size of Bulgaria), emitting 415 million tons of carbon stored in plant biomass and soils (equivalent to about 8.6% of the combined emission reduction goals of the NDCs at the time). Avoiding land-based emissions through strategic siting could save USD 47.5-155.9 billion based on social carbon costs (Kiesecker et al., 2019[47]). A separate study estimated that direct and indirect land cover changes associated with solar energy expansion in the EU, India, Japan and Korea could cause a net carbon release of 0-50 gCO2/kWh, depending in part on how land is managed at solar facilities (van de Ven et al., 2021[48]).

Applying biodiversity constraints to energy infrastructure siting may slightly increase system costs. For example, Wu et al. (2023[49]) estimated a 3% increase in energy system net cost in 2050 for the western United States. However, this is likely to be partially offset by the avoided costs associated with project disruptions. Biodiversity concerns have resulted in projects being delayed or cancelled owing to resistance from stakeholders (e.g. local communities and environmental NGOs) and requirements by regulators to significantly revise project plans (Dashiell, Buckley and Mulvaney, 2019[50]; Tegen et al., 2016[51]; Energy Transitions Commission, 2023[52]). For developers, this could entail unexpected costs, lost revenue and penalties if they break power purchase agreements. Facing uncertainty, investors may require a higher rate-of-return, threatening the competitiveness of renewables (Susskind et al., 2022[53]). In the US, for example, concerns over wind power siting related to wildlife, public engagement and other factors could increase costs and decrease wind capacity by 14% by 2030 and 28% by 2050 (Tegen et al., 2016[51]). Project delays can translate to higher electricity costs, affect the stability and management of electricity networks and delay the transition to a low-emissions future (Tegen et al., 2016[51]; Wind Europe, 2017[54]).

When biodiversity is insufficiently addressed in power sector planning and project development, developers may also face unexpected increases in operating and maintenance costs, for example, where turbines are required to be shutdown regularly to avoid avian or bat collision or where power lines must be repaired after wildlife collision or electrocution. Globally, wildlife-induced power shortages cost electricity suppliers an estimated USD 10 billion per year globally (Barrett, 2015[55]).

Conversely, considering biodiversity at the earliest stages of planning can facilitate a smooth and rapid deployment of renewable power while helping to minimise trade-offs with biodiversity. A study of 16 utility-scale solar projects in the US suggests that siting projects in areas of low biodiversity value can lead to a three-fold increase in permitting speed and reduce project costs associated with mitigating adverse biodiversity impacts, with overall project cost savings of 7-14% (Dashiell, Buckley and Mulvaney, 2019[50]).

The importance of ensuring renewable power and other infrastructure is sustainable – and consistent with biodiversity objectives – is reflected in several international agreements (see Table 2.1 for a summary and Annex A for further details). These agreements provide a guiding framework and impetus for countries to integrate biodiversity as they develop their domestic policy and plan the transition to low-emissions electricity systems.


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← 1. Biological diversity or biodiversity refers to “means the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems” (CBD, 1992[56]).

← 2. The extent of Wilderness Areas is based on the ‘Last of the Wild’ map, which identifies the most ecologically intact places on Earth. To produce the map, (Allan, Venter and Watson, 2017[58]) identified the 10% (by area) of each of the Earth's Biogeographic Realms with the lowest Human Footprint. The Human Footprint is a globally standardized map of cumulative human pressure on the natural environment. From this, all contiguous areas >10 000 km2 were selected, in Biorealms that did not have 10 contiguous blocks >10 000 km2, the next largest patch was consecutively selected until there were 10 per Biorealm. The final map contains 834 contiguous wilderness areas.

← 3. Mining areas were mapped using a 50-cell radius around 62 381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mining properties. Each cell represents 1 km. The 50-cell radius is based on the assumption that impacts can extend 50 km from mine sites.

← 4. At the IEA Ministerial Meeting in March 2022, IEA Member Countries voted to endorse and deepen the IEA’s work on critical minerals, including by “investigating […] different methods of ensuring the availability, security and responsible sourcing of energy-specific critical minerals” (IEA, 2022[57]).

← 5. The 109 countries represent 83% of global terrestrial lands, and 92% of global GHG emissions.

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