Where mining and energy projects will harm wildlife the most

Jhe world faces an incredibly delicate land crisis over the next few decades. On the one hand, we want to protect more wild animals, having realized the essential role that nature plays in limiting climate change and sustaining human life. On the other hand, we want to produce more energy than ever before for the rapidly developing countries of the South and switch the whole world to renewable energies. This is going to require a lot of new power plants and new mines, which can be devastating to wildlife.

A study published today in the journal Biological conservation highlights this gigantic conflict of interest. The researchers looked at a list of 15,150 areas of land that conservation groups have ranked as the world’s most important for protecting biodiversity. They compared these areas with a map of all existing or planned mining and energy projects around the world.

Already, 5% of key biodiversity sites contain mines, 14% contain oil and gas infrastructure and 2% contain power plants. If all the planned projects were realized, this would increase to 20%, 24% and 11% respectively.

The overlap will be particularly bad in biodiversity hotspots like Brazil, central Africa and parts of East and South Asia. This creates a huge challenge for policymakers in these areas, as they balance global conservation goals with the economic opportunity of energy production and resource extraction.

Fossil fuel projects, present and future, have the largest footprint, and the damage they can cause to plants and animals is well understood. Oil and gas infrastructure tends to be built in incredibly remote locations, disrupting previously pristine habitats. Construction activity on two pipelines in Nigeria’s Niger Delta in the 2010s, for example, led to the clearing of more than 9 million trees and triggered a “colossal loss” of biodiversity, according to a 2014 study. Even when completed, oil and gas wells and pipelines can leach potent chemicals into nearby ecosystems or kill thousands of creatures in seconds during major spills.

But the researchers noted that much of the future threat to wildlife will come from efforts to transition to renewable energy and tackle climate change. Clean energy sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power require much larger areas to produce the same amount of energy as fossil fuels. Clean technologies such as electric vehicles, batteries and wind turbines require large amounts of metals and minerals, driving a new global mining boom.

Clean energy infrastructure doesn’t have to be as harmful to wildlife as its fossil-fueled predecessors. The lithium mining sector, whose huge water consumption has dried up the sources on which humans and wildlife depend in South America, for example, is trying to develop more sustainable extraction methods. Meanwhile, some wind energy companies are trying to reduce their industry’s burden on bird populations by choosing sites less visited by birds and testing sensor technologies to avoid collisions with endangered species.

But the study’s authors say authorities need to do more to ensure that such efforts become mandatory. “More effective enforcement and wider adoption of biodiversity policies by governments and the financial sector are needed to ensure that global infrastructure development avoids impacts on biodiversity,” they write.

“We recognize that infrastructure is essential for human development, but it’s about building smart,” said Ash Simkins, a doctoral student in zoology at the University of Cambridge who led the study. “This ideally means avoiding or minimizing infrastructure in the places most important for biodiversity. If the infrastructure is going to be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible, and the impacts more than offset elsewhere.

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com.


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