The Role of Energy Systems in Decline and Recovery of Aquatic Biodiversity

The Role of Energy Systems in Decline and Recovery of Aquatic Biodiversity

Six Actions proposed in “Bending the curve for freshwater: an emergency recovery plan

by Jeff Opperman , WWF-US

Freshwater ecosystems and species are in crisis, and 2020 is a pivotal year for countries and companies to take steps to solve that crisis. What does this have to do with energy? A surprising amount. 

From hydropower dams that fragment rivers and block fish migration to thirsty crops for biofuels that contribute to the depletion of water resources, the energy sector has a significant impact on freshwater resources and ecosystems—and thus must be a big part of the push for solutions defined in 2020 to be implemented in the coming decades. 

An Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity, released recently in BioScience, can help point the way: “Bending the curve for freshwater: an emergency recovery plan

While habitats like rain forests tend to receive the headlines, the most dramatic losses of nature are unfolding in rivers, lakes and wetlands: freshwater ecosystems and species have declined faster than those on land or in the oceans. Consider the Living Planet Index (LPI), produced by WWF every two years in the Living Planet Report. The LPI is something like a stock index fund but where the individual stocks are populations of fish and wildlife. The LPI for freshwater has declined by 83% since 1970, about double the rate of those for oceans and land. 

These steep losses of populations of freshwater fish and wildlife are happening because of equally dramatic losses in freshwater habitats. The world has lost 70% of its wetlands and two-thirds of its long rivers have been dammed and are no longer free-flowing. Beyond species declines, the losses of these habitats have had serious negative impacts for people, including diminished fish harvests and increased flood risk.

To arrest, and ultimately reverse, these declines, a group of scientists and conservation practitioners developed an Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity. The Plan was written by more than 25 scientists and conservation practitioners, drawn from ten universities or research institutions and four conservation NGOs (I was a co-author).

The Plan features six major actions that need to happen to reverse the declines and “bend the curve” of freshwater biodiversity. Each action is grounded in recommendations of policies or interventions that have been implemented and proven to work in various places – but require major increase in uptake to reverse global trends. 

The energy sector and freshwater ecosystems

The energy sector has impacts on freshwater ecosystems in a variety of ways. 

·       Several reviews of the drivers of the loss of freshwater species and habitats rank dams and other infrastructure at or near the top in terms of impact. Dams are by far the leading cause of the loss of free-flowing rivers, and subsequent analysis has shown that the majority of those dams are for hydropower. Thus, through hydropower, the energy sector is at the heart of the decline of freshwater ecosystems and species.

·       Fossil fuels—from extraction through combustion—contribute to water pollution.

·       Growing crops for biofuels often requires irrigation and can contribute to the depletion of surface and/or groundwater supplies, potentially reducing flow, or drying up, streams, rivers and wetlands.

If the energy sector has contributed to the declines of freshwater ecosystems, it can also be a key player in the effort to reverse those declines. Here I’ll focus on the role of hydropower in implementing the various actions prescribed in the Emergency Recovery Plan.

·       A hydropower dam can often change the pattern of flow in the river downstream, and this alteration can have significant negative impacts on downstream river and floodplain ecosystems, and the people and wildlife that depend on them. To help address these impacts, hydropower dams can release environmental flows (action #1) to restore key components of the natural flow regime. For the past decade, the Three Gorges Dam in China has been releasing an annual environmental flow to promote spawning of native carp. In the United States, hydropower projects that renew their license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are often required to implement environmental flows; 82% of the 309 licenses renewed between 1998 and 2013 required that the dam operator include an environmental flow – but few other countries require the periodic relicensing that can prescribe this improvement to their operations.  Building environmental flow requirements into licensing programs, and within expanded relicensing programs, would make a major contribution toward achieving this recommended action.

·       An expansion of formal protections for rivers are needed to protect and restore critical habitats (action #3).  Only a handful of countries have formal protection mechanisms, including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in the United States and National Salmon Rivers in Norway. In some countries, rivers within national parks are protected but, in others, dams can still be built within protected areas. Thus, an expansion of formal protection policies for rivers will be essential for protecting these habitats. Further, funders of hydropower projects can require that project mitigation includes protection of a free-flowing river. For example, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Inter-American Development Bank required that the Parismina River be protected as free flowing as mitigation for the construction of the fourth dam in a cascade on the Reventazón River in Costa Rica. The energy sector can also contribute to the goal of increasing formal river protection by supporting system-scale approaches to energy planning, such as the Strategic Environmental Assessment of hydropower in Myanmar, supported by the IFC, which recommended that no dams be built on the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers to maintain them as free flowing.

·       System-scale approaches to hydropower planning and management can also safeguard and restore connectivity in river systems (action #6). The offsets and strategic planning described above—including planning that seeks to maximize wind and solar generation—can identify “no go” rivers and formal protection mechanisms can ensure that they remain free flowing.  In already developed rivers, system-scale planning and management can reveal opportunities to remove hydropower dams (generally older dams with relatively limited contributions to generation) to restore river connectivity, such as was done in the Penobscot River (Maine). Allowing system-scale mitigation in licensing and relicensing processes for hydropower projects could also promote removal of aging dams and a variety of tools are available to prioritize dams for removal.

2020 sets the stage for bending the curve

China will host the 5th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Kunming in October. While headlines generally emphasize China’s contributions to environmental degradation, the CBD event will allow China to showcase much of its commendable progress in nature conservation. Within this promising trajectory, however, it is notable that many of the primary counterexamples are in the realm of freshwater, including the recent extinction of two iconic species from the Yangtze River, the giant paddlefish and the Yangtze river dolphin (dams likely played a role in both extinctions). Further, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is poised to dramatically increase investment in hydropower in rivers that support some of the world’s most productive and diverse freshwater ecosystems, including the Mekong and Irrawaddy. 

But the overarching goal of the CBD is to set a course to halt the decline of nature and to begin to bend the curve back toward recovery.  The backdrop of China will neatly frame the history of freshwater losses and the risks of an uncertain future—with energy expansion at the forefront.  The six actions of the Emergency Recovery Plan should be integrated into the renewed targets of the CBD to help improve its focus on freshwater species and habitats.

The energy sector—encompassing the governments that plan and license, the funders who support, the developers who build, and the owners that operate—can make key contributions to meeting those targets and bending the curve.

Source: Forbes