24 August 2023 |

Having our cake and eating it too


Today we’ll move through three ‘levels’ of biodiversity protection and action. With each step, we’ll move from least nuanced and most defensive to most nuanced and proactive.

Preventing direct damage

Let’s start with some good news today. 

Last Sunday, Ecuadorians voted 59% to 41% to ban oil drilling in a section of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world in the Amazon rainforest. Ecuador’s national oil company, Petroecuador will have to close all 225 of its active oil wells and all other infrastructure in Yasuní National Park within a year. 

This is a two birds, one stone type of win for the climate and biodiversity. 

  • There’s direct biodiversity protection by ensuring an ecosystem isn’t disturbed.
  • There’s indirect biodiversity protection by reducing fossil fuel production, although absent reductions in demand, that production may shift elsewhere.

To get a bit more nuanced however, this wasn’t as binary a choice for Ecuadorians as it may seem. One could read it as such: 

  • Support oil infrastructure → reap short-term economic benefits. 
  • Protect one of the most biodiverse regions in the world → reap long-term benefits.
A bird’s eye view of one section of Yasuní National Park (Shutterstock)

But it’s not that simple. I imagine that national pride and sheer good heartedness played no small part in this vote going the way it did. It should be a simple, utilitarian vote. But that would assume the existence of a mechanism to reward Ecuadorians monetarily for the value of the ecosystem they’re protecting. Which, as we’ve discussed in recent weeks, doesn’t exist. 

And if the rest of the world doesn’t do its part to prevent climate change, Yasuní National Park may look like a shadow of its former self in 2050 anyways.

Asking developing countries to trade their economic security for biodiversity gains isn’t necessarily a ‘fair’ proposition if developed countries and major emitters don’t play their part. For perspective on a different arrangement, last week Liberia and a UAE-based private company inked an agreement in concept that will give the company the rights to 10% of Liberia’s total land to generate carbon credits from forest conversation & reforestation. There’s a more direct economic exchange between a company based in a major oil-producing country and a less-developed country with biodiverse ecosystems to protect.

Of course, the success of that arrangement isn’t guaranteed, but it’s good to see stakeholders trying various types of arrangements in service of carbon sequestration and biodiversity protection.

On tradeoffs: Who will think about the birds?

What do better models for promoting biodiversity and growth look like? As we sink deeper into this question, it’s worth evaluating the implicit tradeoffs between infrastructure needed for the energy transition and biodiversity.

In the same way the choice Ecuadorians made to protect Yasuní National Park could be oversimplified, it’s tempting to assume that all energy infrastructure projects and biodiversity are at odds. Transmission lines cut through forests and across prairie ecosystems. Offshore wind farms require massive infrastructure and can disrupt ocean ecosystems. Batteries require a lot of mining, and mining is almost always disruptive to one ecosystem or another.

There can undoubtedly be biodiversity losses due to clean energy infrastructure, not just oil and gas infrastructure. Still, the tradeoffs are often clear and favor the clean energy infrastructure.

Sure, there are people out there who would like you to view all energy infrastructure as at odds with biodiversity. People loudly bemoan offshore wind farms and their potential impact on whales without concrete evidence. Others oppose onshore wind farms purportedly because they care about bald eagles and other birds. Some people decry the impact of hydroelectric dams on salmon migration patterns.

Here’s the thing. Many of these people do not give two shits about the whales or the birds (anecdotally, I do know some who genuinely care about the salmon, and I respect their opinion). Many of these people do not seem to care that climate change will kill more whales, birds, and other species than all global energy projects combined. But unfortunately, they know how to co-opt processes like environmental reviews to stall or thwart projects altogether. And it often works, not just in the U.S., but overseas as well. 

Here’s what happens when you ask the people who actually care about the birds (or whales). They say they want to see the clean infrastructure get built. At the highest level, the clean energy transition should be a boon for biodiversity. Climate change in general, as well as land use for agriculture and forestry, are the principal reasons the world is losing biodiversity.

For example, the Audubon Society, a staunch proponent of birds (the whole society is for and about the birds), recently released a report that called for urgent expansion of transmission infrastructure in the U.S., even as, yes, it poses a risk to birds. The risks of any one energy project are rather limited compared to the drastic biodiversity loss climate change is causing.

The Audubon Society knows that transmissions is good for the birds (Shutterstock)

Suffice to say there’s a lot that can be done with proper siting to mitigate the worst of infrastructure’s direct impact on biodiversity. And the indirect benefits of clean energy should almost always ‘win.’

You get a net gain, and you get a net gain! 

In the spirit of layering in more nuance as we proceed, it would still be an oversimplification to argue that clean energy infrastructure is merely a lesser evil than allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue unabated. We can be more ambitious than that. 

Increasingly, there’s a push to couple infrastructure deployment with benefits to biodiversity. There are ways to pair infrastructure deployment with conservation and ecosystem restoration to drive improvements in biodiversity simultaneously. 

For instance, as part of the U.K.’s Environment Act 2021, a “Biodiversity Net Gain” mandate will go into effect later this year. Specifically, the mandate will require “most developments … to demonstrate a 10% uplift in habitat biodiversity to secure planning permission.”

Some folks familiar with the challenges inherent to deploying energy infrastructure may roll their eyes at this. On the surface, it looks like another (potentially expensive) hurdle for developers. 

And it will add economic cost to project development. But that cost may be well worth it; this law should create demand for companies that help developers measure, quantify, and achieve biodiversity net gains. 

That’s no straightforward task; even just the variable or variables used to define a biodiversity net gain are complex and subject to debate. 

Another challenge is that the Biodiversity Net Gain mandate allows the net gain to be delivered offsite or through a combination of onsite and offsite measures. From my vantage point, credibility questions will be more challenging to track and satisfy when it comes to offsite measures developers may support; in general, the further from the site in question measures are implemented, the less oversight there may be.

Still, as discussed so far this month, I see this as a worthwhile test of policy as a means to stimulate private sector focus on biodiversity. Ideally, it will create a market for companies that know how to evaluate the biodiversity of an ecosystem and restore it. Energy developers are a better customer to build a go-to-market strategy around than a hypothetical market for biodiversity credits.

The net-net

There is no reason that the world can’t protect and promote biodiversity while also undergoing a massive clean energy transition. 

Which leads me to a broader point. Too often, we operate with assumptions that specific trends must be in conflict with one another. Too often, we assume resources like capital are finite and scarce. Too often, we underestimate exponential growth. We can pursue direct and indirect boons for biodiversity simultaneously. 

So much of adding biodiversity to the climate conversation is about expanding the set of variables we care about. Moving from single variable models, such as evaluating forests for timber value or farms for crop yield, to multivariable models that, for instance, see a forest as a source of timber value, carbon sequestration, and much more, or that care about the quality of the topsoil on a farm in addition to crop yields, is the foundation for better development models. 

It isn’t easy work, but no one said it should be.