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The 2020 Call For Code Global Challenge by IBM is calling on developers across the globe to find technological solutions to halt and reverse the impact of Climate Change. To extend support for the initiative, Nature inFocus is publishing a series of Climate Change stories from around the country.

Increasing global temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels, glacier melts, species extinctions, sea level rises, abnormal weather patterns: climate change and its repercussions are among the most pressing issues countries are rushing to address. One solution has been to curb the use of fossil fuels and switch over to cleaner and greener energy sources such as wind, water and sunlight. As many as 193 nations have undertaken this through the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). India's commitments under the SDG will see it install 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by the year 2022. That amounts to more than half of India's existing capacity.

It sounds simple enough. Just install infrastructure – wind farms, large solar panel networks (including rooftop solar), dams over rivers – and make sustainable energy available for all. But science has revealed that biodiversity doesn't always benefit from renewable energy. Renewable energy projects impact both wildlife and wildlands directly and indirectly. Moreover, the locations of power plants matter. A recent study finds that India is among the regions in the world that have the highest proportion of renewable energy facilities coming up in important conservation areas.

Renewable energy and India

Renewable energy has been advocated for the low-carbon growth of nations; studies find that it also has a significant, positive impact on economic growth. India too is investing heavily in this sector through several central and state schemes. Recently, the Centre even approved the Green Energy Corridor Project in eight states, including Karnataka, to facilitate the integration of large scale renewable generation capacity addition.

And for good reason. Currently, thermal power (mostly coal-fired) contributes to 63 per cent of India's total power generation. India's renewable energy capacity is only 23 per cent now, but fulfilling its SDG target will increase India's non-fossil-based electrical capacity to 40 per cent by 2030. These trends mirror those across the world, as more countries look to increase their renewable energy capacities; globally, renewable energy facilities have tripled since 2003.

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"With 74 hydro-facilities under development in its important conservation areas (including 27 within PAs and 21 inside KBAs), India is among the regions that have the highest proportion of renewable energy facilities coming up in important conservation areas." An altered river bank, for the purpose of laying transmission lines. Photograph: Suman Jumani

Important conservation areas at risk 

But where are these facilities located, especially with respect to important conservation areas? A team including University of Queensland scientists Jose Rehbein and James Allan studied the overlaps of such areas and solar, wind and hydro projects worldwide. Their results are startling. Over 2,200 renewable energy facilities already operate inside important biodiversity areas (where another 900 are still being built). Together, these facilities could be degrading 886 Protected Areas (PAs), 749 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and 40 distinct wilderness areas globally.

With 74 hydro-facilities under development in its important conservation areas (including 27 within PAs and 21 inside KBAs), India is among the regions that have the highest proportion of renewable energy facilities coming up in important conservation areas. India and Nepal are very interesting cases because of all the hydropower development around the Himalayas, said Rehbein.

“Apparently, it is small-scale hydro, but there are so many that it becomes the biggest concentration of new overlaps with KBAs and PAs,” he wrote via email.

It's all about location

Location, therefore, is crucial. So much so that if this factor is ignored while identifying sites for renewable energy projects (and they are not located in already-converted land) in India, more than 50,000 of crop land, and almost 13,000 of forest and other natural lands could be affected, finds a study published in Sustainability. This could in turn create a “domino-effect” as natural land gets converted to agriculture to replace lost crop lands, write the authors including ecological economist Dhaval Negandhi (The Nature Conservancy India; TNC-India).

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The dewatered stretch of a small dam in the Western Ghats, Karnataka. Photograph: Suman Jumani

However, converted lands on which projects can be located under this scenario also include India's 'wastelands', that encompass biodiverse habitats such as grasslands and scrub jungles. They support not just wildlife, but peoples' livelihoods too. With the existing classification of wastelands, there are data limitations on ascertaining how these habitats will be affected, agrees Negandhi. 

“Our analysis shows that if we proactively identify and avoid areas with high ecological or social values, we will not need to compromise on our renewable energy objectives,” he wrote in an email.

Indirect and direct impacts

Apart from altering land use, many power projects also directly impact wildlife. Wind farms caused a trophic cascade in Maharashtra's Chalkewadi plateau: fewer birds of prey took to the skies here due to wind turbines, resulting in an increase in lizard numbers. The proposed 3,097 MW Etalin project in Arunachal Pradesh's biodiversity-rich Dibang Valley – slated to be one of India's largest hydropower projects – will submerge more than 1,150 hectares of forests that the local Idu Mishmi tribe have forged a close cultural tie with. More than 2.7 lakh trees will be axed. A single notification moved by the Centre last year now makes large hydropower projects such as this one a renewable energy source.

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A recent study shows that wind turbines keep predators away, and the lack of predation is influencing the behaviour, physiology and morphology of lizards like the Fan-throated Lizard (Sarada superba). Photograph: Sanchit More

Previously, only small-hydropower projects (SHPs, that generate less than 25 MW of electricity) were afforded this distinction. Himachal Pradesh has the highest number (213) of installed and on-going SHPs, followed by Karnataka (173). But studies in both the Western Ghats and western Himalayas reveal that SHPs may not be as green or sustainable as they are touted to be. For instance, a team found that SHPs could ‘trigger or increase’ human-elephant conflict in Karnataka's Hassan district. Scientists also found drastic differences in fish communities upstream and downstream of dammed stretches along the Netravati river; SHPs severely affected stream geometry, water chemistry and aquatic life. Despite these ramifications, SHPs are not required to have Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), much like most wind and solar projects. 

Renewable energy projects that could threaten marine biodiversity have also been proposed. Earlier this year, the NITI Aayog's plan to introduce floating solar panels in Lakshadweep's lagoons to power a multi-crore water villa project faced ire. The panels can prevent Green Turtles from grazing on the seagrass in the shallow lagoon beds; the shade cast by the panels can also endanger seagrasses and coral reefs below, argued 114 biologists in an open letter.

Ironically, such focus on renewable energy at the cost of biodiversity can subvert other Sustainable Development Goals that India has committed to. While Goal 14 aims at the conservation of oceans and marine resources, Goal 15 lists that member countries should conserve terrestrial ecosystems and halt biodiversity loss. 

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 A freshwater eel, Anguilla bengalensis, which usually lives at the bottom of the river, trapped in dewatered stretch of a small dam in the Western Ghats, Karnataka. Photograph: Suman Jumani

Ways forward 

Ultimately, such increased pressure on natural lands, biodiversity and local communities can potentially give rise to conflict; this could also increase risks for the renewable energy sector causing project delays and overruns, according to Negandhi.

“Shifting from a piece-meal approach of planning projects one at a time to one that proactively identifies and avoids cumulative socio-ecological impacts will result in a win-win for all stakeholders including investors and power developers,” wrote Negandhi.

This is what SiteRight, a tool developed by the team along with TNC-India and its partners hopes to do. It can help decision-makers identify sustainable sites for solar and onshore wind projects in low-conflict lands. Tapping into the country's rooftop solar potential can also potentially decrease impacts on natural and crop land, the team found.

Transitioning to renewable energy is crucial to reduce carbon emissions but the key is ensuring that renewable energy facilities are built in places, and in ways, that do not damage biodiversity, wrote Allan, currently with Amsterdam's Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics. “Only then can they be considered truly sustainable.”

When our very implementation of (supposedly green) renewable energy resources prove to be not so green or clean, the future of our planet can feel that bit more grim. Climate Change is easily our biggest test yet, and this is proof that we don't have all the solutions yet. If you are a developer interested in helping ddress some of these challenges, visit the Call For Code website and get started on your idea. Winners will be awarded $200,000, receive open source support from The Linux Foundation, and will get a chance to meet mentors and investors. You will find ample resources and support to see your technology come to life. 


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Dupraz et al 2011. Combining solar photovoltaic panels and food crops for optimising land use: Towards new agrivoltaic schemes. Renewable Energy 36 (10): 2725-2732.

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