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The writer, a former US Treasury secretary, chairs the Paulson Institute
There is widespread agreement that climate change is an existential threat. But in our rush to address this challenge, our efforts must not heighten another, more immediate one: the global decline of biodiversity.
We are losing species at more than 1,000 times the natural rate. If we stay on this trajectory, we risk losing up to half of them by the middle of the century. Science is only just beginning to quantify the magnitude of throwing a complex system like Mother Nature out of balance. But we do know that biodiversity loss poses a fundamental risk to health, prosperity and wellbeing.
Sadly, the singular focus on solving climate change has led to the neglect of biodiversity. The alarming result is that many climate efforts inadvertently accelerate nature’s destruction. Take the huge need for solar farms. If not located properly, they will have a big impact on ecosystems and habitats.
In Virginia, for example, more than half of solar facilities are being built on forested land rather than areas such as rooftops or parking lots. The state’s push for solar development could lead to the deforestation of nearly 30,000 acres annually.
In California, 161 planned or operating utility-scale solar power developments were built on undeveloped desert with sensitive wildlife habitats. This has been a disaster for a wide range of plants and animals in the Mojave Desert, and the destruction is only going to expand.
Wind farms present a similar challenge. To meet net zero targets, wind electricity generation needs a massive build out. But in meeting the Biden administration’s admirable goal of deploying 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, bird deaths from collisions could rise to more than a million per year.
There is a real risk that badly planned renewable infrastructure will have an even greater impact on biodiversity than existing fossil fuel infrastructure. A Brookings Institution report says that wind and solar generation require at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced as fossil fuel powered plants.
Hydropower can disrupt aquatic ecosystems, block fish migration routes and cause flooding. Clearing natural habitats to produce biofuels is leading to a rapid decline of rainforests in Asia and Latin America. And mining for the critical minerals needed for green tech is occurring in environmentally sensitive regions.
We need to chart a path that does not address one environmental challenge by creating others. Indeed, with pragmatic choices, we can do the opposite, harnessing nature to address climate change.
Consider carbon removal. Research shows that between 2001 and 2019, forests around the world sequestered more than twice the amount of carbon dioxide that they emitted — absorbing more than the combined annual emissions of the US and UK. Nature is also critical in dealing with the adaptation necessary to prepare for increasingly severe weather shocks, such as the role of marshes and mangroves in absorbing storm surges and floods.
Governments must think differently, employing better infrastructure planning at all levels. A report from The Nature Conservancy shows careful siting can reduce the effects of the clean energy build out by 70 per cent compared with siting as usual practices. Solar farms can be put on already degraded land. Transmission lines and pipelines can be placed to minimise impact. Wind turbines can be sited to avoid important migratory pathways: even painting one blade black can help avoid bird collisions.
We need creative solutions, such as high-quality carbon credits, to protect rich ecosystems such as rainforests, while also helping finance a transition to a clean energy economy.
Regulators should take concrete measures to signal to the market that there is no place for policies harmful to biodiversity in efforts to achieve net zero. Global governance structures should be reformed to ensure that climate and biodiversity efforts are not disjointed and siloed. Currently, there is a global scientific body dedicated to biodiversity, and a separate one for climate. Likewise, there is a global UN conference for climate, and a separate one for biodiversity.
COP28 is an opportunity to elevate biodiversity to the main stage. The United Arab Emirates, taking the COP28 presidency, must ensure that it is treated in tandem with climate change and develop a global agenda that deals with both. This should be a low lift given the COP28 high-level champion Razan Al Mubarak is also president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
It would be a tragic irony if, in our efforts to deal with climate change, we end up accelerating a bigger and immediate crisis in the natural world.