Biodiversity, Communities and Energy Flow

5.1 Links between biodiversity and energy

Many forms of energy are the result of a service provided by ecosystems, now or laid down in the form of fossil fuels far in the past. Conversely, society’s growing requirements for energy are resulting in significant changes in those same ecosystems, both in the search for energy sources, and as a result of energy use patterns. Given that energy is a fundamental requirement for supporting development in all economies, the challenge is to sustainably provide it without driving further loss of biodiversity. It is necessary to define the trade-offs required, and develops appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Demand for energy is projected to grow at least 53 per cent by 2030. Energy from biomass and waste is projected to supply about 10 per cent of global demand until 2030. However, this assumes that adequate fossil fuels will be available to address the majority of the increase in demand, and some have suggested this may not be realistic. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase slightly faster than energy use by 2030.

Energy use has impact at local, national and global levels. Pollution from burning fossil fuels, and the associated effects of acid rain have been a problem for European and North American forests, lakes and soils, although the impacts on biodiversity have not been as significant or widespread as cautioned in the Brundtland Commission report. While emission controls in Europe and North America led to a reversal of acidification trends, there is now a risk of acidification in other areas of the world, particularly Asia.

The impacts noted above are relatively localized and small in comparison to the potential impacts of climate change, which results largely from energy use. As a result of climate change, species ranges and behaviour are changing with consequences for human well-being, including changing patterns of human disease distribution, and increased opportunities for invasive alien species. Species most likely to be affected include those that already are rare or threatened, migratory species, polar species, genetically impoverished species, peripheral populations and specialized species, including those restricted to alpine areas and islands. Some amphibian species extinctions have already been linked with climate change and a recent global study estimated that 15-37 per cent of regional endemic species could be committed to extinction by 2050.

Biodiversity-based energy sources include both traditional biomass and modern biofuels. Ecosystems provide relatively inexpensive and accessible sources of traditional biomass energy, and therefore have a vital role to play in supporting poor populations. If these resources are threatened, as is the case in some countries with extreme deforestation, poverty reduction will be an even greater challenge. Use of fuel wood can cause deforestation, but demand for fuel wood can also encourage tree planting, as occurs, for example, in Kenya, Mali and several other developing countries.

Climate change is also having impacts at ecosystem scales. By 2000, 27 per cent of the world’s coral reefs had been degraded in part by increased water temperatures, with the largest single cause being the climate-related coral bleaching event of 1998. For some reefs recovery is already being reported. Mediterranean-type ecosystems found in the Mediterranean basin, California, Chile, South Africa and Western Australia are expected to be strongly affected by climate change.

5.2 Managing energy demand and biodiversity impacts

Few energy sources are completely biodiversity neutral, and energy choices need to be made with an understanding of the trade-offs involved in any specific situation, and the subsequent impacts on biodiversity and human well-being. Biodiversity management is emerging as a key tool for the mitigation of and adaptation to the impacts of climate change – from avoided deforestation to biodiversity offsets – while contributing to the conservation of a wide range of ecosystem services.

There are a number of management and policy responses to the increasing demand for energy and the impacts on biodiversity. One important response to the rising price of oil is increasing interest in other energy sources. Prime among these are biofuels, with several countries investing significant resources in this field. The world output of biofuels, assuming current practice and policy, is projected to increase almost fivefold, from 20 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2005 to 92 Mtoe in 2030. Biofuels, which are produced on 1 per cent of the world’s arable land, support 1 per cent of road transport demand, but that is projected to increase to 4 per cent by 2030, with the biggest increases in United States and Europe. Without significant improvement in productivity of biofuel crops, along with similar progress in food crop agricultural productivity, achieving 100 percent of transport fuel demand from biofuels is clearly impossible. In addition, large-scale biofuel production will also create vast areas of biodiversity-poor monocultures, replacing ecosystems such as low-productivity agricultural areas, which are currently of high biodiversity value.

Current actions to address the impacts of climate change can be both beneficial and harmful to biodiversity. For example, some carbon sequestration programmes, designed to mitigate impacts of greenhouse gases, can lead to adverse impacts on biodiversity through the establishment of monoculture forestry on areas of otherwise high biodiversity value. Avoiding deforestation, primarily through forest conservation projects, is an adaptation strategy that may be beneficial, with multiple benefits for climate change mitigation, forest biodiversity conservation, reducing desertification and enhancing livelihoods. It must be recognized that some “leakage” in the form of emissions resulting from those conservation efforts can occur .Climate change will also affect current biodiversity conservation strategies. For example, shifts from one climate zone to another could occur in about half of the world’s protected areas, with the effects more pronounced in those at higher latitudes and altitudes. Some protected area boundaries will need to be flexible if they are to continue to achieve their conservation goals.

The impacts of energy production and use on biodiversity have been addressed as a by-product of several policy responses in the past few decades. Examples include Germany’s effort to reduce subsidies in the energy and transport sectors, promoting increases in the proportion of organic farming and reducing nitrogen use in agriculture. However, responses have not been comprehensive, coordinated or universal. Commitments, including shared plans of action, have been made in various floras, but implementation has proved to be extremely challenging, due both to problems of securing required finance and lack of political will or vision.


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