Facing the global energy crisis: why it is vital we conserve biodiversity

In the spring of 2010, drought devastated China’s southwest, reducing the flow of major rivers and slashing hydroelectric power generation dramatically, upping China’s demand for energy inputs and putting pressure on global fuel prices.

In 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami raged a dual attack on Japan – destroying much of northern Japan’s energy infrastructure and devastating four nuclear plants and Fukushima – forcing Japan to up its imports of oil, coal and natural gas and causing several countries worldwide to cease nuclear development altogether.

Despite different causes and countries, the impacts both natural disasters have had on global energy are enormous.

We face mounting energy problems belowground, aboveground and in the atmosphere. Abundant, easy-access reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are diminishing; the prices of fuel and electricity have skyrocketed; and geopolitics, compounded by civil unrest in the Middle-East, restrict the production and availability of specific energy supplies.

What’s more, we are pumping roughly 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year from the energy sector alone.

The Alaska North Slope is a region rich in oil and natural gas, as well as biodiversity. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

What’s looming on the global energy horizon?

In order to meet a growing thirst for energy, world energy output will need to rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025.

“Tough oil” – oil stored far offshore, deep underground, or in complex geological formations such as tar sands and shale – is set to be increasingly pursued and exploited, but comes with great environmental, social and economic costs and risks.

Take shale gas. The extraction of natural gas from shale rock via hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) is rapidly growing as a solution to the United States’ energy needs, yet grim concerns have been raised about the risk of toxic chemicals used in the fracking process contaminating water resources.

Similarly, the future of coal has the dual threat of releasing significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and requiring increasingly harmful extraction techniques. “Mountaintop mining,” which removes the summit of a mountain and discards excess rock and toxic wastes in valleys below, has been linked with biodiversity loss, toxification of watersheds and human health impacts including cancer and birth defects.

Coal trucks transporting coal to China from the world’s largest coal mine, Tavan Tolgoi in Mongolia. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Unsustainable development

World population is on a one-way track to hit 9 billion by the 2040s and it’s estimated that we’ll need 40% more energy, 30% more water and 50% more food a decade before then to supply the burgeoning population and those rising out of poverty in developing nations. At the same time, we’re marching towards a projected 3.3 degree increase in atmospheric temperature within the 21st century and are losing over 100 million species to extinction a year.

These crises don’t exist in isolation: they are almost invariably linked in complex ways.

Take the 2010 drought in China. The natural disaster that left over 20 million people without adequate drinking water, ravaged over 4 million hectares of cropland and cost over $3 billion US in failed electricity generation and agricultural damage in China alone is thought to have been exacerbated by human-induced factors: climate change and large-scale deforestation in mountainous regions which decreased the region’s capacity to store and regulate water flows.

“…the question of food and energy and human well-being in general [is] a truly global challenge,” said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University during a recent talk on sustainable development. “Not only global in the sense that every place in the world has to confront it, but global in the sense that we have to look at society at an interconnected world scale and understand how these very, very basic and fundamental needs of humanity can be met.”

Biodiversity and the human component of energy

Sachs’ point resonates. Access to energy is a basic right, just like access to water or food. Within the landscapes, societies and communities, the energy crisis can have different meanings and different expressions at a local, more fundamental scale – whether we’re talking about natural fuel wood, charcoal production, biomass, sustainable solar, water or wind power.

Trees cut down to prepare charcoal, a commonly used cooking fuel sold to residents of the coastal city of Pemba, Mozambique. Credit: J A Bruson/FFI.

The global energy crisis has been all about energy security, carbon emissions, politics and wealth creation. But in reality it includes human well-being, cultural heritage, protected areas, deforestation, holes in the ground, oil spills and sticky penguins, the melting Arctic, uranium mining for nuclear power, palm oil, soy, sugar, food security, consumerism, corruption and sustainability. You name it; it links back to the energy crisis.

For example, forests on hillsides reduce soil erosion, reduce toxic runoff, regulate flooding and provide a local fuel source. Cut them down and fisheries may be threatened, hydropower generation may suffer from irregular water flows and rural communities may be unable to access clean water or meet their energy needs.

Cooking on charcoal, Zambezi River, Zambia. Credit: Pippa Howard/FFI.

Energy demand can also have an enormous impact on biodiversity. In Rwanda, each of a million rural farmers uses a tree a week to generate fuel for cooking. That’s 52 million trees felled per year for energy, resulting in soil loss and decreased water provisioning.

Deforestation for fuel wood has driven many of Fauna & Flora International (FFI’s) programmes across the world. For example FFI is working closely with communities to protect and restore a fragile forest wetland environment in the heart of Cambodia, where energy and biodiversity challenges are closely intertwined.

Women collecting firewood near Nanyuki, Kenya. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Women collecting firewood near Nanyuki, Kenya. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

FFI has also worked with Italian oil and gas company eni since 2003, through its exploration & production Division, and has developed projects in Italy, Congo, Mozambique, Pakistan, Norway and Ecuador as well as major strategy interventions relating to biodiversity management. We have helped to write the Better Coal Initiatives Principles for best practice, and advised BP on the integration of biodiversity into their risk management and decision making. These are only a few snapshots of how FFI engages with energy challenges.

Few seem to have tackled the global energy crisis from the perspective of a conservation organisation. Certainly not from the combined perspectives of a globally conscious network of practitioners dealing with the rapid erosion of biodiversity and the ecosystem services that support the fabric on which societies’ livelihoods are based. But we’re working hard to change that.

Read more about FFI’s work with energy.

Watch a live stream of Feeding the Planet: Energy for Africa, a talk by Professor Jeffrey Sachs.