Climate change

Energy vs. Biodiversity?

Finding a common perspective for the two scientific communities.

Posted on Jun 4, 2024


Dr. Sascha Nick


Prof. Antoine Guisan

Full Professor in Spatial Ecology

Prof. Christophe Ballif


Dr. Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez

UNIL - FGSE, UniBern - IEE

Energy vs. Biodiversity?

Is rapid development of renewable energies possible without negatively impacting biodiversity? Answering this question by synthesising the existing scientific literature was the challenge facing this multidisciplinary UNIL/EPFL team made up of experts in both biodiversity and energy. The result: thanks to this face-to-face encounter and direct dialogue, these two scientific communities were able to gain a better understanding of each other's respective ways of thinking and develop joint solutions.  


Interview with 4 of the researchers.

1. You will soon publish a White paper entitled “Developing renewable energies and preserving biodiversity in Switzerland”. Tell us in a few sentences what it is all about.

Sascha Nick: The project addresses the potential conflict between the need for rapid renewable energy (RE) expansion and better biodiversity protection in Alpine regions. It aims to reach both goals simultaneously to mitigate climate change. It emphasizes the importance of both ensuring energy security and reinforcing ecological integrity by identifying suitable locations and best practices for RE installations, as well as biodiversity monitoring and reduction of human activities damaging the same ecosystems or species.  

Antoine Guisan: The renewable energy transition's objective is to mitigate climate change and to minimize impacts on humans and biodiversity. At the same time, intact ecosystems with rich biodiversity are the best defense against climate change, through sequestering carbon and regulating climate. Yet, RE developments can have impacts on biodiversity, which in turn could amplify climate change.

This shows that climate change, renewable energy and biodiversity are strongly interrelated and should be managed jointly.

It is the aim of this project to put together specialists from all these fields to design a RE transition that does not affect biodiversity.

Christophe Ballif: For me the goal was to bring closer two communities, the energy and biodiversity one, who do not have a good understanding of each other. Some in the energy field rightly see the necessity to develop renewables quickly to reduce CO2 emission, but sometimes neglect the potential impact on biodiversity and are barely aware of the dramatic situation even in Switzerland. Conversely, some from the biodiversity field think that any new installation in a natural environment has an additional impact on biodiversity and that this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They therefore tend to oppose any projects, basically letting the other community solve the problem of providing clean electricity or think it would be easy to use much less. But even if you use less, we’ll need more electricity.

In the end the question is whether you can find some common ground.

2. One of the objectives of your project was to form a multidisciplinary team that would enable joint reflection between experts in renewable energy (RE) and biodiversity. Why is this so important in the current context?

Sascha Nick: From the beginning, it was clear that the two scientific communities of renewable energy and biodiversity did not know each other and had a very superficial understanding of the other side’s discipline. People needed to meet personally in a series of scientific stakeholder workshops, learn from each other, and especially start understanding how people on the other side think. Without this, it would have been impossible to reach common conclusions. Additionally, we reached out to related projects in Switzerland, such as the ETH Domain “Speed2Zero” and SCNAT projects. 

Antoine Guisan: The project started from a symptomatic disagreement between scientists from the energy and biodiversity communities, likely resulting from each community simplifying too much the other field when promoting its disciplinary interests: e.g. for the former assuming that RE had very limited impact on biodiversity, and reversely that RE would necessarily have a negative impact on biodiversity for the latter. We therefore set up this project to increase reciprocal understanding between these two communities and promote the development of RE that also promotes biodiversity.

Fostering such synergy requires strengthening the linkage between the RE and biodiversity research communities, and with associated stakeholders, thus requiring multi- and trans-disciplinary approaches. 

Christophe Ballif:

Normally scientists should be able to argue based on facts, but clearly the debates related to climate change, energy and biodiversity become quickly emotional depending on where you put the weight (climate, security of supply, natural environment).

Meeting, discussing and presenting in various meetings and workshops has enabled us to better appreciate the different perspectives.

3. The interests of stakeholders in renewable energy development and biodiversity conservation sometimes seem opposed. What common perspectives have emerged within these research communities?

Antoine Guisan: By reviewing and synthesizing the scientific literature through three workshops, we identified possible synergies and co-benefits of developing RE while promoting biodiversity (e.g. “eco-voltaïc”) that can please both communities. Yet, perhaps the most important message that we experienced directly during the process is that, for these solutions to be implemented, scientists and stakeholders from both fields need to sit together, exchange data and knowledge, and combine these to plan biodiversity-friendly RE developments in a coordinated way, ideally at the national level, to ensure developing RE as fast as possible but as carefully as necessary… 

Christophe Ballif: I think that a few important perspectives have emerged. This includes the necessity to develop rapidly renewable electricity sources (which some doubted) to substitute our heavy usage of fossil fuel in Switzerland.

It also comes with the strong wish to see prioritization of location at a national level rather than at a cantonal level, which could help avoid some more critical areas from a biodiversity perspective. It also allowed us to clarify which criteria would most minimize the impact on biodiversity. We acknowledged the limited experience gathered so far in the Alpine environment. Additionally, we demonstrated that with good practices, one could maximize the positive CO2 impact of renewables, while minimizing the negative ground impact of RE infrastructures.

4. You state in your summary that raising awareness and engaging local stakeholders are very important for implementing the energy transition and protecting biodiversity. Please explain.

Alejandra Moràn Ordonez: The scientific community, the decision-makers and local land managers generally speak different languages, mostly because their objectives and timelines are different. However, scientific knowledge can be a key tool when it comes to making well-informed decisions. For example, we can help identify where best to deploy RE infrastructure across the landscape, so energy production is maximized while impact on biodiversity is avoided or minimized.

That is why participatory and integrative processes such as the one we have developed in this project are key to breaking down the barriers of communication and understanding between these two scientific worlds.

Christophe Ballif: For me, engaging the community has several benefits: first it increases the chance of project acceptance, because people have the feeling that they also contribute, and possibly for themselves to something positive, rather than having something imposed on them. Second it allows all stakeholders to understand the various fears, but also the erroneous ideas about both renewable energy and biodiversity. And third, it allows sometimes to redesign or re-dimension projects because they become more acceptable for a wider part of the community.

5. What have you learned from your interactions with researchers from the other community? How will it influence your future practice?

Sascha Nick: While I personally had a certain holistic overview of both RE and biodiversity before starting the project, I quickly realized this was sometimes superficial; I learned a lot about specific recent methods and best practices for developing RE, impacts on biodiversity and the interaction of such impacts, and most importantly, the specific approaches and perspectives of scientists from the RE and biodiversity communities.

Nothing replaces spending time with people to learn from them. 

Antoine Guisan: Being a biologist and specialist of biodiversity mapping, talking to energy specialists inside and outside academia made me realize the complexity of the energy demand over the seasons (e.g. the winter gap), and the need to combine different energy sources to satisfy our societal needs without fossil fuels. This is key to have a chance to mitigate climate change and avoid potentially massive impact on biodiversity.

I also learned how to better explain the potential risks of RE deployments on biodiversity to energy specialists and the need to favor RE solutions that have minimal impact on - or even favor – species and ecosystems.  

Alejandra Moràn Ordonez : Being an expert in conservation biology, it has been especially enriching for me to work with fellow specialists in the field of RE development, learning about the Swiss energy scenarios of demand and production as well as the latest developments in new technologies and materials that could foster a fast and more efficient energy transition at the national level. I think we have learned from each other by bringing our positions closer together and finding compromises in a constructive way. The multidisciplinarity of the project team's work makes the results more consensus-driven and robust, and therefore, more realistic from an implementation perspective. 

6. Which results of your study do you believe have the potential to have the greatest impact on the development of renewable energy and biodiversity conservation, and which are most likely to influence practices or public policies?

Sascha Nick: Our most important findings are that renewable energy development and better biodiversity protection not only can but must happen together. From the common ground, we could provide specific recommendations for RE site selection and best practices for building and monitoring. Together, we highlighted the necessity to reduce existing human pressure on biodiversity and minimize additional damage. It is hard to predict what will have the biggest impact, perhaps simply scientists now knowing each other, and (future) community learning and deliberations. 

Antoine Guisan: Our project was based on a synthesis of scientific literature, not on our own analyses and results. The main finding is certainly that there are possible synergies between RE development and biodiversity promotion (i.e. nature-based solutions). This requires a prioritization process at the national scale (and in good cooperation with our neighbors) based on the best scientific knowledge available. This could come from our white paper and other similar reports (e.g. from the International Union for Nature Conservation, the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences or other projects like Speed2Zero within the ETH-domain).

As some consider this energy transition an emergency, one could imagine creating a Swiss task force for a rapid RE transition that jointly reinforces biodiversity in Switzerland. Nature is our best ally, not our enemy. 

Alejandra Moràn Ordonez: I think there are several relevant messages in our work, but for me the most important is to show that we have the opportunity to move towards zero-net emissions by 2050 using renewable energy while conserving biodiversity.

The only scenario moving forward must be that energy, climate and biodiversity conservation policies must be aligned. I hope that this inclusive vision, together with the diversity of resources already available to achieve it (e.g. the Swiss ecological infrastructure, spatial planning tools, impact assessments), will serve as an effective science-based policymaking guide for cantons to promote the development of renewable energy in their territories in the coming years.  

Christophe Ballif: It is hard to change perceptions and actions with one document. But for me, the process of discussing and learning from others is an important step for future advancement. I think it also brought a lot of concrete and straightforward advice. For example, we included concrete suggestions for proper site selection for RE development. Indeed, it is unlikely that many solar parks will be installed through the Solar Express legislation for technical reasons including the large minimum size of projects. This implies financial risks but also a potentially contentious site. A new Solar Express could for instance focus on smaller solar parks, which could be installed often closer to existing infrastructures (e.g. near stations of ski resorts), in areas which are already partially degraded and, hence, less controversial. 


Read related interview of Dr. Sascha Nick in the 24Heures and Tribune de Genève.

About the researchers: 

Dr. Sascha Nick, Sustainable transition, energy and biodiversity expert, researcher at the Laboratory of Urban and Environmental Economics, EPFL.  

Dr. Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, Biodiversity conservation expert, researcher at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, UNIL.  

Prof. Antoine Guisan, Biodiversity mapping expert and professor at the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, UNIL.   

Prof. Christophe Ballif, Renewable energy expert, EPFL and CSEM. 

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