Conservationists and the Renewable Energy Industry Can and Must Work Together to Fight Climate Change

The environmental community and the clean energy community must be partners in ensuring that conservation and clean energy go hand in hand.

Addressing the effects of a rapidly changing climate is the challenge of our generation. Every day we see the impacts on people, places and wildlife. The stakes are especially dire for birds, with an Audubon study showing that two-thirds of North American bird species are vulnerable to extinction if global temperature rise is allowed to continue at current levels. This is also bad news for us, because as an indicator species found in a wide array of habitats, the same factors that threaten birds threaten people as well. To ensure our collective future, we must reverse this dangerous trend by dramatically reducing emissions. And we need to act quickly.

Renewable energy represents one of our best options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To ensure that this urgent need is met, we can and must expand our renewable energy system and transition away from fossil fuels. But we must do so in a way that prioritizes environmental outcomes. It is possible for both wildlife and responsible clean energy development to coexist. In fact it is absolutely critical.

We have no illusions about the challenge before us. To avoid ecological calamity, the U.S. has joined the global community in setting a goal of achieving a net-zero balance of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, meaning that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the air are balanced out by the amount that are naturally reabsorbed by plants and water. Adopting 100% clean energy is key to reaching this goal. It will require a massive buildout of new projects that doubles, or even triples, the amount of energy currently generated by renewable resources. It is a big lift. But it is achievable.

Proper siting and operation of utility-scale renewables and transmission will limit the risk of unanticipated impacts on the places and animals we love. Renewable energy projects can have large footprints, and extreme care must be taken not to disrupt our most important natural resources. The environmental community and the clean energy community must work together to ensure that conservation and clean energy go hand in hand. 

Companies like Pattern Energy and conservation groups including Audubon have spent years working together to understand and take every effort to avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts to wildlife while fighting climate change. We have collaborated on projects like Pattern’s Ocotillo wind project in California in 2014, and more recently on the Western Spirit Wind Project, the largest single-phase wind project in U.S. history, and the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, for which an environmental impact statement was just released by the Bureau of Land Management this month. National and local conservation organizations serve on the board of the Research Committee of Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute (REWI), founded by Audubon and the industry in 2008 to help facilitate partnership between renewable energy companies and conservation.

Audubon deploys a team of clean energy experts dedicated to using the best science to inform siting and operation of renewables to avoid harm to ecosystems and communities. Failing to implement a robust clean energy infrastructure will be far more devastating to entire species and communities that are vulnerable to climate change than inaction, so the success of renewable energy is inextricable from the success of protecting the places that both people and wildlife need to survive. Community and conservation stakeholder involvement must be the rule when it comes to clean energy development. It should not be the exception if we are to meet the existential challenges of climate change in a meaningful way.

This is the moment to make lasting impacts on climate by recognizing the interdependence of conservation and clean energy. The climate provisions being proposed by the Biden Administration must pass swiftly and be implemented effectively. The energy industry and conservation organizations must work together to understand the impacts on wildlife and communities using tested science as a guide. And importantly, our government needs to adequately fund the Department of Interior and other agencies so that we can rapidly accelerate the renewable energy transition while ensuring that proper environmental review is completed for this important work.

Far from being at odds, renewable energy and wildlife organizations are reliant on each other for success. Climate change is too big a threat. We will continue to work together to achieve a cleaner, brighter future for us all.