New Research Questions EU Policies on Sustainable Energy Development and Biodiversity Protection

Posted on: 03 October 2011

“Is the European Union (EU) willing to relax its biodiversity laws to facilitate renewable energy projects?”  This is one of the questions posed in a paper published recently in the prestigious journal Global Environmental Change by Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences PhD student, Andrew L.R. Jackson.  His paper, entitled ‘Renewable energy vs. biodiversity: Policy conflicts and the future of nature conservation’, examines the sometimes conflicting EU policies of sustainable energy development and biodiversity protection.

Using two real-life examples in his paper, Jackson highlights an apparent willingness on the part of the EU to relax its enforcement of biodiversity law to facilitate renewable energy projects.  Objections to the construction of one renewable energy project, the Sabor Dam in Portugal, were dropped in 2008 despite conflicting with the EU’s stringent environmental policies.  In their original objections the EU outlined how construction of the dam would drown critical habitat for a number of endangered mammals, birds and plants, and wipe out a number of priority conservation areas protected under Europe’s Natura 2000 protected areas programme.  In 2008 however, the EU’s objections to the dam’s construction were dropped, in controversial circumstances, and the dam is now due to be completed in 2014. 

The EU has pledged to halt biodiversity losses and cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20% from 1990 levels by 2020.  However efforts to reach the two goals are increasingly coming into conflict.  In the paper, Jackson shows that the EU’s strict biodiversity protection regime could necessitate the rejection of many large renewable energy projects.  He argues: “Legal issues should not be regarded as insurmountable problems, nor as a trigger for reforms aimed at weakening biodiversity protections.  Rather, these issues are better regarded as an opportunity for an open, informed, global debate regarding the relationship between biodiversity and climate change policies, and the hierarchy, if any, between them.” One solution, he advocates, could include focusing on the demand side of the energy equation by seeking to reduce overall energy demand as an alternative to building new generating capacity.  As well as raising resource-efficiency and energy conservation issues, this raises difficult questions regarding consumption and the human population.   

Andrew L.R. Jackson’s research is supervised by Professor of Geography at TCD, David Taylor, and is funded by a scholarship from the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering & Technology (IRCSET).  Andrew was also the winner of the Best Paper award in the 2009 Journal of Postgraduate Research for his submission ‘Why Dolphins Need Lawyers’.