As more than 140 world leaders meet this week in Paris to negotiate a united effort to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that contribute to global climate change, President Obama and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates announced two intertwined initiatives meant to spur research and development of new clean energy technologies. Depending on how they are implemented, the initiatives could have implications for bird conservation.
Mission Innovation is a pact among 20 countries, pledging to double government spending on research and development of clean energy technologies by 2020. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, meanwhile, is a group of 29 private investors—including Gates—who promise to commit more than $20 billion for cutting-edge clean energy ventures as long as the countries follow through on their promises.
Wind turbines along the migratory corridor of Whooping Cranes pose a threat to these endangered birds. Photo by Laura Erickson
This dual push for new, innovative renewable energy alternatives to the use of fossil fuels is meant to accelerate developed nations' adoption and use of clean energy while also meeting the staggering energy demands needed to increase living standards of the world's poor in developing countries.
In their announcements, Obama and Gates stressed the chronic underinvestment in energy research by both the public and private sector, largely due to the length of time needed for innovations to pay off. American energy companies, for instance, reportedly spend less than 1 percent of their revenues on research and development. The hope is that greater resources from government and the private sector will lead to new and affordable technologies, such as energy-producing solar paint and window films for use on homes and buildings.
The Paris climate talks and these new initiatives are absolutely essential to reduce future CO2 emissions. Without stabilization and future reduction of greenhouse gas discharge into our atmosphere, climate change will continue to grow as a dominant and pervasive human-caused threat to birds. (And of course the rest of the planet.)
Scientists estimate that wind turbines at California's Altamont Pass wind facility kill more than 300 American Kestrels each year. Photo by Anatoliy Lukich/Shutterstock
But there's a caveat. If new renewable energy projects are rushed out onto the landscape without first taking stock of how they might affect birds—by destroying habitat, interfering with birds' ability to successfully raise their young, or outright killing birds—the promise these technologies hold for preserving an abundance and diversity of bird species long into the future will be greatly diminished. It will be an opportunity lost.
There are lessons we can carry forward into this new chapter from ongoing attempts in the bird conservation community to ensure that wind energy, for instance, follows "bird-smart" principles. Scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands of birds die every year from collisions with wind turbines. But companies can lessen the number of fatalities by building wind turbines away from heavily traveled bird migration routes. They can also temporarily shut down turbines during peak migration periods in the spring and fall, and keep turbines away from core habitat where imperiled birds breed.
Our nation can accomplish great things when we have the will and commit the resources. We've sent a man to the moon. We've pulled endangered species back from the brink. Surely we can develop innovative technologies to harness alternative energy sources in a way that doesn't unintentionally kill birds. So as we quicken our march toward greater reliance on renewable energy, let's be sure to consider wildlife, too.
Darin Schroeder is ABC's Vice President of Conservation Advocacy. He has many years of Capitol Hill experience, having served as Wisconsin Offices Manager for U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) from 1993 until 2000 and then joining the staff of U.S. Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI) as Press Secretary. Darin went on to become Representative Kind's Communications Director and Senior Policy Advisor.