Europe and Central Asia
8 Oct 2014

Connecting Energy, Protecting Nature

By Ivan Scrase

"Won't protecting nature just slow down getting the investments we need? Are our renewables targets realistic if we have to follow your recommendations?"

This question came from Luc Bas, who heads up the Brussels office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in response to my presentation at the launch of our new report Connecting Energy, Protecting Nature in Brussels yesterday. This is a report on grid development we wrote for BirdLife Europe with a colleague at the European Environmental Bureau.

Luc was then promptly appointed as the 'Darth Vader' character we needed to inject some tension into the debate that followed. 'Jaws' might have been a better film reference, as the debate was in a "fishbowl" format - a new approach for most of us, but thankfully not for BirdLife Europe Director Angelo Caserta. He entered the bowl as a resident big fish, along with Ana Aguado, Secretary General of EDSO for Smart Grids.

In a fishbowl debate four to six seats are arranged in the middle of the room, and people from the audience join and leave the centre to add to the ongoing debate. Antonella Battaglini, CEO of the Renewables Grid Initiative, which kindly organised the launch event, maintained diversity in the bowl's ecosystem. We heard from representatives of DG Environment, National Grid and REE (the UK and Spanish grid operators), Europacable (whose members make the wires that connect up our power systems) and anyone else who volunteered or got harpooned by Antonella.

Our report argues that building the energy infrastructure that Europe needs to tackle climate change must be approached with wildlife and nature in mind. In particular it addresses the energy "projects of common interest" (PCIs) which the EU selects and promotes as the highest priority investments. The PCIs benefit from 'streamlined' permitting procedures and access to EU funds. As flagship EU projects, it's vital these projects are showcases for a joined up approach that serves all Europe's objectives, including environmental sustainability.

We want the risks of birds colliding with power lines, loss of habitats to hydro pumped storage facilities and pollution risks with gas transport to be assessed, discussed openly and taken into account in decision. Development of the first list of PCIs in 2012-13 fell well short of this, but significant progress has been made in the right direction since.

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Luc Bas, of course, turned out to be a friendly shark, but the debate still had plenty of bite. Two issues emerged clearly for me. First, while there are ways to protect nature and get environmental NGOs behind grid projects that are clearly needed, people who live in the places where new lines are planned are another matter. This unfortunately creates a 'nature versus people' dynamic on the ground - a local expression of the outdated (but all too alive) 'nature versus economy' thinking that survives in the minds of some senior political leaders.

Second, Europe needs a vision and a project for a sustainable energy system. As long as EU infrastructure plans remain a patchwork of national priorities, and regulation continues to be implemented in an incomplete and inconsistent way across Europe, progress will be slow, inefficient and difficult. With no real vision and no attempt to inform and inspire the public, opposition on the ground will persist and unnecessary or damaging projects will continue to come forward.

Our report makes recommendations for everyone involved - for the EU, national governments, industry, regulators and NGOs. As one fish in the bowl pointed out, "on Spaceship Earth there are no passengers, we are all crew". By working together we hope to help Europe to deliver the infrastructure we need in harmony with nature. And, to answer the opening question, BirdLife supports streamlining delivery of essential infrastructure, so long as this does not mean cutting corners on environmental protection - so quicker rather than slower delivery is the common goal.

Read the report Connecting Energy, Protecting Nature


Dr Ivan Scrase is Senior Climate Change Policy Officer at the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK)

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.