8. A Post-Petroleum Future: What Does it Mean for Conservation?

Energy use puts humans at a substantial advantage over all other species. From the time our ancestors first were able to convert carbon to energy through the use of fire, energy use has been a critically important part of our relations with the rest of the environment. Fire kept us warm in winter, enabled us to cook food, helped to clear undergrowth to facilitate hunting, and enabled us to become more active at night. Subsequent harnessing of water to run mills, wind to propel sail boats and turn wind mills for water pumps and grinding of grain, and so forth, helped to convert other forms of energy to enable humans to expand our ecological niche, as well as our population. Coal powered the industrial revolution, and remains the dominant source of energy in many countries (the United States, China and India, to mention just a few). The widespread use of oil in the 20th century led to numerous new applications of energy, including great mobility through automobiles and airplanes.

When oil prices reached US$ 147 per barrel in the summer of 2008, many conservationists were torn between jubilation and despair. On the jubilation side, this oil price spike clearly indicated how dependent our modern societies have become on petroleum, and emphasized the need to start thinking seriously about an alternative energy future. Many thought that this spike was a symptom of “peak oil”, the time at which half of the available petroleum has been produced, meaning that oil supplies will decline from that point (Deffeyes, 2005). If demand for oil remains high, oil prices should remain high, hopefully driving investment in alternative energy sources which are far less damaging to the climate. In the event, oil demand fell, but the price spike served as a warning that alternatives need to be sought.

The concern over oil prices should be considered in the context of projections of energy demand. The World Energy Outlook 2008 predicts a 50% growth in demand for energy by 2030 with 70% of that increased demand to come from developing countries, 30% from China alone (OECD/IEA, 2008). While fossil fuels are expected to form the majority of the energy mix for the next few decades, now that oil is showing signs of depletion, it is timely to consider other energy options. These considerations are driven by concerns over climate change, energy security, and equitable distribution of benefits from energy.

All of the available energy choices have the potential for impacts on biodiversity. For example, fossil fuels are most associated with contributing to climate change and air pollution, with consequent impacts on nature. However, we should also consider the direct impact of oil spills on aquatic and marine ecosystems and the indirect impacts through the development of oil fields and their associated infrastructure and human activities in remote areas (such as Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge) that are valuable for conserving biodiversity.


Energy efficiency

By far the quickest, cheapest and only option that does not have negative impacts on the environment is energy conservation – using less energy, both through simply reducing consumption and by making production processes more efficient. Japan, for example, uses only about 10% as much energy per unit of economic output as China. High oil prices clearly demonstrated that conservation is very feasible, covering everything from using public transport to using more energy-efficient appliances to providing better insulation for buildings. Individuals can also make significant energy savings. Energy efficiency and conservation should remain the first response to dealing with a post-petroleum future, with multiple benefits for everything from carbon emissions to energy security and biodiversity.

Alternative energy sources


Though nuclear power fell out of favour during the latter part of the last century, nuclear is back on the table now with high oil prices and climate change. Proponents argue that nuclear is very clean in terms of its impact on climate, has proven its effectiveness in the countries that use substantial amounts of nuclear energy (such as France and Switzerland), and could be greatly improved by drawing on new technologies. However, “clean” does not necessarily mean “green”. Opponents raise the eternal concerns of waste disposal and risk of proliferation and consequences for global security, high capital costs, inherent dangers of a melt-down, high requirements for water for cooling, and the inescapable reality that the main feedstock, uranium, is a non-renewable resource (with associated mining impacts) and is in scarce supply. New advanced types of reactors such as breeder and pebble reactors may be a partial response to the latter concern, but have not yet proven their technical viability and any commercial use is far in the future. Furthermore, the true cost of nuclear energy is very difficult to determine because development costs are seldom considered, nor are the costs of decommissioning reactors and disposing of nuclear waste. In addition, nuclear power seems to require high levels of government support. For example, nuclear power in the United States is eligible for up to 32 different types of subsidies and is one of the most inefficient ways of abating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Earthtrack, 2008).


Biomass is an ancient energy form. Currently, more than 2.5 billion people worldwide depend on traditional forms of biomass such as wood, charcoal and animal dung for lighting, heating and cooking (OECD/IEA 2008), which can represent more than 90% of primary household energy demand in many developing countries. The use of traditional biomass for energy per se is not necessarily unsustainable; but the rate and method of use can cause environmental and health issues. The initial euphoria over industrial-scale biofuel production is being tempered by the realization that land used for producing biofuels may be diverted from other important uses, including food production. Biofuel crops are typically grown as monocultures, a strategy that is inherently risky, as pests and diseases are far more likely to spread quickly in monocultures than in polycultures. IUCN and the Global Invasive Species Programme have cautioned about the risks of invasives in biofuel plantations. Further, the perceived climate benefits from biofuels are proving ephemeral and many may actually do more harm than good, depending on how and where the feedstock is grown (Howarth and Bringenzu, 2009).

“By far the quickest, cheapest and only option that does not have negative impacts on the environment is energy conservation.”

The biodiversity impacts of biofuels can be significant. Interestingly, many characteristics of biofuel crops are shared by invasive species, such as fast growth, high productivity, adaptability to a range of soil and climatic conditions and resistance to pests and diseases. Nipa palm, for example, has invaded and colonized over 200 square kilometres of the Atlantic coast of Nigeria and can produce far greater biofuel per hectare than sugar cane, according to some experts. All introduced crops for biofuel production should therefore be treated as potentially invasive until proven otherwise. While simply harvesting existing problem invasive species such as water hyacinth, Lantana camara and nipa palm may present an interesting option for biofuel feedstocks, however it will not control them and may pose a perverse risk that markets are created for such invasive species, encouraging their spread and further damage to biodiversity.

In Resolution 4.082, IUCN called on governments who choose to develop large-scale or industrial bioenergy to implement and enforce criteria for the ecologically sustainable, socially appropriate and economically viable production and use of biomass, that:

The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels has developed 12 principles that frame guidance for more sustainable development of biofuels in the future (RSB, 2008), and the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) has provided guidelines on how to govern the risks posed by biofuels (IRGC, 2008a).


Hydropower provides 2% of the world's primary energy demand and is the dominant source of renewably produced electricity (World Energy Outlook, 2008). Most hydropower potential has been fully exploited in developed countries, with the remaining water systems often being protected. However, large growth is expected in developing countries. Some countries, such as Nepal, Lao PDR and Congo, have the potential to be the “batteries” of their respective regions, due to steep mountains and vast water systems. However, many hydro dams are fiercely contested due to their restriction of water flows in river basins and the knock-on impacts for livelihoods such as fisheries, as well as the displacement of biodiversity and communities for the creation of reservoirs.

To find a way to balance the environmental and social risks with the creation of renewable energy, IUCN is engaging with the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum, which aims to establish a broadly endorsed sustainability assessment tool to measure and guide performance in the hydropower sector, drawing from the World Commission on Dams (which IUCN helped establish). IUCN gives particular focus to encouraging the hydropower sector to sustainably manage upstream watersheds and to implement environmental flows that maintain downstream ecosystems and the services they provide to people.

IUCN works on projects throughout the world that demonstrate the importance of maintaining flows in all river systems including those with dams. For example, in the Huong Basin in Vietnam, a flow assessment made clear how changes in the river flow affected both economic returns and ecosystem health. Basin authorities were able to determine which options accommodated economic goals while protecting downstream ecosystems and their services. The application of environmental flows enables integrated decision-making about use of water within the limits of availability to meet priorities for economic growth, sustainable livelihoods and conservation, thereby increasing the sustainability of water infrastructure including hydropower.


According to the Global Wind Energy Council, the total installed wind power capacity for 2009 stood at almost 120,798 megawatts (MW) worldwide. Capacity has been growing at 25% annually for the past few years. The United States recently overtook Germany with the highest total installed capacity at 25,170 MW, equivalent to a fifth of world capacity. Germany has 23,903 MW, and Spain has 16,754 MW. China is also rapidly expanding its wind capacity with 12,210 MW, overtaking India with 9,045 MW. A critical factor in the successful development of wind energy is appropriate government support, often involving feed-in tariffs, subsidies or tax breaks to promote cleaner forms of energy.

Both birds and bats are victims of wind farms, usually through collision with turbine blades. Among birds, nocturnal migrating passerines were reported to be most susceptible and among bats, migrating tree-roosting species were more susceptible (NRC, 2007). Reasons for high mortality in bats range from tree-roosting species being attracted to the tall pylons of wind farms to potential increases in insect availability because of land-use changes associated with construction of wind farms to attractions to the sounds created by the turbines and collapsing of their lungs due to abrupt changes in air pressure (Kunz et al., 2007b). To manage the potential impacts of wind farms on nocturnal birds and bats, Kunz et al. (2007a) have published guidelines to guide construction and operation of such sites.

On the positive side, the land associated with on-shore wind farm areas can continue to be used for farming or as a biodiversity reserve, depending on the wishes of the affected communities. Similarly, advocates of off-shore wind farms suggest that they will benefit fisheries by providing a “protected area” for fish breeding. However, some initial studies have indicated that the vibrations generated by wind turbines can disturb at least some species of fish and marine mammals. Therefore, the assumption that marine wind farms will benefit fisheries remains to be demonstrated in practice.


Though currently only meeting 0.1% of energy consumption worldwide, the potential for photovoltaic solar power is very large, especially in countries with lots of sunshine. The solar power sector is the fastest growing for power generation, ranging from new advances in small photovoltaics incorporated into buildings up to large-scale solar-concentrating thermal towers. While land use and access of local communities to large-scale solar developments is a current cause for concern, the main barrier to wider introduction of solar power is the high investment costs. Furthermore, the semi-conducting materials used to make new generation solar cells require mined minerals such as gallium and indium; both are extremely rare, and this suggests that for most efficient use, solar developments should be concentrated in countries with the most abundant sunshine. Elevated solar installations may nurture the growth of grass and herbs under their shelter, thereby providing habitat for at least some species.

“Energy efficiency and conservation should remain the first response to dealing with a post-petroleum future.”


While Iceland is the leader in geothermal energy, providing 26% of total electricity demand, many countries have geothermal potential. New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan and Russia have notable potential. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (2007) reported that with a reasonable investment in research and development, geothermal energy could provide the United States with 100 gigawatts (GW) of power in the next 50 years. Interestingly from a development perspective, the Rift Valley in East Africa has a potential for 14,000 MW through geothermal yet only 200 MW is currently captured with Kenya leading in the region, currently providing 14% of its electricity (Economist, 2008). Environmental impacts are negligible.

Wave and tidal

The ocean has tremendous amounts of energy through the power in its waves and tides. Numerous ways of capturing this energy are being considered. The United Kingdom is the leading investor, with a strong policy to encourage ocean energy. For example, the 10-mile wide tidal barrage being proposed for the Severn estuary in south-west England would harness the second largest tide differential in the world to generate 5% of the United Kingdom's electricity requirements, equivalent to eight typical coal-fired power stations. But it will also affect local wetlands and bird reserves. This example demonstrates that coastal ecosystems already have many and sometimes conflicting demands and, as a consequence, are some of the most degraded ecosystems.


Societies need energy in order to survive and prosper. Yet access to affordable and sustainable energy still eludes many parts of the world. Elsayed (2009) reports that for more than 30 countries, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, less than half the population has access to electricity (Figure 8.1). A map of countries relying on solid fuels (traditional fuels such as wood, dung, agricultural residues and coal) is almost the mirror image of Figure 8.1 with heavy dependence in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia (Elsayed, 2009).

Figure 8.1 Percentage of population without access to electricity (Earthtrends 2009 (www.earthtrends.org) using data from Human Development Report 2007/2008)

Use of traditional forms of energy poses a particular threat to women and children. Traditional responsibilities for collecting fuel and water mean time and physical effort expended by women and girls in gathering fuel and carrying water rather than going to school or generating income. Many women and girls also suffer from health problems related to gathering and using biomass fuels. Women are exposed to a variety of health hazards from cooking over poorly-ventilated indoor fires, including respiratory infections, cancers and eye diseases. Smoke from poorly ventilated indoor fires accounts for almost two million premature deaths per year. Replacing low quality fuels such as traditional biomass with more efficient fuels such as kerosene, natural gas, modern biofuels or electricity can do a lot reduce the health impacts from smoke and physical exertion that disproportionally affect women and girls (UNDP, 2004).

Energy options, therefore, need to be considered against the background of environmental and associated livelihood costs and benefits when setting the design criteria for new energy forms. Many options are being considered for a post-petroleum future, some more sustainable than others. Though all sources of energy have impacts on the environment it is important assess the full costs and benefits to promote the most equitable, efficient and sustainable options. However, only energy sources that depend on the sustainable harnessing of environmental resources have the potential to be truly renewable, and efforts should be focused on enhancing the role that the environment can play, while recognizing the limits.

IUCN has called for all stakeholders and donors to provide the support necessary to enable development and implementation of ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and economically efficient energy systems in support of sustainable development (IUCN Resolution WCC 4.081).

Given the challenges faced by increasing energy demand at the same time as we are experiencing increasing climate change impacts we need to work urgently towards a transition in our energy future. First and foremost, we should promote energy conservation as part of any conservation plan and any new approach to energy. Each of us should take steps to conserve energy – avoiding unnecessary travel, turning off lights, air-conditioning, computers and other electrical items when not in use, etc. But, in addition to energy efficiency we will need to explore other options. We will need to invest in more comprehensive strategic environmental and social assessments of various energy options, including accurate cost/benefit analyses. As we are doing for biofuels and wind farms, we should promote development and implementation of guidelines for all energy options with respect to their environmental impact. Sustainable development will depend on it.

< previous section  < index >  next section >