Renewable energy can achieve global climate and energy goals without damming the world’s remaining free flowing rivers, says report | WWF
Renewable energy can achieve global climate and energy goals without damming the world’s remaining free flowing rivers, says report

Posted on 13 May 2019

With thousands of hydropower dams planned across the globe, including here in the Greater Mekong region, a new report from WWF and The Nature Conservancy demonstrates how renewable energy can solve the world’s climate and energy challenge without sacrificing its remaining free-flowing rivers and the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature.
Bangkok, Thailand, 13 May 2019 - Launched on the eve of the World Hydropower Congress in Paris, Connected and Flowing: A renewable future for rivers, climate and people details the transformations that are already underway and how the world can capitalize on these opportunities to achieve sustainable power systems.

Thanks to the plunging costs of solar power, wind generation and storage technologies – as well as significant advances in energy efficiency and grid management – it is now possible for the world to expand electricity generation to provide power to the billion people who currently lack access, while drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and preserving tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometres of free-flowing rivers.

This is extremely evident in the Greater Mekong region, home to the Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong Rivers. The Mekong is the world’s most productive freshwater fishery and  delivers vital sediments to the Mekong Delta, a crucial part of Vietnam’s economy and regional food security, and home to 21 million people.

Hydropower has been a primary source of electricity for Mekong countries, but studies show that a continuation of the current hydropower trajectory would cause the loss of nearly half of migratory fish biomass and result in more than half of the delta being underwater by the end of this century.

However, recent studies have shown that low carbon, low cost power systems such as solar and wind can be introduced that do not require dams on the mainstem and the few remaining free flowing major tributaries.

“The Mekong, Irrawaddy and Salween Rivers are critical for the food security, livelihoods and homes of millions of people and are home to iconic species like giant catfish and Irrawaddy dolphins,” said Marc Goichot, Water Lead for WWF-Greater Mekong. “By investing in solar and wind power now, we can provide power and income to those millions of people at a lower overall cost and without the dangerous side effects of large scale dams like the proposed Sambor and Stung Treng dams.”

We can not only envision a future where electricity systems are accessible, affordable and powering economies with a mix of renewable energy, we can now build that future, said Jeff Opperman, WWF Freshwater Scientist and lead author on the report.By accelerating the renewable energy revolution, we can secure a brighter future for people and nature with power systems that are low carbon, low cost and low impact.

With contributions from multiple academics, the report found that accelerating the renewable energy development could prevent nearly 165,000 km of river channels from being fragmented, while still helping to limit global temperatures to below a rise of 1.5⁰ C. Along with tackling climate change, this would help slow the catastrophic decline in freshwater species populations, which have fallen by 83% since 1970.

Mark Lambrides, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Energy and Infrastructure said:A key recommendation of last week’s landmark global assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services was for governments to protect and restore river connectivity. Here we show how, for the first time, the renewable energy revolution offers an opportunity to plan for the right mix of renewable sources in power systems, while avoiding fragmenting rivers, potentially displacing communities and contributing to the loss of freshwater fisheries that feed millions.

The report comes days after a global study published in Nature revealed that just 37% of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing, with dams and reservoirs the leading cause of this connectivity loss.

While massive renewable energy development will not signal an end to hydropower development, it does herald a significant reduction in new dams and a shift towards low-impact projects, which support the expansion of solar and wind – such as retrofitting existing hydropower dams, adding turbines to non-powered dams, and off channel pumped storage.

The potential of utility-scale, low-impact wind and solar – on converted lands, such as agricultural and degraded land and rooftops – represents the equivalent of 17 times the renewable energy targets that countries have committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement and should allow almost all countries to achieve power systems that are low carbon, low cost, and low impact on nature. For example:

The report calls for governments to create competitive frameworks to accelerate the renewable revolution. Governments should also reassess their existing hydropower plans by factoring in the full value of rivers – including the ecosystem services they provide – and considering lower impact alternatives. Meanwhile developers and financiers should support more comprehensive planning to develop a pipeline of lower-risk projects.

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For more information:
Lee Poston, WWF-Greater Mekong Communications, +66 (0)918832290, lee.poston@wwfgreatermekong.org
Tom Jennings, TNC Senior Media Relations Manager +44 (0)7403 995994 tom.jennings@tnc.org

Notes for the editor:
The full Connected and Flowing: A renewable future for rivers, climate and people as well as the stand alone Executive Summary can be downloaded here

Photos can be downloaded from TNC and WWF

Key facts and figures:
  • Costs for solar and wind are now approaching US$0.05/kWh – comparable to the low end of the fossil fuel range and the average cost of hydropower.
  • Renewable sources represented two-thirds of new global power generation capacity in 2018, led by wind and solar.
  • The addition of hydropower capacity has been declining since 2013 due to the falling costs of competing technologies as well as a broader set of challenges, including high-profile cancellations, growing hydrological risks, cost and schedule over-runs, technical challenges, and increasing social resistance.
About WWF
WWF-Greater Mekong works on conservation initiatives through country programmes in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. WWF-Greater Mekong’s mission is a future where humans live in harmony with nature. The Greater Mekong is home to some of the planet’s most endangered wild species, including the tiger, saola, Asian elephant, Mekong dolphin and Mekong giant catfish. A total 2,681 new species of plants, birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles have been discovered in the Greater Mekong since 1997. To learn more about WWF’s activities, please visit us at greatermekong.panda.org

About The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.
 
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