Renewable energy production, mostly via wind, solar, and biofuels, is central to goals worldwide to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate anthropogenic climate change (IPCC, 2014; Pörtner et al., 2021). Nevertheless, adverse impacts to natural systems, especially fatalities of wildlife and alteration of habitat, are key challenges for renewable energy production (Allison et al., 2019; Katzner et al., 2019).
Because of the magnitude of these challenges, extensive effort has been invested in surveys and science to understand the environmental effects of renewable energy on species and systems. Nevertheless, these impacts have not been formally compared relative to counterfactual conditions (Bull et al., 2021; Coetzee and Gaston, 2021), i.e., those occurring in the absence of renewable energy. As such, cumulative ecological impact assessments required by many regulating agencies typically only consider the adverse impacts of renewables, without evaluating whether mitigative effects of current and planned build-out (e.g., Larson et al., 2020) will offset their adverse impacts to species and natural systems (Allison et al., 2014). Accordingly, these critical decision processes have an insufficient perspective to foster fully informed decisions, and, for some species or systems, renewable energy could lead to more profound impacts than those it is intended to prevent. Furthermore, because of this approach and, despite the well-studied benefits to society of renewable energy development (IPCC, 2014), the ecological value of renewable energy is often premised on the plausible but untested assumption that its negative effects to natural populations and systems are less consequential than the negative effects in alternative scenarios with less renewable energy and greater climate change.
A more comprehensive framing of the counterfactual in cumulative ecological impact assessments would evaluate, for each species or system, the incremental effects of renewables over their full life cycle against the incremental effects they provide by mitigating climate change. This framing is important because a given species or system may see net positive or net negative effects from either renewables or climate change. Furthermore, cumulative impact assessments could identify optimized tradeoffs that balance, for each species or system, the effects of both climate change and renewable energy.