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Preserving Freshwater Ecosystems & Tripling Renewables — With Hydropower

December 12, 2023

At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) that wraps up today in the United Arab Emirates some of the biggest voices in conservation called for countries to preserve freshwater ecosystems. At the same time, securing pledges to triple total global renewable power capacity (including increased hydropower capacity) by 2030 was a primary objective of this COP.

Both efforts gained significant traction. 38 new countries signed onto the Freshwater Challenge, an effort to restore degraded rivers and wetlands and conserve freshwater ecosystems. And a growing list of over 130 countries pledged to triple renewables by 2030.

These commitments were made against a backdrop of increased global consciousness of water’s critical linkage with climate. This year marks the third time COP has featured a Water Pavilion, acknowledging water’s essential role in maintaining a liveable planet. But there is still a long way to go to ensure that water conservation and water power are incorporated into economic and environmental policy.

The Case for Conservation

The growing focus on water at COP points to a truth that Natel CEO & co-founder Gia Schneider has been repeating for over a decade: climate change is water change. As the planet warms, the atmosphere holds more moisture, making extreme weather events like torrential rain and flooding more frequent.

This is playing out in real time as communities in East Africa continue to face death and displacement from climate change-induced rain and flooding. Asia and the United States also experienced major flooding earlier this year. Devastating events like these can be mitigated in part by conserving and restoring rivers, including reconnecting them to their floodplains which can reduce flood risk to communities by increasing a river’s capacity to hold flood waters.

Wetlands regulate water flows in floods and droughts, filter water, provide habitat, and sequester carbon. © Elisa Palazzi, via Imaggeo.

Freshwater ecosystems can temper the impact of other water-related effects of climate change, too, and contribute to climate security. Preserving coastal wetlands and mangroves allows them to serve as buffers between hurricanes and coastal communities, and restoring inland wetlands can help sequester carbon.

Even when catastrophic weather events are not looming, conserving and restoring rivers helps safeguard life, health, and economic stability. Freshwater ecosystems make up less than 0.01% of the earth’s water, but rivers supply two-thirds of our drinking water and are vital for agriculture, fisheries, transportation, and energy.

By signing onto the Freshwater Challenge, countries (including the United States) at COP28 agreed to protect and restore 30% of the world’s degraded freshwater ecosystems by 2030. This action acknowledges the value of freshwater ecosystems and ensures we can maintain the water-related health and environmental services that humans and nature need to thrive.

The Case for Hydropower

Rivers are also integral to our energy future. Hydropower, the world’s largest source of renewable energy, provides 15% of the world’s electricity. As countries work to triple global renewable energy capacity to 11,000 GW by 2030 and to double energy efficiency rates, hydropower must be part of the solution.

Hydro’s ability to provide flexible, reliable, baseload power makes it a critical component of a renewable energy grid, firming intermittent sources of renewable energy like wind and solar. Although wind and solar are projected to lead the growth of renewables toward the 2030 goal, to date no country has achieved 100% renewable energy targets without hydropower.

Low-carbon energy by source. IEA 2020.

The campaign to triple the world's renewable energy resources by 2030 was launched at COP27 by the Global Renewables Alliance, a unified international voice made up of representatives from the geothermal, green hydrogen, long-duration storage, wind, solar, and hydropower communities. At this year’s COP, the group gained rapid traction in its call to triple renewable energy — a task that is challenging, but achievable, according to recent analysis by Ember, an energy think tank.

That analysis comes on the heels of a report released in October by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the International Energy Agency (IEA), the COP presidency, and the GRA that outlines the path to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC. According to the report, hydropower would need to see the third largest capacity increase after solar and wind, growing by almost 17% from its 2022 level by 2030.

Coupling Conservation with Hydro

While waterpower and conservation have had a fraught historical relationship, there is movement to align around the common goal of combating climate change.

In November, the World Wildlife Fund and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published Building a Nature-Positive Energy Transformation: Why a Low-Carbon Economy is Better for People and Nature. The document considers the risks and impacts of the transition to renewable energy against the alternative, maintaining a fossil fuel-based system.

The authors outline two scenarios, one of Rapid Transition (RT) which limits warming to 1.5ºC in line with the Paris Agreement. The other scenario, Business-As-Usual (BAU), lays out a limited transition where countries continue to rely on fossil fuels and fail to meet climate targets. The report finds that while the RT scenario has a higher impact on free-flowing rivers due to an increase in hydropower dams, it is 2-16x better for nature and society than the BAU scenario.

Increasing hydro’s capacity while also meeting the objectives set out by the Freshwater Challenge means acknowledging hydro’s history of high social and environmental costs and charting a new sustainable path for growth.

The hydro industry is working to do this. Also in November, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) released the Bali Statement on Powering Sustainable Growth. The statement cites the industry’s prior commitment to sustainable development and calls for governments to implement policy and regulatory frameworks that match the ambitions of climate targets and calls for financial and market mechanisms to incentivize investment in sustainable hydropower.

Translating Analysis into Action

A rapid energy transition will undoubtedly impact people and nature, but we can mitigate that impact by expanding renewable power production as sustainably as possible. One way to achieve this kind of growth is to focus on efficiency improvements that make use of current infrastructure, increasing capacity without altering the footprint of an existing hydro plant.

Nearly 40% of the global hydro fleet is over 40 years old, and upgrades and retrofits will account for almost 45% of capacity growth between now and 2030. That means that there is a massive opportunity to modernize the global hydropower fleet with technologies that improve river connectivity and efficiency at once.

Natel FishSafe™ hydro turbine designs enable safe downstream passage of fish and other aquatic life. The uniquely thick, slanted blade is designed to prioritize biodiversity alongside efficient power production. © Kate Stirr for Natel Energy

Replacing aging turbines with high-performance, FishSafe designs is one way to mitigate hydropower’s impact on free-flowing rivers and the aquatic life they support, while also accelerating the transition to a renewable energy future.

By combining technological innovation with dialogue between industry, communities, Indigenous people, environmental NGOs, governments, and financial institutions, we can deliver on both the preservation of freshwater ecosystems and the rapid growth of renewable energy.

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