Finding synergies between renewable energy and ecosystem services

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Ecosystem services are the many different benefits that humans derive from the natural environment and from ecosystems, such as clean air and crop pollination, but also leisure and relaxation. However, these services are at risk from climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution, soil erosion and deforestation.

The term 'Ecosystem Services' first came to prominence after the United Nations’ 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which set out four categories of services:

  • Supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, primary production (the synthesis of organic compounds from carbon dioxide) and pedogenesis (soil formation);
  • Provisioning services for food, fresh water, fibre and fuels;
  • Regulating services for climate, flood and disease regulation, as well as water purification;
  • Cultural services for spiritual, aesthetic, recreation and education purposes.

The threats to our environment will have profound effects on our society, as human health and well-being, as well as long-term sustainable economic growth, are dependent on good environmental conditions and the provision of ecosystem services. Their degradation will impact on the provision of food, clean water and natural resources, safety from disease and social cohesion.

The challenges faced by our environment go hand-in-hand with efforts to decarbonise the energy sector, which links with land-use, use of resources and air quality. Public authorities across Europe are promoting policies and instruments to increase the use of renewable energy, with intrinsic links to ecosystem services. Policy-makers need to be aware of the frequent trade-offs and synergies between them when making governance frameworks and policy interventions.

Sharing solutions – IRENES

The IRENES project (‘Integrating renewable energy and ecosystem services in environmental and energy policies’), led by the University of Venice, is enabling interregional exchange and knowledge sharing to examine the relationship between renewables and ecosystem services, and then integrate their findings into European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) Operational Programmes and other energy policy instruments.

Good Practices

As part of their exchange of experience, the project partners are identifying good practices from across Europe to inspire their action plans. Some of the most interesting and promising include aspects featured below. 

  • Rewetting bogland in Lower Saxony

The municipality of Schwanewede, in Lower Saxony, is part of the Osterholz district’s project to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2030. As part of this process, the company Energiequelle GmbH installed a wind farm of six 3MW wind turbines, able to cover 13% of the municipality’s electricity and power 12,000 households.

In installing the wind farm, Energiequelle also sought to restore the surrounding land to its natural state. The land, drained bogland of 12 hectares, was owned by around 80 landowners, who agreed to their land being withdrawn from their use and restored – much of it could not be used for agriculture, representing, instead a burden for the owners. Energiequelle established twenty-year leases for the land, with landowners receiving rents and discounted energy. Other residents and businesses can also benefit from discounted energy.

Rewetting the bogland by using dams and afforesting 3,000 square metres will bring new ecosystem services to the region. Specifically, restoring the bogland prevents the release of carbon dioxide from further drainage and degradation. In the long-term bogs and forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, and bring biodiversity as certain plants and animals live in bogs, such as mosses which require acidic soils, but also amphibians, dragonflies, and butterflies.

  • Carbon offsetting with lowland forests

The Lowland Forest Association (Associazione Forestale di Pianura, AFP) is the first Italian association of lowland forest owners, aiming to support sustainable management of forest resources. This includes increasing the market outlook for forest products and developing new wood value chains, including for bioenergy application, and supporting the ecosystem services of forests, from acting as a carbon sink, to providing recreational use.

As well as managing member forests sustainably, in line with a Forest Management Plan that regulates environmental aspects, the association also enables individuals and companies to pay for tree planting to offset emissions. The AFP estimates that each Italian citizen would need to plant seven trees a year to offset their impact, and citizens and businesses are targeted with communication campaigns. Buyers can choose the park or forest in which to plant their tree, with options available in Italy, but also in Brazil, Burkina Faso and Vietnam. 

  • Revitalising a former mining site

Returning to Lower Saxony, the city of Stadthagen, in the district of Schaumburg, was home to the Georgschacht coal mine from 1902-1960, with the surrounding area later made into a centre for businesses working in metal construction. These businesses themselves largely closed by the 1980s, leaving a post-industrial landscape. However, the ecosystem started to recover, with the emergence of protected species, such as the natterjack toad, skylarks, great grey shrikes and blood linnets.

Now, the city and BürgerEnergieWende Schaumburg are looking to turn the area into a solar park as many residents in the city are not able to install solar panels due to their homes being under preservation orders. As well as the solar panels, the project would involve installation of rainwater management systems to support the toad populations, creating spawning pools to encourage breeding, and integrating historical monuments for an information centre. In future, it is also expected that electrolysis units will be installed for creating sustainable hydrogen from water, powered by renewable energy.

For further information on IRENES and to access their good practices, visit the project website. For more on eco-system services, see the Policy Briefs on Supporting local bioenergy development, and on

, and the write-up from the Workshop on Developing healthy and prosperous urban eco-systems.

Q&A: Professor Francesco Musco, Università IUAV di Venezia

What was the rationale behind the IRENES project?

Low-carbon policies and the development of renewable energy sources are challenged by the complexity of their interactions with other land uses. The project was developed to fill the gap in the field of environmental concerns of exploiting Renewable Energy Sources (RES) within environmental and energy territorial policies. Current policy instruments addressing measures and strategies related to RES development aim to enhance the rate of RES exploitation to reach the EU targets, but environmental synergies and impacts of RES development at the territorial level are still not operationally assessed in the ERDF and energy territorial policies. 

What long-term impact will IRENES have?

Through a series of comparative case studies in Italy, Germany, Estonia, Romania, and the UK, and co-learning activities among partners, the IRENES project is examining trade-offs and synergies in the environmental impacts of renewable energy projects in order to improve regional development policies and programs through the preservation, valorisation, and enhancement of the provision of multiple Ecosystem Services (ES). The project looks at this relationship from a land-use perspective and critically analyses the complexity of their interactions.

IRENES adopted learning by doing and a knowledge co-production approach and builds on policy engagement fundamentals, where policymakers and stakeholders of the addressed policy instruments are directly and constantly involved and consulted in all project phases. IRENES’ priority is to communicate and hold dialogue with policymakers, and not to policymakers, during the project. As science advice plays an increasingly important role in the formulation of territorial policies and related decision-making processes, the consortium was defined as a coalition of institutional and technical partners to trigger knowledge transfer and use scientific evidence on RES and Ecosystem Services (ES) co-relation to inform regional and national governors, structural funds managers and policy implementors committed to the project as project partners and stakeholders. 

Thanks to the knowledge transfer and lessons learned from the exchange of experiences at the transnational level between the scientific and institutional partners engaged in IRENES, the environmental and socio-economic aspects, generally considered only at the scientific level such as trade-offs and synergies between RES exploitation and ES, will be integrated within policy instruments to address RES development in a more sustainable way. 

What key messages do you have for other regions to learn from your project work?

Firstly, consider “science advice” in policy design and decision-making processes and establish a learning-by-doing collaboration with academic organisations that may help you define more sustainable and climate-oriented territorial policies;

Secondly, engage stakeholders in the project's key activities from the very beginning and keep them involved over the lifetime of the project. The more committed they are to the project, the more they feel a part of the project’s actions and active contributors to its results – that must be strictly related to the target territory needs, challenges, and goals. IRENES puts a lot of effort in engaging the local communities in its actions and creating joint project ownership through the Local IRENES Knowledge Accelerators  - local IRENES communities of stakeholders established in each target area that coordinate at the local level, joint policy co-learning, and knowledge transfer processes, for regional and local public authorities and other relevant actors.

Third and final, there is a need to produce synthetic data and support decision making and planning. Thus, general concepts and superficial understanding keeps the theory far from implementation in the praxis as much as complex assessments that require a level of capacity that is lacking in the staff managing and designing energy policies and strategies at local and regional level. Finding a “medium point” (synthetic data) enables decision makers and planners to bring the information into policies and plans. 

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