Joseph M. Kiesecker | An Island Press author

Joseph M. Kiesecker

Joseph M. Kiesecker is Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Lands Team, in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Why Kill a Snow Leopard Conservation Ranger? Energy Sprawl and Land-Use Conflict

View from a mountain top in Khan Khentii Protected Area, Khuh Nuur, Mongolia. Photo © Nick Hall

A mysterious and untimely death is not what first comes to mind when I think about wildlife conservation. But the death of conservation ranger...

View from a mountain top in Khan Khentii Protected Area, Khuh Nuur, Mongolia. Photo © Nick Hall

A mysterious and untimely death is not what first comes to mind when I think about wildlife conservation. But the death of conservation ranger Lkhagvasumberel (Sumbee) Tumursukh, who worked with the Mongolian Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation, is a mystery indeed.

Sumbee was a promising young researcher; originally from the water-rich Khuvsgul province of Mongolia, he had taken to the arid lands of the Gobi desert, where he worked, as his second home. His body was found November 11, 2015, in Lake Hövsgöl in his home province, and his death was ruled suicide-by-drowning.

But some are not satisfied with that finding. And whatever the ultimate cause of his death, over the past two years Sumbee had been attacked on at least three separate occasions by individuals fighting his attempts to enforce protected area laws at Tost Uul, a mountain range in the Altai Mountains in the Gobi Desert.

The High Stakes of Land Use Conflict

In my previous piece on energy sprawl, I focused on the tenuous balance between energy access and conservation, especially in regards to renewables like wind and solar with large land footprints. But all forms of energy development can produce conflict. In Mongolia, this manifests as a struggle between mining and conservation. The Tost Uul area boasts both wildlife and mineral riches: its steep slopes are home to Argali and Ibex, the top prey of snow leopards, but the mineral wealth beneath the surface also leave it criss-crossed with mining leases.

Around the time that Sumbee was attacked, the move to make Tost Uul a national protected area was gaining traction. Tost Uul was already a “local protected area,” but national designation would bring additional management restrictions and a level of permanent protection that would require an act of parliament.

Due in large part to the support of the local community, in 2016 Tost Uul and its surrounding area—1.6 million acres, an area larger than the state of Delaware—received national protected status. The elevated status would make developing the area’s mineral resources difficult, if not impossible.

A massive dump truck used to haul earth and ore out of Oyu Tolgoi Mine’s pit in the Gobi Desert Region of South Central Mongolia. Photo © Nick Hall

The Perfect Recipe for Conflict

Unfortunately, similar conflicts are playing out all over the world. The world population is predicted to approach 9 billion by 2050, with global demand for energy, food, minerals and other resources skyrocketing as a result. Unsurprisingly, the development required to meet these demands is likely to have significant impacts on the natural systems that support both human and wildlife populations.

Read the rest at National Geographic.

Minding the Gap: Energy Sprawl and Access in India

Solar panels adjacent to an elementary school in Antelope Valley. © Dave Lauridsen for The Nature Conservancy
Solar panels adjacent to an elementary school in Antelope Valley. © Dave Lauridsen for The Nature Conservancy

On my very first trip to India I experienced some of its most iconic and most infamous sights – tigers and traffic. I was lucky to see some beautiful wildlife, but it was while sitting in traffic that I snapped the photo that most resonated with me: a woman along the road carrying fuel wood on her head. After sitting in traffic for over an hour, our driver decided to backtrack and take a different route; 10 kilometers back, I spotted the same woman still carrying her wood.

This is not, unfortunately, a rare phenomenon—globally, 1.2 billion people are without access to electricity. Almost 300 million of the people in India—a quarter of the population—go without access to electricity, and around 66% (815 million) use wood or other biomass for cooking, the majority of them living in rural areas.

Lack of access to electricity is one of many factors than can ensure that the poor stay poor—and stay sick. Firewood can turn the air inside your home far more toxic than what you’d breathed in an industrial city. The World Health Organization estimates that over 4 million people die prematurely every year from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with wood and other biomass fuels.

This is obviously a global development and human rights issues—but why is this an issue that a biodiversity conservation organization should be concerned with?

By 2050, there will be between two and three billion more people on our planet than there are today, and they will all need food, water and energy. If that energy comes from fossil fuels, it accelerates our already dangerous climate trajectory. Meanwhile, those who still lack access to electricity will continue to turn to readily available fuels like wood, exacerbating unhealthy conditions and contributing to forest degradation—another major source of carbon emissions.

It is imperative that we ramp up renewable energy development in order to expand access while reducing emissions. At the same time, we also have to keep in mind that all forms of energy have tradeoffs. Wind and solar farms have significant land footprints, while the transmission lines required to connect to our power grid can further fragment habitats. If we are not careful, our attempts to meet climate change emission targets and close the energy gap could create a new problem—a pattern of “energy sprawl” that accelerates land-use change and conflict.

New Delhi, India. India is one of many countries that will have to balance improved energy
access against the threat of sprawl. Photo © Ian Shive/Tandem Stills+Motion

What then are we to do?

One option is to curb demand by decoupling economic growth and well-being from cheap energy. This could be done by reducing usage, increasing efficiency and adding new technologies for energy storage and transmission. But even the most optimistic projections of social change and energy innovation cannot halt the short-term need for energy development. For example, India seeks to generate 40% of its power from renewables by 2030, and that cannot be achieved without massive new solar and wind installations.

But we have an opportunity to get this right. In the forthcoming book Energy Sprawl Solutions, my colleagues and I provide a roadmap for a renewable energy future that preserves functional and connected ecosystems. Central to the solution is to get ahead of the problem by sketching out ways to reduce the damaging aspects of energy footprints and to compensate for it in places where it’s inevitable.

Read the rest at National Geographic

Energy Sprawl

Growing energy demand could threaten 20 percent of the world's remaining natural land by 2030. But one TNC scientist has a vision for getting the energy we need without sacrificing nature.


Growing energy demand could threaten 20 percent of the world's remaining natural land by 2030. But one TNC scientist has a vision for getting the energy we need without sacrificing nature.


Part of petroleum's footprint is visible at the Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands--the largest port in Europe. © George Steinmetz/National Geographic Creative

We all have places that we identify with, places that we’ll never forget, places that we can’t imagine will ever change. As a college student just starting my career as a scientist in the early 1990s, I spent time exploring the Pawnee National Grassland and enjoying the view of the buttes—two striking sandstone hills that rise from the vast, pan-flat grassland of eastern Colorado.

When I returned in 2007, a few years after I started working as the director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming, I was stunned by what I saw. The entire place had been transformed by wind turbines and natural gas drilling. When I parked at an overlook and gazed off toward the buttes, the view now included about 300 wind turbines dotting the Plains. And the surrounding parts of the National Grassland, which is managed by the USDA Forest Service, were marked by more than 60 oil and natural gas wells and all the roads that connected them.

I wondered, of all the vast, open expanses across the Great Plains, why is it that this place, my place, ended up on the chopping block? Is the wind that much better there? Is the natural gas that much more abundant? Even if it is, there has to be some way to pack the infrastructure closer together, to give it a smaller footprint on the landscape.

Today, as the lead scientist working for TNC’s Global Lands Program, I see the phenomenon of “energy sprawl”—widespread energy infrastructure development—as one of the most fundamental challenges that nature and humanity face in the coming decades. By 2030, an area at least the size of Minnesota could be converted to meet the projected energy needs in the U.S. alone. Around the world, we’ve estimated that 20 percent of the world’s remaining natural lands are under threat from energy development. To put that in perspective, that’s an area roughly the size of Russia.

GREEN ACRES: By 2040, U.S. wind power will require an area the size of South Dakota. But if we consider building only on already-developed land, like these Texas farms, the country has nine times the space needed. © Joel Sartore/National Geographic Creative

Last year, the global community came together to recognize that we need to rein in emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases. Since the energy sector represents the single largest contributor to climate change, many countries have agreed to phase out the dirtiest fossil fuels, such as coal, and they are increasingly turning to natural gas and renewable energy supplies, including wind, solar and biofuels. But the harsh reality is that these cleaner energy sources have a much a larger footprint on the landscape than coal. According to our estimates, it takes more than twice as much real estate to power a lightbulb from a solar development than from a coal mine. Wind energy takes seven times as much land. Biofuels? We would need to clear nearly 50 times the amount of land we would use for coal.

Climate change is a global challenge that society needs to address, but, in the process, we don’t want our solution to create another problem. By 2040, renewable energy sources like hydropower and biofuels are projected to double, while wind and solar will be 10 to 30 times our current capacity. If a country has set carbon goals for itself, clearing wild land for renewable energy development could create a carbon deficit that takes time to balance out. Globally, energy sprawl threatens hundreds of millions of acres of lands and hundreds of thousands of miles of rivers. Africa and South America, which still have the largest remaining areas of wild land, are also facing the greatest risk of being developed. Currently, only 5 percent of these lands are under strict protection in the form of parks or nature reserves.

At TNC, we’re trying to face the challenge of energy sprawl by recognizing that a renewable energy future without a plan is not necessarily a green one. The idea is to get ahead of the problem by sketching out ways to reduce energy sprawl and to compensate for it in places where it’s inevitable. First, we try to encourage development to occur on agricultural lands, industrial areas, former mine sites and other converted lands. To avoid the need for new transmission wires, new wind and solar projects should make the most of existing transmission capacity from large retiring nuclear, coal or gas plants. Second, we work with governments and energy companies to come up with regional energy plans that avoid wild lands. Third, we promote siting energy production as close as possible to the places where it will be used, which sometimes means on the very rooftop of the house it will light up.


ENERGY PLAN: Future demand for energy could mean more land will be used for energy generation and, if we continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, much more carbon will be emitted. It could take a heavy toll on wild lands as seen in this surface mining operation for coal taking place in West Virginia.© Robb Kendrick/National Geographic Creative

By helping to direct new development toward degraded lands or rooftops, we believe we can safeguard biodiversity, help the climate and smooth the development of renewable energy sources. In 2010, for example, our team in the Mojave Desert—a hot spot for solar development—mapped out the region’s most biologically diverse and unspoiled places. The maps have helped protect key habitat for species like the desert tortoise by steering industry development away from these locations. But our team also helped identify 1.4 million acres of previously developed or degraded sites that are well-suited for solar in the Mojave (old ranchlands, mines and the like). The Bureau of Land Management has already approved three proposed utility-scale solar energy projects in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Clark County, Nevada. The projects, which will generate a combined total of 480 megawatts of electricity on 3,083 acres, made it through the review phase in less than 10 months, less than half the length of time it has taken in the past.

We’re not just doing this with solar power. In Kansas and Oklahoma, for instance, TNC and its partners created a framework for power companies to select energy that comes from wind farms that are sited away from threatened ground-nesting birds, such as the greater and lesser prairie chicken. Our freshwater team has applied this strategy to rivers, such as the Penobscot in New England: We were able to tear down dams and reopen the main river to fish migrations without losing any electricity generation because the utility was able to retrofit dams far upriver to generate more power. In Europe’s western Balkans we are moving toward more comprehensive energy planning, working to figure out ways to use wind and solar on disturbed lands to eliminate the need for new hydropower altogether.

The key to making this approach work is by starting early to collaborate with governments and industry in order to come up with regional plans that keep as much biodiversity intact as possible. In 2008, for instance, Mongolia was experiencing an uptick in energy development in the form of mining for coal and uranium, as well as drilling for natural gas. Government officials came to us for help in balancing this development with the country’s commitment to set aside 30 percent of its lands for conservation. Mongolia has some of the world’s largest wild grasslands, the Eastern Steppe, along with Central Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi, where snow leopards prowl the mountains. (I spent two weeks looking for them, but didn’t spot any!) The government ended up using our analysis to protect more than 58,000 square miles across Mongolia—that’s an area the size of New York.