The ban on killing endangered species is turning into an ‘absolute obstacle to planning’ new wind farms in Germany. Now, the wind lobby wants to water down conservation laws protecting endangered species.
The wind power industry can hardly erect any new turbines because of a flood of complaints. The ban on killing endangered wildlife is turning into an “absolute obstacle to planning” – extrapolated death figures show that tens of thousands of birds are affected.
When the wind power industry presented its interim results at the end of July, the shock waves sent far beyond the eco-electricity scene: in the first six months of the year, only 35 new wind turbines were added in Germany. The German Wind Energy Association (BWE) actually considers it necessary to build more than 1400 turbines per year in order to achieve the national renewable energy targets by 2030.
The German government has been alarmed. It had just set itself the 65% target of renewable electricity by 2030. Now wind energy, the most important driving force behind the green energy transition, is at risk of falling away just when young climate activists are dominating the headlines and citizens’ climate fears prove to be important for the election. Federal Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) has therefore convened a “wind energy summit” this Thursday.
The wind power industry has very precise ideas as to what this meeting must decide in order to get their business going again. Most wind farm projects fail because of complaints from forest and bird conservationists and the lack of permits under species protection law. The ban on killing endangered wildlife under Section 44 of the Federal Nature Conservation Act has developed into an “absolute obstacle to planning” from the point of view of the industry. At Altmaier’s Wind Summit, the industry wants to remove this obstacle.
It is not often that an eco-industry, of all industries, demands that conservation laws should be softened. After all, the “Progress Study” already estimated in 2015 that the then 12,841 wind turbines in the North German study area were responsible for the deaths of 7865 buzzards, 10,370 ringed pigeons, 11,843 mallard ducks and 11,197 gulls within one year.
Victim numbers such as these happened although the nature conservation authorities had a say in the approval of the wind parks. In view of the thousands of dead animals, one could conclude that the officials were not exactly overly strict. But that is exactly what the German Wind Energy Association claims.
Many of the criteria are a matter of interpretation
In an “action plan”, the wind lobby speaks of an “often exaggerated, disproportionate interpretation of species protection”. This, they demand, must be ended as quickly as possible: “Species protection must be properly applied in harmony with wind energy”, the association demands. And from the lobbyists’ point of view “appropriate” means explicitly: “In case of doubt for wind energy”.
After all, doubts are common. The question of when exactly a species is endangered and what part traffic, agriculture or wind power plays in its existence is a scientific grey area. The question of how close a wind farm may be to breeding grounds until the legal criterion of an “increased risk of killing” is fulfilled is also a matter of interpretation.
If, however, the prescribed investigations do not produce clear results in individual cases, the action plan states that “in case of doubt, wind energy should be chosen because of the considerable public interest in a climate-friendly and thus species-protection-friendly energy supply”.
“In case of doubt for wind energy” is a practical motto for the industry also because it can generate doubts at will itself: According to current regulations, wind power investors pay for the bird-watching survey themselves and can choose the appropriate expert accordingly.
Birdwatchers thus have a certain financial incentive to simply look the other way when the breeding site of a threatened bird endangers the client’s project: One wants to be recommended finally still further. Other people with reservations would no longer have a chance against a favour appraisal, if in case of doubt wind power was chosen anyway.
If the approval practice of the authorities changes in this sense, the obstacle of species protection for the wind industry is largely removed. But the windmill lobby is demanding even more: If the ban on killing cannot be avoided in the approval procedure, an exception should be granted. After all, there are “compelling reasons of overriding public interest” for the expansion of wind power. In order to ensure this, the state ministries are to stipulate in legal ordinances that wind power projects are, by definition, always “an exceptional reason in the urgent interest of climate protection”.
The unique privilege of a species protection carte blanche justifies the industrial sector in its action plan with a catchy equation: “Expansion of wind energy is climate protection, and climate protection is species protection”. Scientists and lawyers, however, consider this final justification of the wind power primacy to be questionable and question both parts of the equation at the same time.
Martin Gellermann, a lawyer specialising in planning and environmental law, refers to up to 250,000 bats and thousands of birds that die each year at wind turbines: “If the use of wind energy has such consequences, it is quite bold to present it as a means of species protection.”
Germany’s share of global CO2 emissions is about 2.1 percent, while only about three percent of the primary energy consumption responsible for this is covered by wind energy, Gellermann points out: “The contribution to global climate protection is therefore very modest and certainly does not justify a public interest in German wind power that could justify letting the interests of species and biodiversity protection, which is a constitutional right, take a back seat in case of doubt.”
In detail, the demands of the wind industry “do not stand up to scrutiny in accordance with the relevant EU and international law anyway”, the lawyer says, because: “In substance, the protection of individuals of endangered animal species enshrined in current law is to be relativised here through a community-based consideration”.
Martin Kment, Managing Director of the Institute for Environmental Law at the University of Augsburg, has similar reservations. There are exceptions to the ban on killing: beavers that destroy dikes or cormorants that empty fishing grounds could be hunted under certain circumstances.
Such concrete, spatially limited exceptions “cannot, however, be derived in the case of wind power on a blanket and comprehensive basis,” says Kment.
“In principle, a comprehensive privilege for wind power must never lead to the extinction of a species so that small advances can be made in favour of the climate”.
Even the basic assumption that climate change threatens biodiversity is not universally accepted by all scientists. The evolutionary biologist and ecologist Josef Reichholf, for example, believes:
“Climate protection has little to do with the protection of species, and in Germany it has almost nothing to do with it.”
Climatic change is “completely secondary for us compared to the main cause of species endangerment, agriculture, in particular massive overfertilization and the use of poisons”.
Especially many of the endangered species on the “Red List” are heat-loving species. “The warm summers of recent years have been favourable for many rare species,” says Reichholf.
“The wind power industry uses the fears stirred up in the public eye and pushes species protection forward in order to conceal its own interests – to say the least, this is highly dubious.”
This time the wind lobby cannot expect any backing from the otherwise often well-meaning nature conservation associations. “The role of wind energy as a hazard factor for certain populations of birds and bats is simply played down or negated, existing scientific findings ignored or twisted,” says the Nature Conservation Association of Germany (Nabu) which criticises the wind industry’s action plan. The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), which knows both the needs of climate policy and the wind industry “does not share many demands” either. There is “no need” for exceptions to species protection, it says.