For the past 11 years, Sam Ralston-Paton has promoted renewable energy development that addresses both climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. A transition to renewable energy is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but can also present threats to biodiversity, including threatened bird species like Cape vultures and black harriers.
When Sam first began as BirdLife South Africa’s birds and renewable energy project manager, wind energy was new to the country. The capacity to undertake and review avifaunal impact assessments was limited, the methodology for pre- and post-construction bird assessments was not developed and there was no published literature on the effects of wind energy on birds in sub-Saharan Africa.
Sam has changed this. In addition to having provided advice during the site screening and EIA phases of countless wind energy projects, she was involved in developing Best Practice Guidelines, consideration of which is now required by the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment. These guidelines have received global recognition by the Convention on Migratory Species Renewable Energy Task Force and, in South Africa, helped to raise the standard of environmental impact assessments and ensure that wind farms monitor and report their effects.
Sam plays a pivotal role in reviewing this data to see which species are most at risk, and in developing additional guidance to support impact assessment, monitoring and mitigation for these species. Perhaps most noteworthy is Sam’s leadership. Examples include her roles in convening the Birds and Renewable Specialist Group and the annual Birds and Renewable Energy Forum, which brings together industry, government, environmental consultants and researchers to drive innovation that ensures a nature-friendly energy transition.
What’s been your/the organisation’s greatest achievement in your field?
We helped ensure that the effects of proposed renewable energy facilities on birds in South Africa are assessed and monitored, and that decisions are based on the best available science, so that renewable energy development is responsible and environmentally sustainable.
Please provide specific examples of how your organisation’s practices and work have a positive effect on the environment
The Birds and Renewable Energy Project has a unique, birds-eye view of renewable energy developments in South Africa. We keep up to date with relevant research, the results of operational phase monitoring, and developments with international policies and guidelines. Drawing on this knowledge, we share our insights and advice with renewable energy developers, environmental consultants, government officials, researchers, and members of the public, so that they can make informed decisions about the environmental pros and cons of proposed renewable energy infrastructure in different places. By being proactive, we reduce risks to biodiversity and to the renewable energy industry.
The black harrier is an endangered, endemic species with a small population that cannot sustain even small increases in adult fatality rates. The population is likely to become extinct in 100 years if we increase the number of adult facilities by just three a year. Early assessments for proposed wind energy facilities underestimated the risk of black harriers colliding with turbines, and the significance of this risk to the species. Thanks to the implementation of our Best Practice Guidelines, most wind farms monitor and report their effect to BirdLife South Africa. We now know that black harriers must be afforded more protection from wind turbines and are working with stakeholders to find solutions.
What are some of the biggest environmental problems faced by South Africans today?
I think that the biggest environmental challenge is the way we think. We struggle with complexity — something is either good or bad — and we fail to see how everything is interconnected. Some of us are blind to how we, our economy, our communities and our cultures are so closely intertwined with nature. Others of us struggle to see that without healthy economies and communities, where everyone has enough and benefits are shared, our environment will suffer. Debates become polarised so quickly, but at the end of the day we all have similar hopes and dreams for the future.
Our theme this year is Celebrating Environment Heroes. What do you believe could be the repercussions for millions of people in South Africa and the continent if we do not tackle problems exacerbated by climate change, encompassing issues like drought, floods, fires, extreme heat, biodiversity loss, and pollution of air and water?
People are already suffering. It is too overwhelming to even think about what could happen if we don’t tackle these problems — urgently.