hydroelectric dam Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Energy, Economics, and the Environment

Even with massive expansion in solar and wind power, most forecasts assume that meeting global climate-mitigation goals will require a 50% increase in hydropower capacity by 2040. But free-flowing rivers are essential to the health of communities, local economies, and ecosystems.

LONDON – To secure a low-carbon future and begin to address the challenge of climate change, the world needs more investment in renewable energy. So how do we get there? No system of power production is perfect, and even “green” power projects, given their geographic footprint, must be managed carefully to mitigate “energy sprawl” and the associated effects on landscapes, rivers, and oceans.

Hydropower offers one of the clearest examples of how the location of renewable energy infrastructure can have unintended consequences. Dam-generated electricity is currently the planet’s largest source of renewable energy, delivering about twice as much power as all other renewables combined. Even with massive expansion in solar and wind power projects, most forecasts assume that meeting global climate mitigation goals will require at least a 50% increase in hydropower capacity by 2040.

Despite hydropower’s promise, however, there are significant economic and ecological consequences to consider whenever dams are installed. Barriers that restrict the flow of water are particularly disruptive to inland fisheries, for example. More than six million tons of fish are harvested annually from river basins with projected hydropower development. Without proper planning, these projects could jeopardize a key source of food and income generation for more than 100 million people.

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