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Human infrastructure in 80% of global biodiversity sites, study finds

At least three-quarters contain roads while hundreds face new extractive or fossil fuel energy developments in future.

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General view of Grangemouth oil refinery

Human infrastructure is present in at least 80% of the world’s most important sites for biodiversity, according to a new study.

The most common types found were roads, power lines and urban areas while many sites face further extractive industries such as mines and fossil fuel infrastructure being built in future.

Researchers from BirdLife International, WWF, the RSPB and the University of Cambridge looked at a global network of areas internationally recognised for being critical for wildlife – known as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).

They found that among 15,150 KBAs, three-quarters contained roads and more than a third contained power lines and urban areas.

They also discovered that potential developments could lead to an additional 2,201 KBAs containing mines (a 292% increase), an extra 1,508 KBAs containing oil and gas infrastructure (a 72% increase) and a further 1,372 KBAs containing power plants (a 589% increase)

Human infrastructure is one of the main drivers of threats to biodiversity, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has said, causing habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, increased hunting and the spread of invasive species.

Ash Simkins, a University of Cambridge zoology PhD student who led the study, said: “It’s concerning that human developments exist in the vast majority of sites that have been identified as being critical for nature.

“We recognise that infrastructure is essential to human development but it’s about building smartly.

“This means ideally avoiding or otherwise minimising infrastructure in the most important locations for biodiversity.

“If the infrastructure must be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible and the impacts more than compensated for elsewhere.”

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The researchers found roads to be the most common form of infrastructure in KBAs, present in 75% (Steve Parsons/PA)

Publishing their work in the journal Biological Conservation, the researchers overlaid maps with data on different types of infrastructure categorised as transport, dams and reservoirs, extractives, energy, and urban areas.

Energy and extractives were the only categories for which some global data on planned developments were available.

The regions with the highest proportion of planned extractive development in KBAs are South America, sub-Saharan, central and southern Africa and parts of south-east Asia.

All of the KBAs identified in Bangladesh, Kuwait, the Republic of the Congo and Serbia face the potential of extractive industries being developed.

The researchers also said the renewable energy drive, which requires mining for precious metals used in solar panels, wind farms and batteries, must take care to minimise its impact on biodiversity.

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The researchers warned that renewable technology, which relies on precious metals, may result in more mines being built in areas with valuable biodiversity (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

The study’s co-author Dr Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife and University of Cambridge research fellow, said: “At the UN biodiversity Cop15 meetings in Montreal last year, governments committed to halting human-induced extinctions.

“Widespread destruction or degradation of the natural habitats within KBAs could lead to wholesale extinctions, so existing infrastructure in KBAs must be managed to minimise impacts and further development in these sites has to be avoided as far as possible.”

The researchers said infrastructure can vary in how it drives a loss of biodiversity and that more work is needed to study its effect in individual KBAs so more can be learnt about how to mitigate it.

Wendy Elliott, deputy leader for wildlife at WWF, said: “Infrastructure underpins our societies, delivering the water we drink, the roads we travel on and the electricity that powers livelihoods.

“This study illustrates the crucial importance of ensuring smart infrastructure development that provides social and economic value for all, whilst ensuring positive outcomes for nature.

“Making this happen will be the challenge of our time, but with the right planning, design and commitment it is well within the realms of possibility.”

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