Insuring a nature-positive future: WWF's hydropower guide for insurers

Posted on 21 June 2022

Our planet faces a threat like no other in human history – climate change. To tackle it, we must rapidly accelerate the renewable energy revolution to reduce emissions. But we must avoid harming communities and destroying even more ecosystems in the process or we will simply exacerbate the other great global crisis – the loss of nature.
At the heart of this all-important debate is hydropower.

Long the world’s dominant renewable energy source, hydropower has provided stable, low carbon energy for communities and countries across the world but it has come at a high cost to rivers and the people and nature that depend on them.

With freshwater species in freefall and rivers under ever increasing pressure, we cannot afford to build any of the thousands of high impact hydropower projects that are still on the drawing board from the Amazon to the Zambezi.

And the insurance sector has a critical role to play, which is why WWF has launched this first-of-its-kind guide – Insuring a nature-positive world: An insurer’s guide to hydropower with the support of the UN Environment Programme’s Principles for Sustainable Insurance (UN PSI).

Insurance companies act as risk managers, insurers, and investors, and provide support for the development of hydropower projects in all three of these roles. Hydropower projects are complex and costly infrastructure projects. In most cases, private companies will not engage in the construction of new hydropower projects without insurance coverage, and private investors will insist on relevant insurance being in place before committing to invest.

Insurers, therefore, play a key role in facilitating the hydropower sector and their support will be critical in combatting harmful hydropower projects – and helping to tackle the nature crisis.

They guide details seven key actions that insurers can take:
  1. Support the transition to low-carbon, low-cost, and low-conflict (LowCx3) energy by favouring renewable energy projects that are part of an integrated, system-wide renewable energy plan;
  2. Create a company ESG policy for underwriting, and investments in, hydropower;
  3. Decline cover for hydropower projects in Protected Areas;
  4. Require an independent and credible social and environmental impact assessment;
  5. Require that stringent frameworks and standards are applied;
  6. Require calculations of a project’s greenhouse gas emissions and set a maximum threshold; and
  7. Consistently screen hydropower as a potential controversial activity in investment decision making.

By taking these steps, insurers will help to halt high impact hydropower and safeguard rivers that are vital for people and nature.

Healthy, free-flowing rivers provide diverse benefits to societies and economies from mitigating flood risks to cities to sustaining freshwater fisheries that feed hundreds of millions, nourishing floodplain fields, and keeping densely populated deltas above the rising seas. They are also one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and critical to sustaining countless freshwater, terrestrial and marine species.

But only one third of long rivers remain free flowing and most of these are at risk from planned, high impact hydropower.

If these projects go ahead, they will speed up the loss of freshwater biodiversity and undermine efforts to secure a nature-positive future. Already, we have lost 84 per cent of freshwater species populations since 1970. It is the clearest sign of the damage we have done to the rivers, lakes and wetlands that underpin our societies.

Fortunately, we can now meet global climate and energy goals without driving greater nature loss, sacrificing the world’s last free-flowing rivers, and harming communities – by investing in the right renewables in the right places.

Thanks to the renewable energy revolution — driven by the plunging price of solar and wind generation, and battery technology, alongside comprehensive planning tools for site selection — a net-zero, nature-positive future is possible. Countries can now can build power grids that are LowCx3:  low carbon, low cost and low conflict.

Low impact hydropower, including refurbishing and retrofitting existing dams, and off-river pumped storage, has a role to play. But the days of high impact hydropower – both big and small – must come to an end. Every project must be carefully screened to ensure it is part of the best energy mix for people, nature and the planet.

Climate change is also making hydropower an increasingly risky business as worsening floods and droughts threaten electricity generation and dam safety along a growing number of rivers. Indeed, an analysis using WWF’s Water Risk Filter scenarios found that 61% of existing and planned hydropower projects will be in river basins with high risk of floods, droughts or both by 2050.

WWF’s ambition is to start engaging in a dialogue with the insurance sector to raise its understanding of the risks associated with hydropower and the need to apply a very careful screening to hydropower projects to disadvantage and discourage the high impact ones.

Although we recognize that the major responsibility lies with governments, all actors, including insurance companies, can contribute to accelerating the LowCx3 renewable revolution – helping to stabilize the climate and boost biodiversity
Manso hydropower dam in Brazil
© © Jaime Rojo / WWF-US
Insuring a nature positive future: An insurer's guide to hydropower
High impact hydropower threatens freshwater fisheries that feed millions
© Martin Harvey / WWF
High impact hydropower threaten river dolphins in Asia and South America
© / Kevin Schafer / WWF