The future of marine power: are we heading for collision or collaboration?
As we are grappled by the nature and climate emergency, it has never been more important to seek joint solutions for our climate, and for our habitats and wildlife too. But as we strive to pioneer renewable expansion, are we at risk of forgetting the health of our seas? A collision of priorities must not be our downfall, this is the decade for collaboration.
The UK offshore wind sector will play a central role in decarbonising our energy system, reflected in the UK government’s ambitious offshore wind targets of 50GW by 2030. This runs in conjunction with the UK government’s manifesto commitment to leave our environment in a better place than we found it and Environment Act targets to halt and reverse species decline.
The marine environment provides vital ecosystem services, storing and locking away carbon and supporting our coastal communities – but our environment is struggling. Being near the top of ocean food chains, seabirds are strong indicators of ocean health. Yet declines of the UK’s globally important seabird populations, highlighted by the State of Nature Report 2023, OSPAR QSR 2023, and the Seabird Census (2015-2021), are clear evidence that our marine environment is in a poor state. Our seas are incredibly busy places, and with the mammoth scale of offshore wind deployment there is a significant risk of collapsing this delicate ecological balance.
Nature cannot be an afterthought in the planning process, or we risk starting this sprint to a green energy future with our shoelaces tied. But this collision of priorities presents a unique opportunity. The RSPB is working alongside developers, industry and planners to ensure that nature and climate are at the forefront of decisions. Now is the time for collaboration.
The RSPB recently convened a panel discussion with some of the key marine players; The Crown Estate, Ørsted, Seabed Users Developers Group, and brought together UK and country government representatives to discuss and share views on how we can embed nature in the acceleration of offshore renewables. Trying to collectively build a “Nature Positive” vision for renewables at sea cannot be approached lightly and it was encouraging to hear from a diverse panel and audience on this epicentre topic.
We heard from Benj Sykes, Head of Environment, Consenting and External Affairs at Ørsted, who spoke of the investment of offshore wind (now in the trillions of dollars) and making it easier for some of this to go straight to nature recovery. Indeed, this mention of “recovery” was echoed by all those on the panel. We cannot simply halt decline, to prevent catastrophic losses, we must look to recover too. Gus Jaspert, Managing Director of Marine at The Crown Estate, likened our pathways to the Economic Crisis “Scissors of Doom” – which may bring back haunting memories for many of us. But he is right. With an acceleration of renewables and a decline of the environment, we reach a cross over – “it is up to us which way that opens or closes”.
The UK government must play a leading role in ensuring our seas are managed effectively. Nature Positive must be the Net Zero equivalent for nature, with robust, measurable targets and accountability. The Strategic Spatial Energy Plan is a strong step in planning our energy expansion, but why is this not a Strategic Spatial Energy and Environment Plan? The progress that has been made in this sector is good, but we cannot sit back and relax. Politicians and governments must rise to this challenge of the decade, effectively managing our seas for climate and nature.
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