The European Green Deal sets out the ambition to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, while addressing other environmental challenges, boosting the economy, improving people's health and quality of life, and ensuring an inclusive and just transition (European Commision, 2019). As part of the Green Deal, the Commission adopted the EU Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy to give a strategic direction for the ambitious development and integration of offshore renewable energy by 2030 and 2050 (European Commission, 2020b).
Harnessing offshore renewable energy can produce negative environmental impacts on marine ecosystems, both on biological (flora and fauna, biodiversity, etc.) and physical components (marine dynamics, seafloor integrity, pollution, etc.), which still need to be better understand. The Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 (European Commission, 2020c) recognises the positive climate impacts of offshore energy, but at the same time recognises the potential for negative impacts on sensitive species and habitats. In addition, the environmental impacts must be evaluated on a project-by-project basis as these are site-specific. Hence, there is a need to anticipate the development of ocean energy farms by assessing the potential environmental risks, to minimize the impacts and to identify the ecosystem elements that should be focused. To allow for full biodiversity impacts to be assessed, there exists an urgent need for additional multi and inter-disciplinary research in this area ranging from engineering to policy.
The first section of the present report determines the potential interaction between different offshore renewable energy devices (i.e., wind turbines, wave energy converters, current turbines, photovoltaic and ocean thermal energy conversion systems) and ecosystem components, by identifying the pressures (stressors) and vulnerable group of species, habitats, or ecosystem elements (receptors), based on a literature review.
The second section presents the methodology and results from a risk map, or cumulative impact index, analysis made primarily using GIS software and the open-source program EcoImpactMapper. The analysis uses spatial data for ecological stressors from offshore energy production methods (i.e., wind, tidal and wave energy) with ecological spatial data to estimate areas with high cumulative environmental impact from offshore energy production. Ecosystem sensitivity maps were also produced, showing areas where many ecosystem components susceptible to stressors from offshore energy production overlap. The analysis shows that some stressors caused by offshore energy production can have a spatially large radius of effect, although the highest cumulative impacts clearly occur at the immediate vicinity of the offshore installations.
The third section gives an overview of the most relevant policies, strategies, and directives for managing the environmental impacts of the development of offshore energy, namely the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy, the Sustainable Blue Economy Strategy, the Habitats and Birds Directives, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), the Biodiversity Strategy, as well as the Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) and Strategic Environmental Assessment Directives. The next section focusses on the synergies and trade-offs between these policies and strategies. While they are generally aligned with regard to the overarching aims of climate change mitigation, biodiversity protection and sustainable economic development, there are the objectives set out in the Offshore Renewable Energy and the Sustainable Blue Economy Strategies that have potential for conflict with the objective of marine environmental protection. Following the policy evaluation, the section contains a detailed review of the maritime spatial plans of Finland, Ireland, Latvia and Belgium, which are summarised in country-specific evaluations and a comparison table. The evaluations include information about the context in which the plans were created; the MSP process; the form of the final outcome; the treatment of climate and energy as well as marine environmental objectives; how potential trade-offs between these objectives are handled; as well as the implementation of the maritime spatial plans.
The main driver for this work is to support Member States and the EU in fulfilling the 2050 vision of the Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy whilst ensuring that the expansion of offshore energy does not imperil achievement of the Biodiversity Strategy or MSFD.