Thriving seas, vibrant with wildlife, must define a healthy net zero planet. As action to decarbonise accelerates, the UK’s seas exemplify the challenges of reconciling the nature and climate emergency. World leading ocean recovery and secure renewable energy is within our grasp if we take transformative Nature Positive action, now.
Too often a forgotten wilderness, our seas are in fact a powerhouse for economic activity. UK seas supply energy and food all over the world, through oil and gas, aggregates and fisheries, alongside internationally important transport routes. The North Sea in particular has been a hub for much of this activity, but this basin, once plentiful in wildlife and extensive reef habitats, is now a shadow of its former self.
Between 1986 and 2019, the number of the UK’s globally important breeding seabirds fell by almost a quarter, and by nearly half in Scotland, their UK stronghold. As top predators, seabirds are good indicators of ocean health. Their sensitivity and vulnerability to changes in their environment, means seabirds can inform the actions needed to protect and restore UK seas. Ongoing seabird declines and the failure of UK seas to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) highlight that we are currently a long way from thriving seas, vibrant with wildlife.
As an effective, low-cost renewable technology, offshore wind at scale is vital and the only viable option to enable the shift away from fossil fuels required to meet net zero and secure affordable and reliable domestic energy supplies. The UK is a world leader in offshore wind development and has rightly set ambitious targets to expand this technology. It is vital this infrastructure is developed in ways that allow nature to recover and thrive, especially as healthy nature is also our blue carbon ally in the fight on climate change. There is also an opportunity for the essential transition to renewable energy to catalyse wider ocean recovery.
Through a collaboration of environmental NGOs and the offshore wind sector, we set out an ambitious but pragmatic approach placing offshore wind within a wider context of marine management that is good for nature, climate and people. Crucially it recognises offshore wind as a key driver to achieve positive change.
Many of the challenges are rooted in planning systems that have failed to keep pace with the evolution and scale of offshore wind as a technology, or indeed the rapid decline of seabird populations. There is therefore much to gain across the sector by updating the planning and policy frameworks for England, including as part of the British Energy Security Strategy and through the development of the Energy Security Bill, while Westminster works with the UK devolved governments to ensure a complementary approach.
The following recommendations are key to accelerating offshore wind deployment whilst taking account of nature, none of which are currently in place across the UK at the scale or level of ambition required:
- A robust and strategic ecological evidence base informing where new offshore windfarms go providing more certainty that developments are sited to cause as little harm as possible and enabling effective mitigation.
- Country level marine plans for offshore renewables (as in Scotland) to coordinate delivery of 2030 offshore wind targets and assess and manage ecological impacts at scale from the outset, including the implications of displacing other activities, such as fishing and associated coastal infrastructure.
- Impact assessments that fully identify the cumulative impacts of multiple offshore developments.
- Innovative industry standards and policy that prevent harm and better protect and restore nature.
- Robust adaptive management that enables development to proceed, with safeguards in place to monitor new mitigation measures and adapt as needed.
- Clear understanding and application of strategic compensation, that addresses the ecological needs of impacted species, habitats and protects site integrity.
- Development of an equitable marine ‘net gain’ system, enabling both strategic and site-based interventions to help drive the recovery of marine biodiversity.
To move beyond nature protection to nature recovery, much more work is needed. The Nature Positive movement reflects a global ambition to ensure that this decade is the turning point, placing nature firmly on the path to recovery. Nature Positive will require an economic transformation, moving beyond business-as-usual, to ensure that measurable actions for nature are embedded into all decision-making processes.
For offshore wind we have identified the following definition:
Nature Positive offshore wind is industry and government-led action to restore resilient seas, going above and beyond halting nature loss as part of the UK’s renewable energy transition.
In a nutshell, the scale of offshore wind deployment and our already extremely busy seas, means we cannot restore nature at sea by improving the approach to offshore wind development in isolation. Instead, the sector, facilitated by true government leadership, must also play its role in championing the wider suite of changes at sea to tackle the dual nature and climate emergency.
Decisions about which pressures and activities cease, continue and expand will be necessary as we undertake a just transition to a Nature Positive economy that works well for people, nature and the climate. Action must go beyond the offshore wind sector and the planning status quo.
Using seabirds as an example, a Nature Positive approach must include:
- Strategic, holistic and truly spatial marine planning, led by government, providing clarity for marine users across the breadth of UK seas and facilitating development alongside the achievement of GES.
- Enhancing forage fish availability notably through the closure of industrial sandeel fisheries in the UK Exclusive Economic Zone.
- Effective and ambitious monitoring and mitigation measures in fisheries to minimise and eliminate bycatch.
- The completion, and effective management, of our Marine Protected Area network to safeguard areas important for foraging and prey species.
- Seabird island biosecurity programmes that keep islands free of invasive mammalian predators.
A Nature Positive approach to our seas, and the expansion of offshore wind squarely in that context, is the standard that governments must deliver to be true world leaders in this technology. Marine wildlife, such as our seabirds, do not recognise national borders, we need to work collaboratively as part of a wider community of nations and stakeholders across our seas. We must change today to power tomorrow. We must harness the ambition of Nature Positive to catalyse ocean recovery and a truly transformative energy transition, hand in hand.