Opinion: when it comes to offshore renewables, we need to address two crises at once

5 November 2021

Decarbonising the energy sector is an important component of limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees. But is our current approach in pursuit of offshore renewables risking the exacerbation of the biodiversity crisis?

In 2019, the Dáil declared both a climate and biodiversity emergency but at present, it seems that the focus of attention has been geared more towards the ‘climate side’ of the emergency. These are twin and interlinked emergencies that must be treated with the same level of attention and action.

The current Programme for Government (PfG) has committed to rapid decarbonisation of the energy sector with plans for 5GW of offshore wind by 2030 off the east and south coast. The PfG will also look at how to achieve 30GW of offshore floating wind in the deeper Atlantic waters. This is an ambitious commitment but the current approach to facilitating this expansion is putting the health of the marine environment at risk. 

In the last year, Ireland published its first maritime spatial plan (MSP) – the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF). Maritime spatial planning is a process where member states analyse and organise activities to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives. It is clear from the NMPF and subsequent legislation (Maritime Area Planning Bill) that facilitating the expansion of offshore renewables is a key focus of Ireland’s plan.

Within the current framework, certain activities including Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), have been left out. This means that the designation of MPAs will be dealt with through a different process and at a later date. These crucial components of a healthy and sustainable marine environment will be left as an afterthought to be fitted around other priorities rather than being planned for in unison.

This is not in line with the EU requirement to apply an ecosystem based approach to the development of maritime spatial plans. The approach is also failing to address one of the objectives of MSP which is to contribute to the “… preservation, protection and improvement of the marine environment, including resilience to climate change impacts.”

We are obligated not to push the marine environment beyond its limits and to make sure that we are acting sustainably, if we fail to do this there is a real risk that proposals for offshore renewable energy developments will end up in the courts, leading to long delays in meeting key climate action targets.

Our oceans have a critical role to play in climate regulation, mitigation and adaptation. By protecting the ocean we can increase the amount of carbon that they can absorb and store. This ‘blue carbon’ comes from seabed sediment, seaweeds and seagrass and even the wildlife that call our seas home.

The PfG recognises the role of blue carbon stating that “we will evaluate and implement plans to realise the carbon sink potential of our marine environment, based on the introduction of Marine Protection Areas”, but progress on this has been much slower than commitments on offshore renewables.

The role of our ocean in helping to address the climate crisis is often lost, with actions to protect biodiversity and the marine environment lagging behind initiatives for sustainable development or decarbonisation. For example, at present, Ireland has only designated a mere ~2.5% of our marine territory as a marine protected area. Furthermore, there is no definition of an MPA in law, nor do we have the legislation to implement measures beyond the scope of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives or the OSPAR Convention.

Healthy, diverse and resilient seas are a fundamental component of tackling both the climate and biodiversity emergency. It is vital that developments such as offshore renewables are appropriately located and that they do not inhibit the establishment of an effective network of MPAs.

Fast tracking offshore renewables in advance of pursuing our obligations to implement MPAs runs the risk of creating a lose-lose situation for nature and people. We can have offshore renewables and MPAs working to address our climate and biodiversity emergencies in tandem, but it will take ambition and political will to alter the current course we are on if this is to be realised.

If we really want to avert the worst of these twin crises and limit warming to well below 1.5 degrees then we need our ocean to be in a healthy state and ensure that any offshore developments are truly sustainable.

Ellen MacMahon is the Policy Officer for the Sustainable Water Network. You can follow her on Twitter at @ellen_macmahon.