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

Source: Greennews.ie

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.

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