How will the offshore wind sector’s expansion affect biodiversity? UK Government launches major research drive

Pictured: The 400MW Rampion Offshore Wind Farm

Called ECOWind, the £7m scheme is a joint effort between the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Crown Estate, which manages the seabed of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. ECOWind is short for ‘ecological consequences of offshore wind’.

Researchers will investigate how existing offshore wind farms have affected the marine environment and forecast how an expansion to the sector will affect fishing activities and the ability to deliver nature-based projects that improve climate resilience and sequester carbon.

They will also assess how marine observations can be improved in the future, looking at the technologies that could help others, in future, assess the impact of offshore wind deployment in real-time – or forecast more accurately ahead of major projects. 

Findings will be presented to policymakers and translated into recommendations for new regulations and funding. The Crown Estate said in a statement that ECOWind’s recommendations will be based on the principles of net-zero by 2050 and net environmental gain, with a focus on marine restoration.

The launch of ECOWind comes as the UK is striving to expand its offshore wind generation capacity to 40GW by 2030 – a target first announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year and subsequently backed with funding via the Ten-Point Plan for a green industrial revolution. At the same time, the UK Government is hoping to get on track to deliver an ambition to improve the state of nature for the next generation.

ECOWind will “work in collaboration” with the Crown Estate’s existing Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme, its facilitators have said. This latter Programme began assessing future offshore wind scenarios on a national basis this spring and the results are due this autumn. Its broader programme of work will last for five years. 

“Expanding sustainable energy generation is at the heart of the Government’s [net-zero] strategy but it is important that we understand the response from wildlife and marine ecosystems to help manage this sustainably,” the NERC’s director of research and skills, professor Susan Waldron, said.

“We are incredibly proud to be supporting this investment in leading-edge research,” the Crown Estate’s manager for the Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme, Mandy King, added.

“The programme will bring together industry, government and some of the brightest brains in the academic community, who will use the power of science to help us better understand long-term environmental change to our precious marine ecosystems and the role of offshore wind in it. We are keen to better understand the opportunities for environmental benefits and gains from the use of innovative new technologies.”

Marine protection 

The UK Government has already signed the UN’s Leaders Pledge For Nature, headlined by a commitment to protect 30% of land-based and marine habitats. The Pledge was produced ahead of the 15th Biodiversity COP in China, where the commitment will be formalised in a ‘Paris-style’ deal for nature.

Biodiversity COP 15 comes after the global failure to deliver the previous Aichi Biodiversity Targets. It was due to take place in 2020 but has faced a string of delays relating to Covid-19. An online event will now take place this October, with in-person negotiations to follow in spring 2022.

According to WWF, fully protecting at least 30% of the UK’s seas could catalyse a £50bn boost for the economy and unlock 100,000 jobs. Green groups have criticised previous marine protection efforts, arguing that damaging activities like trawler fishing were still allowed at an industrial scale within protected areas. This prompted the UK Government to reassess marine protection measures earlier this summer.

Sarah George

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