In the race to reach net zero we must not forget nature, like the puffins and kittiwakes calling our cliffs and seas home. Unfortunately, the technology set to play a vital role in the shift from fossil fuels is being planned in a way that jeopardises both nature and net zero – so, how can we achieve a net zero future without harming our seabirds?

Atlantic puffin on cliff top – Ben Andrew (rspb-imges.com)
Atlantic puffin on cliff top – Ben Andrew (rspb-imges.com)

 

The state of our seas – puffins in peril

Every summer our seas and shores come alive with seabirds nesting in globally important breeding colonies. The UK is home to over 8 million breeding seabirds. For some, like the Manx shearwater, our coasts and seas support significant proportions of their global population, around 90%! Unfortunately, there is not always enough food (e.g. sandeels) for these birds to rear their chicks and this is driving huge declines.

Everything we know about the state of our seas tells us they need our help; stronger protection from harm and actions to allow recovery. However, the threat from poorly planned offshore wind threatens both the protection and future of our seabirds.

 

Offshore wind – what you need to know

Windfarms are measured in gigawatts (GW), 1GW could power around 110 million LED lightbulbs. Currently, across the UK seas, we’re generating around 10GW from offshore wind farms. The UK Government has rightly set ambitious targets for offshore wind by 2030; low carbon renewable technology needed to decarbonise our energy systems. If we are to reach the Government’s 2030 target, an additional 30GW must be installed during the next nine years. And this is just the beginning; the Climate Change Committee have advised that in order to reach net zero by 2050, we must deploy 100-140GW of offshore wind.

The scale of threat has been recognised by the UK Government, however the measures coming forward to make good the losses do not go far enough to turn the tide for seabirds.

Northern gannet pair courting on cliff edge – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Northern gannet pair courting on cliff edge – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

 

Seabirds and offshore wind

Offshore wind farms can impact seabirds in a variety of ways; collision with the turbine blades (e.g. kittiwakes and gannets), disturbance (e.g. red-throated divers), direct habitat loss, blocking important flyways (barrier effect) and preventing access to preferred foraging areas (displacement). The threats from multiple offshore windfarms alone threatens our sealife; combined with the pressure from fisheries, climate change and other development, there is a real risk that we will lose our seabirds.

 

A problem with planning 

It is important to note that offshore wind has largely expanded in the absence of any robust marine planning. Successful marine planning would mean spatially managing activities at sea following an ecosystem-based approach, which is currently not the case. This has resulted in a disjointed approach to marine activities and a decision-making process that is struggling with the scale and rate of development. This outdated system now jeopardises nature and climate. For example, the current approach for offshore wind development, led by The Crown Estate (exc. Scotland), fails to adequately address ecological impacts at the outset ultimately locking developers into sites with unresolved issues. Furthermore, marine spatial planning in England, a process proposed following the Marine and Coastal Act (2009), is not currently spatial (i.e. it does not identify areas of the sea where development can and cannot take place – as is the case with planning on land). Spatial planning is a very basic requirement which would guide development to the least sensitive areas and identify which activities could share space providing important clarity for industry and investors.

 

Silhouetted razorbill at sunset – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Silhouetted razorbill at sunset – Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

 

World leadership?

The UK has a global responsibility for seabirds and is seen as a world leader in offshore wind. There is both challenge and opportunity; get it wrong and we risk losing our seabirds and the race for net zero. Get it right and we can establish a gold standard for offshore wind to share worldwide, shifting from a legacy of damage to healthy seas for people, climate and nature. Getting it right is going to take a new approach. The key issue surrounding spatial planning needs to be addressed strategically and not left for the offshore wind sector to deal with alone – the pressures from human activity, how we compensate for ecological losses and generate overall marine net gain all need to be addressed. We’re calling on the UK Government to lead the way on international cooperation by establishing a North Sea forum to facilitate international cooperation and tackle these big issues at scale. Ambition for net zero and nature commitments must now be translated into meaningful action.

With your support the RSPB, along with multiple partners across the North Sea coastal regions, are working together to transform the deployment of offshore wind, ensuring measures are put in place that make a difference for seabirds alongside offshore wind development. This will require technological innovation to avoid harm from the 2050 pipeline and urgent research to identify the least sensitive areas of sea for future development.

At the same time, governments must act to address the impacts emerging in this decade, ensuring strong protection remains and nature positive outcomes for seabirds are achieved. This will require ambitious, new approaches to how we plan and manage activities at sea. If done right, this could facilitate bigger and better outcomes for nature and climate.

Anonymous