To reach net zero we need to significantly change our energy systems, including a massive roll out of offshore wind. Unfortunately, the UK Government’s approach to deploying this technology and managing our seas jeopardises both action to decarbonise and deliver ocean recovery. Helen Quayle, Policy Officer, explains why we urgently need a new approach with joint solutions for the climate crisis and the ecological emergency.
Seabirds and offshore wind – what’s the problem?
Puffin with sandeels in its mouth - © Chris Gommersall
Offshore wind can impact seabirds, like puffins and kittiwakes, in a variety of ways during construction and operation. This includes through collision, disturbance, direct habitat loss, blocking important flight pathways (barrier effects) and loss of access to preferred foraging areas (displacement). Ultimately these impacts, individually or cumulatively via multiple windfarms and other activities and developments, contribute to increased mortality and reduced breeding success for globally important populations.
The RSPB and offshore wind
The RSPB has worked on offshore wind since development began in the UK over two decades ago. We support the deployment of this technology as part of the UK’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change – itself a major threat to wildlife. However, this transition must be achieved in harmony with nature: the right technology in the right place with enough space for nature. This approach must be informed by a robust evidence base and rigorous monitoring to assess potential impacts.
Hornsea Three – compensating for losses
We work with developers and governments to find solutions that will avoid and lessen harm to nature, and – where this cannot be achieved – we may object to the development. This was the case with Hornsea Three windfarm in waters adjacent to globally important seabird breeding colonies at the Flamborough and Filey Coast Special Protection Area (SPA) in North Yorkshire.
Our objection to Hornsea Three windfarm was accepted by the Government. However, rather than reject the scheme, the Government asked the energy company to develop a proposal for compensating for the damage Hornsea Three would do to kittiwakes – a landmark ruling for seabirds. We reviewed these compensation proposals and expressed our concerns to the UK Government, notably that no one would know how successful this unproven method would be for at least a decade.
In December 2020, the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, approved the Hornsea Three windfarm. At this final stage, the Secretary of State also accepted that compensation was needed for cabling linking the wind farm to the electricity grid that would damage vulnerable offshore sandbank habitats and prevent their restoration.
Kittiwake on its nest © Andy Hay
This decision is nothing short of a gamble with the future of our globally important kittiwakes. The Government has accepted that the expansion of offshore wind turbines in this part of the North Sea will be damaging to seabird numbers in the surrounding area and is putting its faith in an unproven compensation scheme that will attempt to balance the loss of globally important seabirds at one site by encouraging numbers elsewhere. And before we know the outcome, Hornsea Three and other projects will have been constructed, increasing the threat to kittiwakes and likely necessitating compensation for other seabird species.
We will continue to work with industry and government on further cases and the delivery of compensation to get the best possible outcomes for nature.
A symptom of poor planning
Offshore wind has a huge role to play in decarbonising our energy system. But crucially, neither how we use the marine space, nor the planning system for deployment, have changed to accommodate the UK’s increased ambition. The current approach, led by The Crown Estate outside of Scotland, does not properly tackle environmental impacts at the outset, ultimately locking developers into sites with unresolved issues.
Our network of Marine Protected Areas is incomplete and inadequately managed, and seabirds are threatened by commercial fisheries both in terms of bycatch and unsustainable harvesting of the fish they rely on for food. The sustainability and effectiveness of addressing wildlife losses through project-by-project compensation (rather than strategically across our seas) is in question and unlikely to achieve the best outcomes for nature (for example, artificial nests for kittiwakes do not ensure safe seas and plentiful food) or net zero (potential delays in planning).
Reconciling the challenge – a new approach to offshore wind deployment
Industry alone cannot reconcile the challenge of increased deployment and threats to nature. These challenges are a symptom of poor planning and must be urgently addressed by the UK Government if they are to deliver on their rightly ambitious targets for offshore wind. We are keen to work with industry and planners across the UK to support the expansion of offshore wind in harmony with nature.
Kittiwake and chick © Andy Hay
Joint solutions for climate and nature
The RSPB is pleased to be a member of the Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme and work closely with industry and government to find joint solutions. We believe that this is a huge opportunity to work together, using the research that already exists and address the urgent need to fill the gaps in knowledge so we can collectively reconcile the challenge of delivering offshore wind expansion in harmony with nature and without adding to the pressure and threats to struggling sea life including our globally important seabirds.
We also see an urgent role for government led strategic marine planning which considers all uses of the sea and prioritises space for climate and nature, creating a roadmap to 2050 targets. Action is also urgently needed to address the wider pressures facing our seabirds, deliver ocean recovery and ensure innovation and investment in mitigation measures and new technologies to avoid impacts of offshore wind on nature and secure the place of this technology in a truly green recovery.
Gannet on the cliffs © Kate Nethercoat
it would be helpful to both birds and wind farm constructors if maps could be developed of our coastline showing which zones pose least risk to seabird survival and which are critical breeding sites. The RSPB could consider producing such maps based on current research, perhaps identifying areas where more research is required. Could lottery funding be obtained for such a project?
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