Why we challenged the Forth and Tay windfarms

Here Lloyd Austin, Head of Conservation Policy at RSPB Scotland, takes us through why the organisation decided to legally challenge the Forth and Tay windfarms.  

Scotland’s seas are filled with spectacular wildlife from basking sharks to orcas, fulmars to arctic terns. The waters and coastline around the country are home to globally important populations of seabirds including iconic breeding colonies of gannets, kittiwakes and puffins, at protected sites such as the Bass Rock, part of the Forth Islands Special Protection Area, or the RSPB Scotland reserve at Fowlsheugh (also a Special Protection Area).

In October 2014, Scottish Ministers approved consents for four offshore windfarms in the Firths of Forth and Tay with a combined total of 335 turbines. RSPB Scotland had consistently raised concerns about these plans and formally objected to them, believing they posed too great a risk to the many thousands of resident and migratory seabirds found in these areas. Whilst the precise impacts of having large wind farms close to these colonies are uncertain, the Scottish Government’s own estimates were that more than a thousand gannets, and many hundreds of kittiwakes and puffins would be killed every year – an unprecedented scale of impact not just in Scotland but globally.

RSPB Scotland legally challenged these consents in January 2015. We took the difficult decision to go to Court very much as a last resort, having worked hard for several years with Government and the developers hoping to find a way forward – recognising the opportunities that offshore wind provides to help tackle climate change.

Last week, on 19th July, the Court of Session upheld our legal challenge with the Judge, Lord Stewart concluding that the consents were not lawful on a number of grounds. The Government may choose to appeal the Court’s decisions, and the consents could be reconsidered. However, at the moment, these particular windfarms as proposed cannot go ahead.

There were several points we challenged, but in summary, the Judge agreed that key requirements of the environmental assessment processes were not met, including a failure to consult properly, and a failure to provide reasons why Scottish Ministers rejected the advice of their own statutory nature conservation advisors, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee when granting the consents.

Although we welcome the judgment, we by no means relish it. 

We need to move to low carbon energy rapidly to tackle climate change – itself a major threat to wildlife – and therefore it is never satisfying to have to oppose renewable energy proposals.

However, we also strongly believe we must achieve this ‘energy revolution’ in harmony with nature. This means putting renewables in the right places, and rigorously assessing impacts. No development should be allowed to have a ‘free pass’.

We welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with us and the developers to progress renewables in harmony with nature. By no means do the Forth and Tay projects represent the entire Scottish offshore wind industry. Projects are progressing in the Moray Firth and Aberdeen Bay, and proposals are coming forward to test floating wind turbines. This technology presents a major opportunity in the longer-term, as it could enable development in deeper waters, further away from sensitive wildlife.

We also continue to support other forms of renewable energy, where Scotland has made good progress. In May this year, we published ‘The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision’, which set out a pathway for meeting our climate targets in a nature-friendly way. It showed Scotland has the capacity to increase onshore wind by three times, and solar capacity by thirty times current levels without causing major concerns for our fantastic and world renowned wildlife and habitats. This illustrates the options available for major growth in renewables to help decarbonise our energy system.

We know how important renewable energy is for Scotland and the UK as a whole, for both people and nature, and we will continue to support it. We will also continue to fight for wildlife as it faces increasing and more complex pressures. These two things can, and must, go hand in hand in a sustainable society.  



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