Offshore energy structures: A Nature-based Solution to biodiversity loss?

Posted on March 11, 2021

In July 2020, IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) launched their Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions. Nature-base Solutions (NbS) as defined by IUCN are: “Actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits" (Ref 1). Examples of NbS are planting trees as a carbon offset and oyster restoration projects being carried out at wind farm locations in the North Sea (Ref 2) .

The INSITE Programme was launched in 2014 to provide a spotlight on the role of man-made (MMS) structures on the ecosystem of the North Sea. We seek to facilitate that objective by connecting industry and marine scientists and funding independent research. To-date around £10Million has been committed by INSITE and our partners NERC (Ref 3) and CEFAS (Ref 4).

Research on the role of MMS extends beyond the INSITE Programme and in 2017 a review by Fortune and Paterson (Ref 5) highlighted that evidence shows both benefits in terms of increased biodiversity and some risk in leaving MMS in place and this needs to be better understood. The benefits are also highlighted by Wright et al (Ref 6) who identified in their research at CEFAS that fish abundance increased around artificial structures. In these and other studies, the message is that in many cases, research shows that MMS have a net positive effect on the ecosystem.

We can describe the significant growth in the number of man-made structures in the North Sea by considering the wind energy production at present and planned for the low carbon future. In 2019, 22GW of European energy was generated by offshore windfarms. In 2017 this was forecast to increase to 70GW by 2030 (Ref 7), of which more than 57GW would be generated in the North Sea. Despite the fact that significant number of redundant oil and gas structures will inevitably be removed from the region over that same period, the number of MMS installed in the North Sea is set to increase dramatically in the decade ahead.

Instead of planting trees, we are ‘planting’ wind energy structures to deliver a low carbon future and have the potential for enhancing the marine ecosystem at the same time. We must fully embrace the outcomes from INSITE-related research to identify how to optimise MMS as a nature-based solution to biodiversity loss and to increase ecosystem resilience.

[Ref 1]

[Ref 2]

[Ref 3] NERC - the Natural Environment Research Council - is the leading funder of independent research, training and innovation in environmental science in the UK

[Ref 4] CEFAS - Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science; CEFAS is part of DEFRA

[Ref 5] Fortune, I. S. and Paterson, D. M. Ecological best practice in decommissioning: a review of scientific research. – ICES Journal of Marine Science, doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsy130.

[Ref 6] Wright, S. R., Lynam, C. P., Righton, D. A., Metcalfe, J., Hunter, E., Riley, A., Garcia, L., Posen, P. and Hyder, K. Structure in a sea of sand: fish abundance in relation to man-made structures in the North Sea. – ICES Journal of Marine Science, doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsy142.

[Ref 7] Wind energy in Europe: Scenarios for 2030 September 2017, WindEurope

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Richard Heard

Programme Director INSITE

Richard is Programme Director at INSITE. He began developing the governance model for INSITE in 2012 which having secured industry support, led to the launch of the Foundation Phase of the Programme in 2014.