Just before New Year, offshore wind farm developer Ørsted’s 2.4-gigawatt Hornsea 3 project was given the green light by the U.K. government. But the project highlights the potential conflict between climate-change mitigation and nature protection.

A decision on the project had been scheduled for October 2019, but concerns over its impact on bird life, and how to mitigate it, forced a delay.

Located off the North Yorkshire coast, the development is close to several European designated nature sites, including the Flamborough and Filey Coast Special Protection Area, home to kittiwakes, an endangered seabird.

The government acknowledged that the project, and others in the area, could have a “population-level effect” on the kittiwake, but has approved Ørsted’s plan to compensate for predicted bird deaths by installing artificial nesting structures onshore. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a U.K.-based nature conservation group, says the success or failure of such an effort will be unable to be determined for at least 10 years.

With an updated target of 40 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, U.K. seas could soon become crowded. Wildlife and conservation campaigners submitted a letter to the government in November to stress the need to plan the U.K.’s sea space more strategically to ensure that action on the climate emergency does not have the unintended consequence of worsening an ecological emergency.

Accounting for cumulative offshore wind impacts

Groups including The Wildlife Trusts, Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace and the RSPB contend that the current U.K. planning and consenting regime for offshore wind and other marine activities is inadequate. Offshore wind developers obtain consent from the secretary of state for energy, following examination of the proposal by the Planning Inspectorate. A separate government body, the Marine Management Organisation, has a role in advising on applications and enforcing marine licenses.

But this system does not account for the cumulative impact that multiple offshore wind farms could have on wildlife and ecosystems, according to Joan Edwards, director of public affairs and living seas at The Wildlife Trusts. Nor does it properly consider the location for cabling infrastructure, which is the element of offshore wind that has the most potential to damage ecosystems, she said.

Damage from cabling connecting existing wind farms to shore has been identified in The Wash, an estuary on the eastern coast designated as a European Special Area of Conservation due to habitats such as mudflats and salt marsh, in an official assessment by the government’s nature adviser Natural England.

Salt marsh has huge potential for carbon sequestration. “The minute you start digging salt marsh up, you're doing the opposite of what you're trying to achieve by generating renewable energy,” Edwards said in an interview.

She stresses that the conservation sector supports offshore wind but wants to see a holistic plan for use of the seas. “Offshore wind has a huge role to play in climate-change mitigation. But let's stop, slow down, plan it properly and make sure we’ve got both a good offshore wind farm for the energy industry and a really healthy marine environment,” she says.

Offshore wind sector eyes "environmental net gains"

The government and industry have recently formed several groups to collaborate on the issue. In November, the government announced the Offshore Wind Enabling Actions Programme, a £4.3 million ($5.9 million) initiative under which the energy and environment departments will work with the offshore wind industry to better understand environmental impacts and remove barriers to development.

This was followed in December by a new partnership between the U.K. government and the Crown Estate, which grants leases for the right to develop offshore wind, called the Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme, to consider environmental issues and interactions with other industries and activities around the coast and at sea.

Also last year, a ministerial delivery group on renewables was announced that will consider the need to protect the marine environment and work on a strategy to better coordinate offshore energy networks began. Scotland and Wales have their own working groups.

Edwards said that industry is cooperative on the issue but is critical of the lack of government action so far. “The government is very good at rhetoric, but we want to see action. I'm on all sorts of working groups set up by industry and regulators, and it's all talk, talk, talk,” she said.

Alicia Green, policy analyst for planning and environment at trade body RenewableUK, said that the groups have only recently launched, with funding allocated and recruitment completed. She is confident that there will be more action this year. A recently published energy strategy and a plan for a green industrial revolution should also focus the efforts, she believes.

“Leading up to this point, there has been engagement, but it's been trying to map out where everyone's priorities are. I think that now that we've got a clearer picture of the scale and pace required, the engagement will ramp up to match that,” she told GTM.

Industry attitudes have shifted from an approach centered on building with minimal impact on the natural environment to one seeking to actually improve it, she added.

“There are conversations about environmental net gain, how we compensate for cumulative impacts and how can we take a more strategic approach to deliver biodiversity enhancements across the system as a whole, where everyone is collaborating to create that change rather than trying to tackle it in a piecemeal approach," she said.

The same issue exists at a European-wide level. In November, the European Commission published an offshore renewable energy strategy that acknowledged that such developments would only be sustainable if they don't adversely impact the environment. More in-depth and systematic analysis of potential cumulative impacts on the marine environment is needed, the report found.

By the end of March 2021, member states must publish final maritime spatial plans to indicate where new concession zones for offshore wind will be located, under what criteria they will develop and operate, and information about their environmental impact and permitting process.

Mattia Cecchinato, offshore and sustainability analyst at WindEurope, said that offshore wind farm sites provided opportunities for nature restoration since they are no-go areas for fishing and other industries that disturb the seabed. “After 30 years of no one touching the seabed, offshore wind farms can become de facto conservation areas,” he said in an interview.