Johan Bergenas is senior vice president, oceans, at the World Wildlife Fund.
The UN climate summit in Dubai was a win for offshore wind as world leaders agreed to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 in order slash carbon pollution. This development comes as a relief for an industry that experienced serious setbacks this fall, including inflation, supply chain issues, rising interest rates, and negative press over the impact that offshore wind could have on ocean ecosystems. The path forward for this sector is to rapidly go to scale with a business model that delivers net positive impacts for nature and people. This will ensure a sustainable and just clean energy transition for more than 10 million American homes by 2030.
Let’s be clear: a clean energy future, including offshore wind, is far better for people and ecosystems than continued reliance on fossil fuels.
But let’s dig into some concerns that could contribute to the slowing down of the offshore wind energy transition. It’s true that rapidly bringing offshore wind to scale does present certain challenges. If not developed thoughtfully, offshore wind could have negative consequences for critical seabed habitats, fish populations, marine mammal populations, migration patterns and collision mortality of birds and bats, and loss or changes to traditional or cultural heritage uses of the oceans. These are all critical components for food security, jobs, coastal resilience and a flourishing marine and coastal environment. The good news is that we can avoid and mitigate some impacts through proper planning, siting projects to avoid critical habitats, and the use of new technologies to reduce noise impacts on marine mammals.
But offshore wind companies seeking to avoid objections from environmentalists and other ocean users should go a step further. Against the backdrop of a global biodiversity crisis that has seen wildlife populations decline by an average of nearly 70% since 1970, these companies have an opportunity to become partners in reversing the trend of nature loss. Developers must contribute to a “nature positive” path that delivers benefits not only to the climate, but also for nature and people. We still have time to achieve this, contrary to what increasingly widespread misinformation is telling us.
To contribute to a nature positive future, the preservation and regeneration of our oceans must be a co-equal priority with addressing climate change, in part because oceans offer climate change solutions at scale. Realizing this vision will require deep, co-produced science as part of a three-pronged approach.
First, the world needs an actionable scientific roadmap for the offshore wind sector that sets us on a path toward a nature positive future. The goal is to halt and reverse nature loss measured from a baseline of 2020, so that by 2030 nature is visibly and measurably on the path of recovery. By 2050, nature will have recovered so that thriving ecosystems and the benefits they provide can continue to support future generations. This roadmap should take a holistic approach, providing guidance for the public and private sectors that incentivizes and enables them to credibly contribute to a nature positive future. It should be science-led, informed by experts as well as by users, and complement existing guidance and frameworks.
Guidance for the ocean is sorely needed, as most of the current focus in this space is on land or fresh water. Civil society organizations, government agencies and offshore wind companies should partner on this effort as soon as possible to produce a shared roadmap that all parties can get behind.
Second, this scientific roadmap needs to be applied to all actions taken by the private, public and financial sectors throughout the offshore wind deployment process. For example, recommendations need to be standardized in offshore wind procurement policies to, among other things, require all coastal and marine spatial planning to reduce space requirements for wind farms — and mitigate associated community conflicts — by ensuring that they can share the same footprint alongside aquaculture projects or other beneficial uses. Also, energy buyers — typically state or regional utility companies in the U.S. — should encourage net-positive biodiversity outcomes. They could do so by adopting electricity procurement policies that put a priority on enhanced protection and restoration, and larger shared economic benefits with communities.
And offshore wind companies need to adopt and implement nature targets validated by the Science Based Targets Network, which provides companies with the scientific expertise needed to align their business activities with global climate and nature goals.
Third, impacts need to be tracked over time, by measuring and monitoring offshore wind outcomes — both environmental and social — in key sites. This could include tracking changes to species, habitats and the ways that people benefit from nature. There is a growing ocean data and monitoring sector that is well-equipped to serve this important function.
The natural world, humanity’s ultimate life support system, is in peril. But we now have the science capacity, the awareness and foresight to develop a holistic approach to the green energy transformation that enhances nature rather than depletes it. For offshore wind — and the renewable energy revolution as a whole — to succeed in the U.S. and around the world, we must harness its potential to not only reduce emissions, but also deliver substantial benefits for people and nature. Doing so will allay environmental concerns related to offshore wind development, smooth out processes for siting and construction, and lead to a future where offshore wind thrives as a key contributor to the net-zero future that our planet requires.