Long read

From decline to restoration: navigating the offshore wind biodiversity opportunity

Ocean decade image for website


04 Mar 2024


Daniel Smith – Offshore Wind Biodiversity Solution Owner

Healthy coasts and oceans are profoundly important for society. However, our activities over many decades have led to an unprecedented decline in the diversity of living creatures and their habitats. Following global agreements to protect oceans, the offshore wind sector is leading the transition to biodiversity-positive project development.

First things first: what does ‘biodiversity’ mean?

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth, encompassing different species, genetic diversity within species, and the vast array of ecosystems.

Every ecosystem is a community of organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. It includes living (biotic) elements such as plants, animals and microorganisms, as well as non-living (abiotic) elements like soil, waste and climate.

Ecosystems exist in various forms and sizes. For instance, water-based ecosystems may range from small ponds to vast seascapes.

Why is biodiversity important?

It’s widely accepted that having a diverse workforce and a broad service portfolio makes a company stronger and more resilient. Similarly, biodiversity has the same positive effect on ecosystems and the ecosystem services that underpin our societies. These include:

  • Provisioning – food and water production;

  • Regulating – carbon dioxide sequestration, pollution decomposition and disease management;

  • Supporting – nutrient cycling and oxygen generation;

  • Cultural – opportunities for recreation and enhanced spiritual well-being.

What is threatening biodiversity?

Healthy ecosystems are finely balanced. However, there is now scientific consensus that many are going out of balance, resulting in biodiversity loss worldwide. This, in turn, negatively affects the resilience of human societies and other species’ population.

The declining biodiversity within many coastal and marine ecosystems has multiple intertwined causes, with human activities such as overfishing and pollution, along with climate change altering the abiotic conditions of ecosystems, being the main contributors.

This loss of biodiversity is setting off alarm bells, not least because it reduces the ocean’s ability to mitigate climate change. It’s a vicious circle: climate change accelerates biodiversity loss, which, in turn, reduces carbon absorption, further accelerating climate change.

What's the remedy?

There is no magic wand, but transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy is the only viable way to avoid the worst effects of climate change and minimise biodiversity loss. These changes help to maintain clarity and emphasises the importance of transitioning to clean energy.

Big plans are already in place to build the offshore wind infrastructure necessary to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7, which prioritises affordable and clean energy for all. This goal is geared towards ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy sources. It focuses on expanding access to clean and renewable energy sources, enhancing energy efficiency, and encouraging investment in energy infrastructure and technology. In alignment with these objectives, targets have been set  to deliver an additional 380 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 and an impressive 2000 GW by 2050.

That’s a lot of offshore wind to design, construct, and operate, which creates an enormous opportunity to leverage investment to observe our oceans to restore marine ecosystems.  

In fact, recent research by the Economist Impact World Ocean Initiative into the value of ocean observation data shows that offshore wind provides the single largest value-adding area of all marine-centred climate change mitigation activities – equal to the value of ocean observation data in green shipping, other ocean renewable energy, marine carbon dioxide removal, and blue carbon combined.

Biodiversity at offshore wind farm graphic

Biodiversity at an offshore wind farm

How do offshore wind projects interact with nature?

In comparison to many marine activities, offshore wind projects are generally benign. Over the past twenty years, one after another, environmental assessments have shown relatively low levels of negative effects.

That being said, offshore wind developers consistently assess and monitor five main elements of marine life:

  • Bird life is a common concern due to the height of turbines. Some sites have compulsory shut-downs during key migration periods, and studies are beginning to prove that many birds avoid turbines.

  • Intertidal habitats, found between low and high tide lines, include rocky shores, sandy beaches, and muddy estuaries. These areas can potentially be affected by cable landfalls and changes in sediment transport. They are also highly noticeable to local communities and are crucial for ensuring support.

  • Fish travel in and out of offshore wind sites without regard for permitted boundaries. Fishermen claim that the projects reduce the area they have to fish, but evidence shows that excluding fishing and reef creation has a positive effect on fish populations.

  • Marine mammals can be exposed to higher levels of underwater noise from various human activities, including ship movements, some geophysical activities, and installation of concreate foundation piles. Although climate change poses the greatest threat to marine mammals, assessing, observing, and mitigating the effect on marine mammals are incredibly important to the offshore wind sector.

  • Ecology on and in the seabed can potentially be affected by the installation of foundations, cables, and scour protection around them. Although the impacts are generally found to be low level, understanding the wide area and cumulative effects is important because many marine creatures rely on microorganisms living in the seabed and habitats on the seabed.

Although offshore wind projects generally have a limited impact, the scale of each project and the scale of the industry create an opportunity to enhance biodiversity. However, this opportunity is not without its challenges.

What are the challenges involved?

At Fugro, we’re an active member of the United Nations Global Compact, particularly within the Offshore Renewable Energy working group, biodiversity-related working groups for WindEurope, RenewableUK, and the Powering Net Zero Pact – Biodiversity Working Group. These workshops and debates have deepened our understanding of the challenges that offshore wind developers face in keeping their construction schedules and budgets on track while also implementing their company’s new biodiversity net gain policies.

On every project, developers are now walking a tightrope while also juggling a range of tasks, including the following four:

  • Financial management – delivering projects on time and within budget to ensure the underlying project business case remains viable.

  • Market considerations – not only delivering more offshore wind projects but also prioritising which markets to focus on.

  • Risk exposure – managing exposure to various risks, including delays due to stakeholder opposition, supply chain bottlenecks, and the capitalisation of early phases of project development.

  • Social impact – maximising societal benefits through local employment (balanced against international supply chains) and environmental enhancement (balanced against practicalities of project delivery within budget).

With a finite number of skilled personnel, equipment and vessels available, and now with the added complexity of biodiversity net-positive requirements, developers face an even more challenging balancing act.

The transformation has begun

Those working in the offshore wind sector do so not because it is easy, but because it is hard. We all recognise the challenges, but we also understand that these challenges can and are being overcome.

The global community took a major step at COP15 in Montreal back in December 2022, when a landmark agreement known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was reached. The Framework’s Theory of Change stresses the need for rapid action: “Urgent policy action is required globally, regionally and nationally to achieve sustainable development so that the drivers of undesirable change that have exacerbated biodiversity loss will be reduced and/or reversed to allow for the recovery of all ecosystems and to achieve the Convention’s vision of Living in Harmony with Nature by 2050.” 

Taking up the baton, European offshore wind developers have already launched biodiversity net-positive policies, including Orsted, RWE, Vattenfall and SSE Renewables. Similarly, many major suppliers, including Fugro, have embraced these policies.

Although companies vary in their level of commitment at this stage, a common aim is for all new projects commissioned from 2030 (essentially, all projects currently in development) to be biodiversity net positive. This marks a giant leap forward for the offshore wind sector.

Obstacles and temptations

Offshore wind developers face numerous obstacles and temptations along their path, including:

  • Jargon – a proliferation of new terms, such as ‘net-positive impacts on biodiversity’, ‘nature net-positive’, and ‘biodiversity net gain’, along with a long list of acronyms has begun to creep into offshore wind discussions. This jargon can alienate communities, leading to disengagement from conversations, permitting delays, and costly misunderstandings. Clear, simple, jargon-free communication is key.

  • National and regional guidance – Despite increasing policy at government and corporate levels, there is still a lack of clear guidance on what constitutes a sustainable seascape at national or regional levels. This guidance should include a shared understanding of the species or habitats to focus on regionally and why they are suitable measures of biodiversity improvements. Our project to map seagrass along the entire length of the Italian coast exemplifies the level of data needed to develop this understanding.

  • Measurement – Without national and regional leadership, companies struggle to acquire appropriate baseline data, design interventions, and plan monitoring to demonstrate positive cumulative effects. Measuring anything at sea is expensive due to the need for rugged equipment and vast deployment and maintenance distances. Careful commissioning is necessary to avoid exorbitant costs.

Instead of waiting for guidance, Fugro is integrating ecological data measurements into existing campaigns. For example, we are developing visual and eDNA sampling technologies to deploy from our Blue Essence® uncrewed surface vessel and Blue Volta® electric powered remotely operated vehicle, enabling ongoing monitoring of ecology during asset inspection campaigns.

  • Sharing data – Despite the vastness of the ocean, individual offshore wind projects are relatively small. However, with plans to build 2000 GW of offshore wind, over 200 GW of it in the North Sea alone, there is a unique opportunity to observe the ocean like never before.

Organisations like the European Marine Observation Date Network (EMODNet), of which Fugro is a partner, are leading efforts to collate and make marine data available. Our contributions to Seabed 2030 have been facilitated through EMODNet’s data services.

Sharing data across projects will significantly contribute to our understanding of wide-area biodiversity damage or enhancement. The Ocean Stewardship Coalition recently published guidance on this recommending data-driven approaches to understand holistic marine spatial planning, increased standardisation, incentivizing data and knowledge sharing, and collaboration across regions, sectors, and marine stakeholders to enhance best practice.

The mitigation hierarchy

The mitigation hierarchy outlines the steps necessary to achieve biodiversity-positive outcomes in project development. The ultimate goal of such projects is to leave the area in a better state than it was found. While some argue for targeting pre-industrial levels, this goal is admirable yet practically immeasurable due to ongoing human activities shifting baselines.

In contrast, the offshore wind sector is adopting the Mitigation Hierarchy as recommended by the Cross Sector Biodiversity Initiative, drawing from lessons learned during the Environmental Impact Assessment process. The hierarchy consists of four key steps:

  • Avoidance – the first and most important step involves avoiding any potential impacts by conducting thorough environmental baseline studies, creating detailed maps, engaging in consultations, and designing out potentially harmful activities. Developing an integrated earth model of the seabed, metocean, and ecological conditions can aid in this process.

  • Minimisation – the second step is to design projects based on robust data and consultation to minimise potential impacts that cannot be entirely avoided. Where necessary, mitigating activities through additional management techniques should be implemented. For instance, using a lower energy piling hammer to reduce underwater noise and installing additional bubble curtains plus marine mammal observation can mitigate the remaining potential impacts.

  • Restoration – this step involves the most important remedial action of the hierarchy, directly reversing any harm caused by the project. A common example is recreating habitats on the coast or seabed that were harmed during construction. These activities effectively achieve net zero biodiversity impact.

  • Enhancement – while theoretically possible to measure a unit of biodiversity and then create another unit elsewhere to offset damage from a project, it is not recommended. Ecosystems are complex and often degraded over many years. Therefore, the focus should be on enhancing biodiversity with project boundaries. This approach also has the added value of potentially benefiting local communities, thereby increasing support for project development.

Biodiversity mitigation hierarchy graphic

The biodiversity mitigation hierarchy

To conclude

The energy transition is at a turning point, with a global agreement to move away from fossil fuels, and the installation rate of all renewable energy sources continues to break annual records year on year. This transition holds enormous potential to restore and enhance biodiversity around and between project sites, both on land and in the sea.

To achieve this, there are four key elements:

  1. Act on science-based targets and rigorously apply the mitigation hierarchy. Gather the best data and use it to engage stakeholders and communities early on to avoid impacts and maximise benefits.

  2. Set ambitious targets to support ecosystem health and restore lost biodiversity. This requires the creation and adoption of standardised approaches to measurement and monitoring, enabling investment in large area scalable solutions.

  3. Act collectively to advocate for policy, regulation and standards. Share data, information, and knowledge by forming close working relationships across projects and the supply chain.

  4. Proactively engage communities to advance the best outcomes for those who rely most on ecosystems. Build capacity in organisations around projects, especially in the global south, so people can contribute to nature-positive offshore wind initiatives.

Fugro World images for Fugro.com


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