Energy transition calls for a long-term strategy for the North Sea

A strong increase in the number of offshore wind farms outside the 12-mile zone means that room on the North Sea is becoming scarce. This calls for a strategy for the North Sea that runs up to 2050, as a time horizon of 2030 would be insufficient for effectively combining objectives for climate, nature and fisheries. Because only after 2030 the construction of offshore wind farms and CO2 storage in old natural gas fields is likely to gain momentum. This will present enormous challenges with respect to infrastructure, nature conservation, fisheries and spatial planning, both at sea and on land. Choices need to be made today, to prevent irreversible problems from being created after 2030.

These are the main findings of PBL’s scenario study ‘The Future of the North Sea’, which explores the spatial and ecological impact of plausible developments on the North Sea, up to 2050, with regard to nature, energy transition and food supply (fisheries and aquaculture).  

Four scenarios provide a broad range of possible spatial and ecological consequences of such developments. This not only concerns the ambition to reduce the impact of climate change, but also to increase sustainability in, for example, fisheries, shipping and sand extraction.  

Greatest challenges North Sea after 2030

Many things are planned for the North Sea. The Netherlands has implemented policy to achieve environmental improvements no later than by 2020, in compliance with EU regulations. The fishing industry is looking for ways to remain economically viable despite the Brexit and the looming ban on electric pulse fishing. At the same time, the Dutch Cabinet wishes to use the North Sea to make headway with achieving its climate targets under the Paris Agreement—by constructing offshore wind farms and storing CO2 in former natural gas fields. Increasing offshore wind energy may also help to compensate for the reduction in national natural gas extraction.

The space that is currently reserved for more wind farms on the North Sea will suffice up to 2030, even under the most ambitious scenario. After that period, however, many new areas will be needed to accommodate a twenty- to sixty-fold increase in offshore wind energy up to 2050, compared to 2017 levels. 

Under the most ambitious scenario, wind farms by 2050 will cover between one-sixth and a quarter of the Dutch part of the North Sea. By that time, wind farms will generate twice the amount of electricity currently used in the Netherlands. That much could no longer be transported efficiently by cables onto the Dutch shore. Part of that electricity could be exported directly via cables in the sea, or converted into other forms of energy, such as hydrogen.  

Reconciling objectives and interests in energy transition, nature and fisheries presents an enormous spatial challenge, particularly due to the large increase in offshore wind farms. Therefore, certain choices for the period after 2030 already need to be made today.

North Sea nature and fisheries benefit from long-term planning

Although the net effect of a wind farm can be positive for nature, any long-term impact of ongoing increases in the number of offshore wind farms is unknown. These effects need to be monitored continuously, to prevent decisions being taken with irreversible consequences that leave insufficient room for the North Sea’s nature to improve and recover. 

Wind farms could be designated as new nature reserves or made suitable also to be used in fisheries or aquaculture. This would reduce some spatial bottlenecks at the North Sea, although the wind turbines above the waterline remain a problem for birds and bats. The political considerations involved are being addressed in the Dutch 2030 North Sea Strategy, which the government will publish this year. The sizeable increase in offshore wind farms, particularly after 2030, means that it is important to also consider what may happen over the 2030–2050 period. 

Choices, planning and preparations are needed, also internationally

A large increase in offshore wind energy may present all sorts of bottlenecks—possibly even before but certainly after 2030—because of the impact this will have on nature and due to the required energy infrastructure, both on land and at sea.

Certain choices need to be made today, as well as planning and preparations for the period after 2030, with respect to transporting the increased production of offshore energy to land, possibly also including the installations to convert electricity into hydrogen and their related infrastructure, the demolition of old oil platforms or repurposing them to suit CO2 storage, as well as the construction of new energy islands. The urgency to act is due to the sometimes long run times of more than a decade in planning, procedures and implementation of projects and their relationships to other themes. All of these developments must take place relative to the space and circumstances that form the preconditions for robust nature, fisheries and aquaculture as well as other activities on the North Sea, including shipping and sand extraction.  

Other countries on the North Sea, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, who wish to construct a large number of offshore wind farms, too, also need to comply with international agreements for nature restoration. This calls for careful development of offshore wind energy, preferably in international collaboration.

The Netherlands needs to start addressing this in the near future, seeing the international interests, the deadlines for achieving its climate targets, the affordability of offshore wind energy and long-term planning of infrastructural projects.


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Energy and Climate Change

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