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Tidal shifts

The ocean has life-giving power. Is systems thinking the key to protecting it?

By Deborah Greaves and John Spicer

Although the ocean, and its inhabitants, were feared by many ancient civilizations, it was also a source of wonder, a source of food – it was the “inexhaustible ocean”. However, it is only in recent years that we have come to appreciate the scale of its life-giving power. A resource of clean energy, a producer of much of our oxygen, a regulator of climate, home for millions of different interrelated types of life – from viruses and bacteria to the mighty whales – an incredible food resource, but no longer inexhaustible. We now appreciate how the scale of the ever-increasing human enterprise is threatening our ocean and with it all life on earth; pollution, overfishing, warming, acidification and reduced oxygen are all taking their toll on marine life.

Now more than ever it is crucial we learn how to value, protect, manage and use sustainably the natural capital that our ocean produces.

The care of our ocean, though, cannot be considered in isolation. The issue is global and so the solution must be global, bringing together industry, science, regulators and local communities to tackle the challenges we face on both local and international scales.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow this year presents a unique opportunity to make a tangible difference, to show not just in words but in actions a commitment to the health of our ocean, the health of our planet, the state of our common home. It has the potential to bring together all the sectors of society needed to effect lasting and positive change. And it does so at a time when many are waking up to the reality of damage to our home.

In order to combat climate change, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. That means reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, which has built up over many centuries, and achieving the transition to clean energy. Renewable energy is the way forward in that regard and offshore renewables, including wind, wave energy and tidal stream offer great potential.

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Over the past 30 years, wind energy has gone from being an alternative energy to mainstream. Offshore wind has seen significant growth around our shores and a greater than expected cost reduction in recent years. The UK government’s Ten-point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution – designed to help us meet net-zero greenhouse gas targets by 2050 – recognises the key role of offshore wind, which is seen as forming the backbone of the UK’s future energy mix.

The UK’s offshore wind capacity is projected to quadruple in the next nine years, with a 40 gigawatt (GW) target by 2030. Offshore wind farms that have been deployed so far are in relatively shallow waters, with turbines fixed to the seabed on monopile or jacket structures. But that is a limited resource. To achieve net-zero targets we will have to go further offshore and into deeper water where fixed offshore wind may not be viable, and that means new floating technology needs to be developed. As a new technology, the cost is relatively high, but will reduce with further development, and the same can be said of both wave and tidal technologies.

However, more research is needed and offshore wind cannot be the whole answer. Floating offshore wind technology is still under development, cumulative impacts are not fully understood and, because renewable energy resources are by their nature variable, a diverse energy mix combining wind, solar, wave and tidal is needed to ensure balance and resilience.

Achieving that growth is not just about mobilising research and innovation, supply chains and manufacturing. We need to make sure we have the correct consents in place. And we need projects to be developed safely and in harmony with the other users of marine space, natural and man-made.

As an engineer and an ecologist, we come from different scientific disciplines. In the recent past, some might have, wrongly, put those disciplines in opposition to one another in terms of how we use our ocean.

But any tension that did exist between the need to accelerate development and to protect the marine environment needs to dissipate fast. The scale and pace of offshore renewable energy needed to keep global warming to 1.5°C or below means that project development has to be accelerated. And so it is imperative that designs take into account the needs of ecosystem and ocean health and are informed by research.

This whole-system approach is one our university has been pioneering for several years. It is only through such joined-up thinking that we can achieve results that are positive for the planet.

Essentially, we appreciate that the ocean is integral to the drive for net-zero emissions. However, we also understand that our innovations cannot be deployed unless their impact on the environment is reduced as far as possible, with net-zero harm being a useful target.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic there was, in some quarters, the sense that the scale of transformative change required to tackle our environmental crisis was not possible. But now, just over a year later, in our reaction to that pandemic, we have seen what we thought was not possible: transformative change in the face of an acute and seemingly overwhelming crisis. The question now is not “can we do it?” but “have we the will to do it?”

Deborah Greaves OBE is professor in ocean engineering at the University of Plymouth and one of the country’s foremost experts in offshore renewable energy. John Spicer is professor of marine zoology and a world-renowned expert on the effects of climate change on the ocean.

This article first appeared in Spotlight’s print edition Energy and Climate Change: Cop26 and Beyond on 29 October 2021.

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