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

For two-thirds of the Earth’s history, two-thirds of its surface has been ocean.

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 and acidification, 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 cannot though 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 the 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 offshore wind, wave energy and tidal stream offer great potential for the UK.

Over the last 30 years, wind energy has gone from being alternative energy to mainstream. Offshore wind has seen significant growth around our shores and greater than expected cost reduction in recent years. The UK Government’s 10-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 40GW targeted by 2030. Offshore wind farms that have been deployed so far are in relatively shallow water 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 renewable energy mix combining each of wind, solar, wave and tidal, is needed to ensure balance and resilience.

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<p>solar panels shutterstock solar panel farm</p>
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wind turbines in the Oiz eolic park. Image courtesy of Getty Images. &nbsp;<br></p>
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Mutriku wave power plant. Courtesy of Ente Vasco de la Energía

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Achieving that growth is not just about mobilising research and innovation, supply chains and manufacture. 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 the marine space, natural and manmade.

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 degrees 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 transdisciplinary research.

This whole-system approach is one the 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.

Achieving such trade-offs is a major challenge. But it is challenge we must rise to, and succeed in. 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 acute and seemingly overwhelming crisis. The question now is not “can we do it?” but “have we the will to do it?”

Biodiversity and Offshore Renewable Energy: A Whole-System Approach

Professor Deborah Greaves OBE and Professor John Spicer discuss how we need to protect our marine life from the devastating effects of climate change.

Deborah Greaves OBE is Professor in Ocean Engineering and is one of the country’s foremost experts in offshore renewable energy. Her expertise spans two decades and she is Director of the University’s Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport (COAST) laboratory, which is one of Europe’s leading facilities driving innovation in wind, tidal and wave technologies. John Spicer is Professor of Marine Zoology, renowned for his expertise in ocean acidification and hypoxia. He has contributed a substantial wealth of knowledge to the field over three decades, resulting in over 180 research papers, multiple academic books, writing for popular culture, and advising national and international policymakers.

Supporting COP26 – United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021

The COP26 summit, held in Glasgow, Scotland from 31 October to 12 November 2021, brought parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on climate change.

The University of Plymouth is proud to be a part of the COP26 Universities Network whose mission it is to ensure that the UK academic sector plays its role in delivering a successful COP26, in order to deliver a zero-carbon, resilient world.