The European Commission today (18 May) launched a new plan for sustainability in coastal and ocean industries – known as the blue economy – calling for them to join forces in the fight against climate change.
“We should join forces, be creative and find solutions to preserve the health of the oceans and sea,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU commissioner for oceans, fisheries and the environment.
“We want to unite all groups, all sectors, around a single vision. We want all blue economy players to align themselves to the same principles, replacing unchecked expansion with clean, climate-proof and sustainable activities that tread lightly on the marine environment,” he added.
The blue economy is a growing industry with a turnover of over €650 billion, which provides almost 5 million direct jobs to EU citizens. The plan lays out a vision for it to become circular and less polluting as Europe aims to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
“The blue economy will use the oceans’ resources to contribute to achieving the goals of the European Green Deal – delivering a more resilient and climate-neutral European economy,” said Christoph Zipf from WindEurope, an industry body.
The ocean is an increasingly vital resource for fighting climate change. It stores about a quarter of the world’s captured carbon dioxide and is a growing resource for offshore wind and other marine energies like tidal and wave.
Europe’s oceans and coastal environments also house around 48,000 species and 30% of them will need to be protected under the EU’s biodiversity strategy.
“The importance of the blue economy cannot be just measured by turnover or jobs or value-added,” Sinkevičius said. “Seas and oceans are not only the most important asset of the blue economy – they also produce half of the global oxygen and are one of the main natural carbon sinks.”
But increasing biodiversity protection and the growing need for offshore renewable energy puts pressure on the amount of space available.
As more ocean area is used, tensions increase. Pressure on space has already seen conflict between French fishermen and offshore wind while there are fears in the tourism industry of offshore energy causing visual pollution.
Offshore wind is set to grow exponentially in the coming decades as part of EU efforts to develop renewables and fight climate change. Last year, the European Commission launched an offshore renewable energy strategy, which projected a 25-fold increase in offshore wind, from 23 gigawatts to 60 GW by 2030 and 300 GW by 2050.
“Of course the multiplication of activities at sea generates tensions. It’s not a surprise to us and, of course, we have to deal with it and ensure dialogue and clarity,” said Sinkevičius, who acknowledged “growing frustration” between fishermen and offshore energy developers.
However, WindEurope says public acceptance of offshore wind is strong, with only a minority opposing further development of wind turbines at sea.
“France is currently the only country in which local residents, mainly fishermen, oppose offshore wind development,” said Zipf, adding that other countries, like Denmark, the UK, Poland and the Baltic, have enthusiastically embraced the technology for its economic benefits and job creation potential.
Addressing concerns over maritime space is an essential part of the plan. The European Commission will tackle this with a ‘Blue Forum’, due to launch next year, to bring key players together and look at how space can be used effectively.
Environmental groups say the Blue Forum must live up to the plan’s aim to shift the blue economy towards sustainability.
“The proposed ‘Blue Forum’ must incorporate all pillars of sustainability: gathering all marine stakeholders means not only economic players, such as those from maritime sectors, but those who benefit from ecosystem services, like coastal communities, and those who bring a voice for nature, including civil society,” said Alexandre Cornet, ocean policy officer at WWF.
One of the aims of the forum will be to find ways for the industries in the blue economy to work together in “synergy” as the European Commission puts it. That could be done by combining offshore wind energy with mariculture and using floating wind farms as artificial reefs and nurseries for fish, said Sinkevičius.
He also referred to using maritime spatial plans to help prevent tensions in Europe’s water. However, despite some plans, like Belgium’s, showing good ambition on offshore energy, 16 out of the 22 countries required to create these did not submit them on time.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]