02 February 2021

Director of Energy, Minerals and Infrastructure, Huub den Rooijen, on why we must optimise the use of the seabed in a way that supports the economy and protects our precious marine environment.

This article first appeared in Business Green.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that risks that seem distant and remote can materialise in real life with devastating consequences.

The risk of catastrophic climate change impacts were once seen as similarly remote. This is changing fast and whether it’s wildfires or extreme weather, the early impacts are already with us.

But we also learned last year of the astonishing things that society can achieve when brought together to accomplish a single goal. We are now deploying vaccines for a deadly disease that most had not heard of 12 months ago so we should be hopeful that no challenge, including achieving net zero emissions by 2050, is insurmountable.

At The Crown Estate we are well versed in adapting to new challenges – we have existed as an organisation in some form for the last 260 years. We are a business set up by an Act of Parliament and whilst our history is long, we are focussed on the future. In particular, how we help the nation to achieve its long-term goals. That’s why we have committed to become a net zero business by 2030 and climate positive thereafter.

This will be no mean feat given the diversity of our portfolio, which requires us to think big when it comes to our environmental footprint. As well as a major real estate portfolio across the country, we manage the seabed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – an area larger than the total UK landmass.

It’s therefore not enough for us to just get our own house in order. To achieve net zero as a country we will need the vast resources of the seabed, and as an organisation we have a big part to play in enabling that. Where we provide access to the seabed, we will do so in a way that is sensitive to the importance of its rich ecosystems, and creates new opportunities for businesses across the supply chain to grow and create jobs across the country.

This will be a substantial challenge. Take just one technology – offshore wind. The Committee on Climate Change estimates that we could need as much as 100GW as we electrify our society, stepping away from fossil energy. That’s a ten-fold increase on today.

To do this, we need to manage impacts on those who rely on having fair access to our seas, as well as on our precious marine life. Delivering at this scale will also require the building of a wide range of associated infrastructure beyond simply the wind farms themselves – from the power cables to connect them to the energy grid on land, to the significant upgrades that will be required to UK ports. It will require development to be planned in coordination with other infrastructure developments, such as carbon storage reservoirs, pipelines, power and telecommunications’ cables that are increasingly crisscrossing the seabed.

To coordinate across all these potential uses of our seas is an unprecedented planning challenge that requires fresh thinking. Indeed, the Government’s 10 Point Plan and Energy White Paper, recognise that the current system will need to change to provide us with the best chance of meeting net zero by 2050.

As such, the question we now face as a nation is: how can we design a joined-up system to optimise the use of the seabed, maximise its net zero potential, deliver tangible economic benefits up and down the country, all in a way which is sensitive to our precious marine environment?

This is an exciting challenge and we are already taking steps to try and answer that question. Last month we launched the £25m Offshore Wind Evidence and Change Programme, in partnership with Government, stakeholders, and industry, to get on the front foot as we race to address the impacts of an exponentially growing offshore wind system. This will not be sufficient on its own though as there are many sectors drawing their livelihoods from the sea. We need to think holistically about existing and new demands on the seabed and develop a comprehensive 2050 offshore roadmap.

This is a monumental task that requires all those with a stake offshore to work together. Government, business, regulators, NGOs, local communities and many others, will need to look beyond the challenges of today to strategically reassess how infrastructure developments offshore are governed and delivered in a net zero world. We must also collaborate internationally as ecosystems don’t abide by national borders.

With offshore wind now a core part of Government’s energy policy, we are at the start of an exciting journey and while no-one yet has all the answers, the target is shining clear and bright in front of us. We showed last year what’s possible if we put our collective mind to a common purpose and now is the time to do so again.

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