IMAGE: balipadma / Shutterstock

To secure a climate-neutral future,

we need plans for healthy seas

April 20, 2022  

By Helena Rodrigues

Ocean Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office

Growing up between Europe's rocky beaches and South America's warm Atlantic, I’ve experienced, first-hand, how human pressures and climate change are altering marine habitats worldwide. The reefs I dived in as a child have become increasingly bleached over the last two decades. I’ve found pieces of plastic wrapped around seagrass flowers. I saw fishers struggle to make ends meet using traditional practices that are unable to compete with industrial fishing vessels.


My experiences are not unique and they're increasingly becoming the norm, rather than the exception. The latest IPCC report irrevocably shows that human-induced climate change is well underway. The current impacts of a 1.1°C warmer world are causing more widespread damage for people and nature globally. And like many others in coastal areas, I’ve wondered when policymakers would listen to my communities' appeals and scientific recommendations to halt the loss of marine biodiversity on which more than three billion people rely.


The stories and calls-to-action are not (or at least no longer) falling on deaf ears: in 2021, all EU countries and the European Parliament pledged to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. While an improvement on previous targets, this commitment won’t be sufficient for the EU to fulfil its fair share to meet the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. At WWF, we’re advocating for a 65% greenhouse gas emissions reduction in the EU by 2030 to help the planet remain under 1.5°C of warming. To make this target a reality, investing in energy efficiency and replacing fossil fuels with renewable electricity, mostly coming from solar and wind, are imperative. These are not only the cheapest options available, but also those which, when located in the right place, have the lowest impact on the environment. As space on land is limited due to multiple human activities and protected natural reserves, and with winds blowing much stronger and more steadily at sea, offshore wind energy is an essential variable to getting the equation right.


As the window to limit our emissions narrows, science-based and participatory policies are crucial for minimising the destructive impacts of human activities on nature and securing enough space for renewable energy investments at sea. Any maritime infrastructure must be considered within the broader context of degrading marine health that has come as a result of overexploiting resources, pollution, acidification and habitat destruction, to name a few causes that are putting our planet’s largest carbon sink in jeopardy. We cannot risk ocean-based renewable energy developments like wind further damaging our ocean as, despite being intended as a solution to help tackle the climate crisis, they could instead worsen the issue.


Further, our transition to a climate-neutral energy system cannot and must not leave anyone behind. Engaging with and consulting all affected groups early on is vital to reduce negative environmental, economic and cultural impacts. The good news is that, on the ocean side, a policy that meets all of these needs is already available in the EU.


IMAGE: Stefan Rosengren / Alamy

The need to sustainably manage our seas


Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) started as a management approach for nature conservation in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) 50 years ago as policymakers sought to develop legislation that would save the reef from oil drilling and mineral extraction while permitting other activities like fishing and tourism in specified areas. Covering an area bigger than the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, the GBRMP is one of the richest and most complex natural systems on Earth with over 2,900 individual reefs, mangrove estuaries, seagrass beds, algal and sponge ‘gardens’, as well as sandy and muddy habitats.


Local policymakers and marine experts took on the challenge of developing tools that could balance people’s social and economic interests with conservation of the area’s natural and cultural integrity. Over 25 years of experience with zoning plans, permits, education and participatory approaches has now delivered a practical approach to manage human activities and nature protection, as well as find solutions to conflicting human interests in the marine environment beyond the GBRMP. Today, over 74 countries are trialling or fully practising MSP as a comprehensive method to sustainably plan and manage their waters.


Even though MSP started in Australia, the human pressures that triggered its inception are pervasive in Europe too. From the extraction and production of living resources to the transportation and production of energy, human activities increasingly threaten the resilience of EU seas and, ultimately, our well-being. From an ecological point of view, striking a balance between people's interests and natural conservation has never been so important: the European Environment Agency finds that although our seas can be considered productive, they cannot be considered healthy or clean. Even if MSP does not solve all maritime problems, it at least creates the necessary conditions for the sustainable development of at-sea activities.



IMAGE: Pixabay

The spaces we create in our seas


Most countries already designate or “zone” their marine spaces for a number of human activities including maritime transportation, oil and gas, offshore renewable energy, fisheries and coastal tourism, to name a few. However, these areas are often allocated on a sector-by-sector basis that fails to take into consideration how these activities interact, overlap and indeed affect one another, nevermind the natural world. For example, the loud engines of ferries, cargo vessels and cruise ships may influence the migratory patterns of schools of fish, diverting them from traditional fishing grounds and limiting fishers’ catches. This can (and has) led to conflicts between maritime industries, and pitted human activities and nature protection against one another.


With so much at stake, we must do whatever it takes to avoid a marine tragedy of the commons where, in the absence of regulated access, the compounding effect of actions driven by economic interests may lead to the collapse of a natural resource. Success in mitigating such a colossal risk requires a forward-looking approach that can help prevent conflicts from arising between existing industries whose activities may experience spatial shifts in both the short and long term, that makes room for fundamental maritime newcomers such as offshore wind energy, and which relieves long-term pressures such as overfishing.


Today, over three billion people live in coastal areas worldwide. My family and friends, together with 208 million EU citizens, are part of this group of people observing natural landscapes of historical and cultural significance being altered or destroyed due to climate change and lack of forward-looking policymaking. Delivering a sustainable transition in seaside communities also means addressing disparities between economic sectors, marginalised communities and genders, as without all hands on deck we are leaving those most vulnerable to climate risks to bear the costs of environmental losses and damages alone. From energy bills and supermarket receipts, to how we visit the natural spaces we hold sacred, supporting economic shifts from sectors like oil and gas to those that deliver a climate-neutral future is now nothing short of essential.




IMAGE: Damsea / Shutterstock

What is MSP?


Today, WWF defines MSP as a future-oriented process that considers all economic sectors and ecological factors related to a marine area and allocates space, both geographically and temporally, to different activities and people whose livelihoods are tied to our seas. In the face of the current climate and ecological crises, coupled with Europe’s commitment to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, MSP is needed more than ever before to balance social and economic development with an increasing need to safeguard marine habitats and species from human pressures.


It should be noted that MSP does not replace policies that aim to make maritime sectors more sustainable, nor does it substitute for Marine Protected Areas which are designed to provide spatial protection for specific species or habitats in marine ecosystems. Instead, MSP can be seen as contributing several pieces to the puzzle of how we achieve a sustainable relationship between people and the ocean in the long term. This includes how we support ‘blue’ nature-based solutions like offshore renewable energy and ecosystem services like seafood and carbon capture as our allies in the fight against the climate crisis.


Typically, maritime spatial plans remain in place for a minimum of ten years. This duration emphasises the need to allocate a given activity to areas where environmental impacts are minimal. Importantly, though, nothing stops countries from updating their MSP strategies more regularly or from adapting them following ongoing community feedback. Embracing opportunities to continuously improve MSP helps to mitigate climate change as well as restore degraded marine ecosystems, secure sustainable seafood, avoid climate-related human displacement and support the transition to a climate-neutral Europe.


Putting ecosystems at the heart of maritime planning


Still a new discipline, national and regional approaches to MSP are varied and have had differing degrees of success. To help establish a level playing field, WWF advocates for an ecosystem-based approach (EBA) to MSP. This approach views marine spaces as integrated systems that provide various resources and services to both people and the planet, and acknowledges that ecosystems have a limited carrying capacity to remain healthy against human pressures.


Promisingly, the EU, which holds the largest marine territory on Earth, has included in its Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD) a recommendation for all coastal states to apply an ecosystem-based approach to MSP that is adapted to the different regional sea characteristics. EBA-MSP delivers effective planning for our seas and coastlines because it considers the ecological boundaries of different marine habitats, actively involves stakeholders in the strategic process for managing at-sea activities, and is capable of learning from experience.


IMAGE: Cinematographer / Shutterstock

The EU’s MSP framework


Europe's marine waters are some of the busiest and most intensively exploited on Earth. The EU is the sixth-largest producer of fishery and aquaculture products, nearly 80% of global shipping (by volume) occurs in EU seas and, in 2020, over 70% of globally-installed offshore wind capacity was located in Europe. These and other maritime sectors like coastal tourism, oil and gas, and shipbuilding, to name a few, have enormous impacts on EU economies and marine species.


In Europe, the MSP discussion started in the early 2000s at the regional sea conventions for the Baltic Sea. Within two decades, the EU put into force one of its most essential pieces of environmental law: the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive. Developed to provide an integrated planning and adaptive approach to how the EU and its Member States manage human-led activities in their waters, the MSPD set 31 March 2021 as the deadline for Member States to present their maritime spatial plans to the European Commission.


While the MSPD initiated the much-needed conditions and means to support public policy for maritime planning at the national, regional and EU levels, its absence of clear definitions for key concepts of MSP and guidance on establishing national plans has resulted in a disjointed seascape of how countries seek to implement the Directive, jeopardising objectives for safeguarding a sustainable balance between nature and human activities across the EU.


A major manifestation of these gaps came when only six of the EU’s twenty-two coastal countries (Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Latvia and Portugal) met the March 2021 deadline for handing in their plans, leaving less than 38% of EU waters with a coherent, sustainable and forward-looking plan for the various maritime sectors involved. While the majority of Member States succeeded in publishing their plans before the end of 2021, questions around how well and if they align with environmental legislation such as the EU Green Deal and the EU Biodiversity Strategy remain. Closing these gaps and delivering clear MSP strategies that eliminate any doubt on climate action are critical if the EU is to get on track to reducing its emissions in line with its own policies and commitment to the Paris Agreement.


State-of-play in the EU


Over the last two years, WWF marine experts have been collaborating on a framework to evaluate ecosystem-based MSP in the EU, and have started assessing individual country performances. Overall, we found that the integration of an ecosystem-based approach - which maintains ecosystems in a healthy, productive and resilient condition against human pressures - is uneven across Member States.


As the MSPD was published two years before the EU signed the Paris Agreement, it does not include specific guidelines on how to find space for offshore renewable energy at sea. However, the pivotal role Europe's marine areas will play in its climate-neutral transition is now irrefutable. The first step to successfully deploying offshore renewable energy with minimal natural risks is ensuring that site-selection is based on strategic environmental assessments (SEAs). For example, the Baltic countries whose plans included robust SEAs, evaluated ecologically-sensitive areas, and had transparent processes for citizen and industry participation were the ones most successful at deploying offshore wind in a way that reduces the impacts of such infrastructure on marine biodiversity. This is a significant result that can guide the deployment process in other European regional seas and in the North Sea in particular, where offshore wind is already an economically-relevant maritime sector.


Evaluating MSP in the EU is already proving its worth: Denmark, which scored very poorly in WWF’s assessment with regard to consideration for impacts on biodiversity from offshore renewable energy, has recently committed to improving site-selection for offshore renewables by investing in robust assessments and expanding its Marine Protected Areas.


The lack of suitable nature protection and restoration in the existing EU country plans suggests a blatant disregard for the urgent need to reverse the current status of environmental degradation. Failure to do so will ultimately disrupt ocean health, which, in turn, puts regional seafood security and growing blue economies at serious risk. Halting biodiversity loss depends on Member States following the EU Biodiversity Strategy goals to protect at least 30% of marine areas, with at least 10% of the most ecologically-sensitive marine habitats fully closed to human activities that may disrupt conservation goals.


IMAGE: / Espen Bergersen / WWF

Challenges and opportunities


From overfishing in the Mediterranean, an already-crowded maritime seascape in the North Sea, to managing the outermost regions in the western Atlantic Ocean, each European sea basin will face its own challenges. Ultimately, though, the EU is tackling MSP head on and has embraced a solution-oriented approach. This can serve as an example to other regions such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America, whose blue economies are rapidly developing and where offshore wind capacity is being installed at an unprecedented rate.


Ultimately, the drastic reduction of our emissions must go hand in hand with investment in nature restoration. As the largest carbon sink on our planet whose rocks and reefs protect our coastlines from storms and rising sea levels, and whose mosaic of species not only ensures our food security but shapes cultures across continents, securing a healthy ocean is essential to minimise climate change vulnerabilities.


Despite EU Member States’ sluggish action to deliver on MSP on time and the stark findings of IPCC reports, I remain an optimist. I believe that science-based policymaking can deliver the necessary guidance to secure a sustainable blue economy, both in the EU and beyond. We’ve seen how, even in these early days of MSP, offshore wind deployment can happen in a nature-friendly way: Latvia was able to prevent conflicts between ocean protection and offshore renewable energy development by making sure site-selection was based on robust environmental assessments and an inclusive participatory process. Estonia was able to include enough space for offshore wind while avoiding all biodiversity-rich areas, important known wildlife migration corridors and shoreline ecosystems responsible for coastal protection. These countries are leading the way for deploying offshore wind without compromising nature, and are examples other EU Member States should follow. This approach not only minimises local risks to biodiversity via sound planning, but the transition to renewables to mitigate climate catastrophe in turn curbs the loss of marine life in seas as far away as the tropics.


The bottom line is: for Europe's blue economy to be sustainable, it needs to fit within the boundaries of our ocean's ecosystems, and the legal framework to deliver healthy ecosystems in balance with industries already exists with the MSP Directive. However, concrete actions to establish well-managed networks of Marine Protected Areas and remove harmful human activities from our waters are still lacking. Within Europe's regional seas, the Mediterranean is falling dangerously behind, with half of EU Member States presently without a maritime spatial plan. At a time when fish populations in all EU waters remain below scientifically-determined healthy levels, paired with a 40% decline in global marine life over the last 40 years, we cannot continue to operate under the guise that the ocean is so vast that human activity cannot affect it.


Seeing the coral reefs of my childhood recover from the impacts of climate change is not wishful thinking. Scientists say it takes 10 to 15 years of suitable environmental conditions for this to happen, which means that by the end of the UN's Ocean Decade in 2030, we can have thriving ecosystems under the ocean’s waves. This will also put bigger catches in fishers’ nets and help protect coastlines from storms. But this cannot be achieved without sound planning for how to restore and protect our seas, sustainably harvest resources and occupy space that ensures a balance with nature. MSP is not only the right tool to accomplish this, it can also support how we empower women and other groups in marine communities who are disproportionately affected by climate change and underrepresented in the offshore renewable energy sector. Guaranteeing a healthy ocean for both present and future generations depends on learning from what is missing now: a balance between people, and a balance between people and nature in planning for a sustainable future.







The European Policy Office contributes to the achievement of WWF’s global mission by leading the WWF network to shape EU policies impacting on the European and global environment.


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