Energy Transition

How can offshore wind be a nature-positive climate solution?

An offshore wind farm

Offshore wind must minimize damage to nature across the value chain. Image: Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash

Xi Xie
Project Lead, Friends of Ocean Action, China, World Economic Forum
Qin Haiyan
Secretary-General, Chinese Wind Energy Association
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  • Offshore wind plays a vital role in addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, yet it has possible impacts on nature.
  • The industry needs to understand its dependence and impact on nature across its entire value chain.
  • China's offshore wind industry has made a lot of effort to reduce the industry's negative impacts on nature and to promote systemic change.

Wind power is the most mature, most commercialized and promising renewable energy technology. Compared with onshore wind, offshore wind power has the advantages of zero occupation of land, high and stable wind speed, low turbulence intensity, minor visual and noise pollution, less environmental impact and large wind power production capacity. It is, therefore, the future direction of the wind power industry and an important way to reduce fossil fuel and carbon dioxide emissions, playing a key role in energy transition and the fight against climate change. Offshore wind energy resources alone would be sufficient to cover more than the world’s electricity demand in 2050.

Every part of the global economy is dependent on nature and its ecosystem services. Businesses must understand their specific interactions with nature within their sectors. As a widely recognized climate solution, what is the dependence and impact of the offshore wind industry on nature, what role does it play and how can it contribute to the transition to a nature-positive economy?

Offshore wind is recognized as a key ocean-based climate solution

As an important ocean-based climate solution, offshore wind has received widespread attention worldwide. It plays a pivotal role in combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, China has made remarkable achievements in the field of offshore wind, making breakthroughs in policy support and technology research and development and accumulating rich experience in practical applications. With the continuous investment and rapid development of China's offshore wind industry, it is expected to achieve a wider application and a higher market share and to make greater contributions to global climate governance and sustainable development.

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The whole supply chain should be considered for its dependence and impact on nature

As clean energy projects, the construction and operation of offshore wind farms have limited environmental pollution. In parallel, large-scale development and construction of wind power equipment normally occupy habitats to a certain extent and cause disturbances to the marine ecological environment, which could lead to the altering of marine life behaviour. There are also positive examples, however. One study (IRENA 2018a: Dinh and McKeogh 2018) suggests that offshore wind foundation structures have positive and long-term effects on marine species, because they provide new habitats in the form of artificial reefs and because fishing – mainly trawling – tends to be restricted in their vicinity.

Compared with other new energy sources, the wind power supply chain, including raw materials, the component manufacturing market, design planning, engineering services, maintenance and repair needs, has formed a huge and low-carbon economic market. Like other industries, the development and growth of the offshore wind industry also requires natural resources and ecological service systems, such as wind, water, marine and other resources. At present, most of the attention to environmental issues in the offshore wind industry focuses on the possible impact on marine life during the construction and operation of wind farms. Less consideration is given to the interrelationship between the entire supply chain of the industry and nature.

The dependence and impact on nature should also be considered across the full value chain. This means the necessary supporting industries related to offshore wind, including mining and metals, construction equipment, electrical components, transportation, ports and services in the upstream and electricity transmission. For example, water consumption is not a significant factor for the operation of offshore wind, but a certain amount of water is extracted to obtain the minerals and materials needed to produce machinery and equipment. Yet, this doesn’t mean that the offshore wind industry is responsible for all of the impacts on nature.

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The potential to catalyze systemic change for nature is untapped

Creating a nature-positive economy for companies to achieve systemic change means transforming business practices and reducing or avoiding a negative impact on nature, regenerating and restoring nature with a positive contribution to compensation. Offshore wind companies have made a lot of effort to reduce the industry's negative impact on nature. For example, many wind power companies have made positive commitments to combat climate change and protect biodiversity by issuing internal management measures and regulations. Some companies are actively promoting technological innovation, responsible procurement mechanisms, multi-industry integration and other models to protect and restore nature.

Yet, there is great potential for offshore wind companies to promote systemic change for a nature-positive economy. Besides technological solutions, it is necessary to explore more opportunities with stakeholders across the value chain and to invest in nature-based solutions, such as blue-carbon ecosystems.

China can play a leading role

China has been contributing hugely to nature conservation. As one of the first countries to join the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the importance of nature conservation has been attached to China’s mainstream policy-making, project implementation and international collaboration. Many Chinese businesses have already been leading in the carbon-neutral transition and the awareness of the nature-positive transition is rising.

China's offshore wind technology continues to advance, leading the world in installed capacity. By the end of 2023, according to China Wind Power Industry Mapping 2023, China had reached an offshore wind installed capacity of approximately 37.7 million kilowatts, representing about half of the global total. Additionally, China has the most complete industry and supply chain of offshore wind. In the process of the nature-positive transition of the offshore wind industry, China is poised to play a pivotal leadership role.

Sector transitions to a nature-positive initiative

These are some of the next questions to solve when aiming for a nature-positive offshore wind industry: what part of the value chain should be considered when thinking about the sector’s dependence and impact on nature? What are the top drivers of nature loss in the value chain? What progress has been made and what are the priority actions to be taken?

The World Economic Forum’s Sector Transitions to Nature Positive initiative aims at scaling and speeding up sector-specific business action by: developing and aligning ambitious, practical and widely-accepted sector-specific actions, disseminating sector-specific actions to a global audience and addressing the barriers to implementing sector-specific actions. The second phase of the initiative is focusing on four new sectors including offshore wind and the corresponding answers to the above questions will be discussed.

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Related topics:
Energy TransitionNature and Biodiversity
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