The Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee (‘the Committee’) has undertaken a ‘snapshot’ assessment of marine environment management.
Its report on the Welsh Government’s marine policies will be debated in Plenary this week.
This article gives a brief overview of the issues covered by the Committee.
Offshore development, particularly renewable energy, in Welsh seas is rapidly expanding. The Welsh Government has stated that:
Effective marine planning for, and regulation of, new development is crucial to enabling sustainable marine sector growth,
However, stakeholders say the Welsh National Marine Plan (WNMP) is not currently fit for this purpose, as it lacks a “spatial component or development control policies”, and therefore doesn’t consider the cumulative impacts of developments.
We cannot allow the need for marine renewable energy to exacerbate the nature emergency we are experiencing in Wales.
The WNMP is due to be reviewed before November 2022, and stakeholders say this provides an opportunity to address these issues. The Committee had recommended that Welsh Government should commission an external analysis of the WNMP to inform that review. The Welsh Government agreed to this approach, but for the next review in 2025.
Marine renewable energy
The Welsh Government has committed to support innovation in new renewable energy technology, and stakeholders say this will be pivotal for a green economic recovery. Wales’ marine environment provides a wealth of renewable energy opportunities
Tidal energy takes two forms:
- Tidal stream technologies harness the kinetic energy of currents to power turbines; and
- Tidal range technologies harness the potential energy created by a high tidal range, the difference between low and high tides (the ‘head’ of water).
Tidal range projects generally involve construction of large-scale lagoons or barrages that retain and then release the incoming tide, like the previously proposed ‘pathfinder’ tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay.
The recently published Net Zero Wales Plan contains a commitment that by 2024 the Welsh Government will:
Develop a Tidal Lagoon Challenge, providing robust evidence on the viability of the technology and the potential for supporting a project in Welsh waters that can demonstrate environmental sustainability in line with WNMP … objectives and policies.
Wave energy technologies harness the kinetic energy from the movement of water. Pembrokeshire has the highest wave resource in Wales, and is home to the Pembrokeshire Demonstration Zone (PDZ). This has the potential to support three wave energy arrays up to 30MW generating capacity each, and a pre-commercial 90MW floating wind demonstration project.
Offshore wind is an established and proven renewable energy technology. There are three operational offshore wind farms off the North Wales coast.
The largest, Gwynt y Môr, is a 576MW offshore (bottom-fixed) wind farm covering approximately 79km². It can produce enough clean energy to power 400,000 households, equivalent to cutting 1.7 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions a year. It’s recently been awarded an extension to the existing site, now Awel y Môr.
However focus has also turned to rapidly developing floating offshore wind technologies, which combine the platform technology used in the oil and gas industry, and wind turbines. This means wind turbines can move into deeper waters with higher wind speeds and have less visual impact.
Using the seabed
The Crown Estate awards the rights to use the seabed through a leasing process. Our recent article, who owns the seabed, and why it matters, examines the Crown Estate’s role in developing Welsh marine renewables.
The Co-operation Agreement supports the devolution of the management of the Crown Estate and its assets in Wales. The Welsh Government has committed to meeting with the Crown Estate, where a technical paper, looking at the implications of devolution, would be considered.
Consenting and licensing
The consent process, and the consenting authority for marine renewable energy projects differs according to both the scale of the energy project, and the legislation that applies. Stakeholders told the Committee that the consenting process is “slow” and “onerous”. In December 2021 the Deputy Minister’s deep dive on renewable energy policy, recommended an “end-to-end review of the marine licensing, consenting and supporting advisory processes” which is now taking place.
Evidence gaps and gathering
There are various evidence gaps across social, economic (including development) and environmental uses of the marine environment that restrict our ability to ensure sustainable management of marine natural resources.
Considerable gaps in the marine evidence base was discussed by all who gave evidence, and the Committee heard how developers could potentially contribute to marine evidence gaps. The Welsh Government says it’s “considering how any barriers to data sharing can best be addressed”.
Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Area (MPA) is a collective term for all forms of protected nature conservation sites in the marine environment, and more information can be found in our MPA research briefing.
NRW is developing “new reporting indicators”, to ensure it’s “giving the best advice and assessments to support decision-making on activities in and near MPAs”. However, the Committee heard that without additional resources, this will take longer to complete.
The Welsh Government says it’s exploring funding avenues for this work, including the ‘Nature Networks Programme’.
Turning the tide?
In 2017 the previous Senedd’s Climate Change Environment and Rural Affairs (CCERA) Committee undertook an inquiry into MPA management - Turning the tide?, which they supplemented with follow up work in 2019 to assess what progress had been made against their recommendations and the Welsh Government’s own MPA plan.
The Welsh Government acknowledges the delay in this work, and expects the “next phase of work to be launched in the coming months.”
Assessing Welsh Fishing Activities
NRW is working in partnership with the Welsh Government on the Assessing Welsh Fishing Activities project, a “comprehensive approach to evaluating all commercial fishing activity in Welsh waters and its interaction with MPA features”.
The Committee asked for clarity on the “purpose and timeline” for an expected consultation on the high risk activities identified through the project. The Welsh Government says the final assessments will be completed in “summer 2022” and “timescales for consultation will be determined alongside other … priorities at the time”.
Welsh seas contain seagrass, saltmarsh and seaweed blue carbon habitats, which encompass more than 99km2 of the Welsh MPA network. ‘Blue carbon’ refers to the carbon sequestered by vegetated coastal and marine ecosystems.
A July 2020 report Estimating the Carbon Sink Potential of the Welsh Marine Environment, prepared on behalf of NRW, found “a lot of carbon is already stored away in Welsh marine sediments”, representing “almost 170% of the carbon held in Welsh forests”.
The Committee believes proposals for how blue carbon habitats in Wales can be maintained and enhanced should be explored further. The Welsh Government says it is developing a “shared blue carbon evidence plan”, and will consider a ‘blue carbon recovery plan’ “once the evidence base is further established”.
Article by Lorna Scurlock, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament