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Embracing Climate Change Uncertainties: A Call for Transparency and Action in Planning for Sustainable Growth

Over the past several years, the need for long-term marine spatial planning and sustainable development, particularly concerning offshore wind operations, has grown substantially, and predictions on the likely impacts of climate change have become more detailed. As such, advice on best practices for incorporating uncertainties due to climate change into environmentally-conscious project planning has grown more robust. While an increasing proportion of large-scale offshore project plans are beginning to acknowledge climate change uncertainties, these plans could be improved upon through the incorporation of more active handling measures that strive to eliminate uncertainties and move towards a detailed adaptive management plan.

Offshore wind generation is set to increase dramatically in the next few years; the US market is on the cusp of major growth, but Europe and Southeast Asia will also continue to be hot markets for those looking to invest. While the potential impacts of an offshore installation on the environment and climate are often a key part of planning and discussion, it is also critical to consider the impacts of a changing environment and how this may in turn affect these large-scale installation projects. Issues such as global warming, sea level rise, changing weather patterns, and shifting population patterns (both human and animal) could lead to unforeseen hurdles in maintaining the function and efficiency of these critical energy resources.

When analysing a plan or program for its incorporation of climate change uncertainties, it is important to determine the tone with which climate change uncertainties are discussed as well as what concrete strategies are put forth to minimize or mitigate the scope of these uncertainties. The first steps in investigating these aspects are seeing (1) how (and if) climate change uncertainties are acknowledged, (2) what strategies for action are recommended to move forward, and (3) how the acknowledgement of climate change uncertainties holds up in the context of contemporary scientific evidence and best practices.

Bodde et al. (2018) provides several key examples of strategies which can be employed to deal with climate change uncertainties: knowledge generation, stakeholder involvement, adaptive management, and use of the precautionary principle. While each of these methods can be employed on its own to deal with climate change uncertainties, Bodde et al. suggests that the best response for each climate scenario is a combination of relevant strategies. By incorporating stakeholder engagement, coupled with knowledge generation, we can hope to narrow the scope of these uncertainties by crafting more robust and accurate data sets. This enables us to paint a better picture of the most likely scenarios for the future. Resultant knowledge can then be used to inform decisions and policy-making. This adaptive management strategy allows for the continual study and incorporation of new data throughout the lifetime of the project, ensuring that the project can adapt and shift in order to protect vulnerable areas or populations that may be stressors. Finally, when in doubt about the potential repercussions of a project, the precautionary principle may be employed as further scientific studies are conducted. Used in tandem, these growth strategies can help build a more sustainable, efficient, and resilient project.

In conclusion, the inherent uncertainties associated with natural environmental change and the unpredictability of human society will continue to remain in some form— there is simply no way to determine precisely how all these factors will interact. However, by presenting these uncertainties and suggesting action plans for how to reduce them, future projects will able to remain transparent and present a comprehensive state of the art on the potential environmental impacts of and on these projects. To further increase their transparency, future offshore projects could propose a range for their unknowns and ideally make plans to narrow and eliminate that range through knowledge generation and stakeholder engagement. This information can then feed into adaptive management strategies to form a strong and resilient management plan that is able to grow alongside our knowledge of climate change and related impacts.

For more information, please see the following sources.

Bodde, M., van Der Wel, K., Driessen, P., Wardekker, A., and Runhaar, H. (2018). Strategies for Dealing with Uncertainties in Strategic Environmental Assessment: An Analytical Framework Illustrated with Case Studies from The Netherlands. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 10(7), p.2463.

Embracing Climate Change Uncertainties:  A Call for Transparency and Action in Planning for Sustainable Growth
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