diminishing extent of Arctic summer sea ice; the extensive flooding in the south of England across January; or the increasing occurrence and intensity of bushfires in Australia.
No matter the location, the message is clear – the scientific consensus indicates a warming climate driven by human greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
The assessment highlighted that CO2 concentrations are at their highest concentration for 800,000 years with 90 per cent of the heat being absorbed by the oceans. Increased CO2 and heat absorption will increasingly effect marine and coastal environments through sea level rise, ocean acidification and impacts upon coastal habitats such as seagrass meadows, mangroves and corals.
This is a significant concern because productive coastal habitats provide a number of critical services for society including protection from flooding, fisheries and culturally important seascapes and are increasingly threatened by a combination of climate impacts and development pressure.
Our link with coastal regions is an ancient one. From the time we crawled, hopped and slithered from the sea we have established coastal populations, settlements and civilisations.
Fifteen of the 21 global mega cities of more than 10 million people are perched on areas of low coastal elevation.It is clear that climate change will substantially impact these coastal spaces and related ecosystems and that a mix of adaptation and mitigation measures will need to be planned in the short and long term. However, despite their critical importance coastal systems tend to be decoupled from debates on economic growth or social welfare. Much of the dialogue around coasts and climate change is centred on risk minimisation – in particular, the scenarios of what will happen under sea level rise and flooding.
Recent developments hint at a change in this discourse with increasing awareness of the role of the coast in supporting low carbon growth and dialogue on the positive benefits that support societal development.This includes the transformation of traditional industries such as fisheries, shipping and coastal infrastructure and the emergence of new maritime industries such as marine renewable energy, aquaculture, eco-tourism and bio-prospecting.
‘Coastal low-carbon economies’ (C-LCEs) are defined as economies that link climate mitigation and adaptation measures to the development of coastal industries and communities. They are regionally focused innovation systems, being built upon regional specialisations that draw upon ‘blue carbon’ ecosystems and associated services, coastal infrastructure and human capital.
Europe, in particular, is embracing the concept of a coastal economy with dedicated policy programs and initiatives.Both European legislators and their national counterparts increasingly see the economic, social and environmental advantage in investing in coastal low-carbon infrastructure across a range of scales and industries. The European Commission is building capacity through its Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) that identifies how low-carbon maritime innovation can provide a route out of the recent economic crisis through new ideas and job creation. The IMP is supported by several marine directives, which encourage growth within environmental carrying capacity and mandate marine spatial planning across the EU.
Examples are emerging from the Atlantic seaboard where countries such as Scotland recognise marine renewable energy, aquaculture and biotechnology as national policy priorities that can grow in conjunction with conservation initiatives such as marine protected areas and marine spatial planning.
In Scotland, the offshore economy is emerging with substantial investment in marine renewable energy. This is supported by legislation such as the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2010, which establishes a long-term framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, an interim target of 42 per cent by 2020 and legislates the equivalent of 100 per cent of gross electricity consumption, from renewable sources by 2020.
While there is considerable work to be done to achieve these ambitious targets and many challenges remain, it is clear that Europe appears to be investing in a low carbon shift with coasts and oceans at its heart. Fundamentally, these reforms are changing the nature and identity of the coasts in Europe.
New developments are emerging – for example, a recent announcement in Scotland highlighted consent for two large offshore wind farms in the north east of the country, totalling 1866 MW of capacity providing electricity to power nearly a million homes.
There are increasing clashes between traditional users of the sea, such as fisheries, with the new kids on the block, such as renewable energy and large-scale aquaculture. Communities are also facing challenges from the industrialisation of coastal regions, particularly in areas that are remote or have cultural and scenic values.
A number of responses are emerging to the challenges. They include implementing a marine planning regime across the EU that will potentially navigate a path between traditional and emerging users of the seas; ensure the equitable flow of ecosystem services from the seas to individuals and communities and integrate the approach into policy; and ensure that communities participate in the planning process and reap the benefits as the necessity for a low carbon economy increases.