Report sets out 2050 vision for the North Sea


The government has been told to bring forward a new strategy for the North Sea to maximise its contribution to Net Zero and levelling up.

On 3 November, Policy Exchange published The Future of North Sea, stating it to be strategically central to meeting the UK’s 2050 Net Zero target. Fully developing offshore wind could see it provide a third of the UK’s energy needs, with full development of low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) growing this further. This could generate £20bn per year of investment in coastal regions and lead to a net increase of 40,000 direct jobs connected to the North Sea energy industry, levelling up regions across the East coast.

By 2050, the report set out that the North Sea could host up to 100GW of offshore wind, generating nearly half of the UK’s electricity needs; sequester 100mn tonnes a year of carbon dioxide; provide the majority of hydrogen production, resulting in UK hydrogen consumption growing up to 20 times; see a fivefold increase in UK interconnector capacity; and have remaining oil and gas platforms electrified, with some infrastructure reused for CCUS, while skills are also applied to CCUS, hydrogen and floating wind.

However, there are a number of barriers that will have to be overcome in order for the vision to be achieved.

Spatial planning is among the key barriers to achieving this vision, with greater coordination needed owed to increasingly congested seas and the UK’s “first come, first served” approach to planning marine space. Other obstacles include environmental regulation; business models for new low-carbon technologies, with hydrogen and CCUS needing support or clear routes to market; investment in low-carbon networks, with a more strategic approach required; cross-border collaboration; and capturing economic benefits, with the government needing to ensure they are captured locally “as far as possible”.

The report called for a new Strategy for the North Sea which would accelerate investment and jobs in North Sea regions, as well as making progress towards Net Zero. It should be underpinned by four key principles: taking a holistic approach to the diverse activities in the North Sea, including regulation and use of space; harnessing the low-carbon development of the North Sea to level up coastal communities; using markets and competitive procurement, where possible, to support private enterprise in delivering net zero; and engaging with international partners to take a whole-basin approach to the development of the North Sea.

The report made a series of recommendations, stating they should form the basis of the strategy, beginning with the creation of a new UK Seas Authority (UKSA), which would coordinate development across UK seas; applying environmental regulation consistently across all economic activities and incentivising net improvements in the marine environment; and using new “Future Marine Scenarios”, produced by the UKSA, to help to identify the investments in North Sea networks needed to unlock net zero.

It also called for tailored support to be introduced for new low-carbon technologies, such as hydrogen and CCUS, with it calling for government to make a final decision on the business models for each by mid-2021 to enable early deployment. The government was told to look to concentrate the development of low carbon hydrogen production in North Sea industrial clusters, with the report adding that it should deploy low-carbon hydrogen in non-industry uses through “increasingly ambitious pilots” in the areas surrounding these clusters. This could include heavy duty transport. The other recommendations made were that the UK Seas Authority has a specific remit to work with international partners on the development of the North Sea, either through the EU’s North Sea Energy Cooperation or a new multilateral cooperation forum, and to develop policies that unlock public and private investment in economically less-developed areas of the North Sea coastline. Giving greater support to strengthen North Sea Metro Mayors’ position was suggested.

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