THE “decline of oil and gas” dominated the headlines last week after the Scottish Government published its draft energy strategy.

The shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewables is a welcome one if we are to help tackle the climate crisis. However, buried within the strategy was a reference to a tension that exists between renewables and nature, and there is a risk that this is overlooked in the race to net zero.

The Government’s plans talk of “trade-offs” that must be carefully managed. It’s a recognition that renewable energy developments have an impact on importance species of wildlife and their habitats. Perhaps most obviously offshore wind poses a huge risk to our already under-pressure seabird populations. Take for example the recent application by SSE Renewables for its Berwick Bank wind farm, at the mouths of the firths of Forth and Tay. This 300-turbine development, covering 1,000 square kilometres, is estimated – by SSE Renewables’ own modelling – to kill hundreds of kittiwakes, gannets and guillemots each year.  

Seabirds have suffered serious declines in recent decades due to industrial fishing taking their food, invasive species of mammals eating eggs and chicks, and non-native plant life restricting nesting sites. And over the past year we’ve seen the devastation of bird flu. 

The idea that you can accept serious losses of wildlife in one column of a balance sheet, if you find ways to increase it in another, will leave most nature lovers and experts uneasy. But it is an increasingly real prospect. The Berwick Bank application recommends measures such as predator control and reduced fishing, which SSE Renewables says would more than compensate. But the latter measure is not within the developer’s gift; it would be up to the Scottish and UK governments to implement. 

Last year 20 offshore wind projects, with a combined potential generating capacity of 27.6GW, were given the rights to areas of seabed around Scotland. And there may be appetite for even more as ministers seek to export our green energy to help replace declining oil and gas revenues. Nature conservation bodies – and the wider planning system – face an overflowing in-tray in as we seek to minimise the impacts.  

 A major report published last year – Powering Healthy Seas – outlines how we can deploy offshore wind while taking account of nature. It calls for a robust ecological evidence base informing where new offshore wind farms go. It urges country-level marine plans (as is planned in Scotland) to coordinate the delivery of targets and assess the impacts from the outset. And crucially it underlines the need for a clear understanding of strategic compensation, that addresses the ecological needs of impacted species and habitats. 

As we face a climate emergency, we often focus on energy, but we risk forgetting the deeply-intertwined nature emergency. Scotland is one of the most wildlife-depleted countries in the world. We should be straining every sinew to ensure the future isn’t just powered by renewables but is also rich in nature. 

Jason Rose is policy campaigns manager at RSPB Scotland