Europe’s seas remain fragile and their vital role in mitigating climate change is under threat from human activities. The large-scale deployment of offshore renewable energy technologies must not add yet more pressure on already weak marine ecosystems. To avoid this and to secure a successful energy transition, the European Commission issued useful recommendations to help reduce the impact of offshore renewables on EU waters and strengthen public participation. Still, these guidelines alone will not do the job: the Commission must adopt binding measures to ensure that offshore renewable energy develops within planetary boundaries. This can only be achieved if nature-inclusive offshore wind projects are developed outside marine protected areas, following a thorough assessment of their environmental impact and with the involvement of local communities.

The long-awaited, non-binding guidelines, published by the Commission on 13 May, aim to help national governments comply with the revised Renewable Energy Directive by making the permitting process swifter, identifying renewable acceleration areas (zones identified for rapid renewable energy development) and improving the design of the auctions needed to award renewable energy projects. On top of specific recommendations, these documents provide an overview of existing best practices that can be of inspiration for national authorities.

Certain aspects of the guidelines are particularly relevant for the development of offshore renewable energy, such as the importance of Maritime Spatial Planning as a basis to conduct the mapping of renewable acceleration areas in compliance with EU environmental legislation. An ecosystem-based approach to spatial planning puts nature at the core of the planning process for all activities at sea. Unfortunately, the implementation of this tool so far remains weak across the EU, with the Commission having opened legal cases against Italy and Portugal.

In its guidance, the Commission also highlights the importance of establishing clear conservation objectives for Natura 2000 sites before proceeding to map areas suitable for renewable projects. As highlighted in Seas At Risk’s position paper ‘Planning Offshore Renewables with Nature in Mind’, healthy marine ecosystems are necessary for a sustainable energy transition, and Member States must step up their efforts to protect EU waters by fully applying environmental laws. This means fully applying the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Habitats Directive, and establishing effective management of Natura 2000 sites and other marine protected areas, which too often are protected in name but not in practice. In this context, leaving the needed space for Europe’s nature to recover and thrive means keeping offshore wind farms out of protected areas and ensuring that they can only be developed following a thorough assessment of their environmental impact.

The guidance also provides an overview of the main environmental impacts of offshore wind energy and a collection of possible mitigation measures that could reduce them. The Commission recognises the need to gather further data, especially regarding the distribution and condition of protected habitats, the migration paths of species and the cumulative impact of multiple renewable energy projects and other maritime activities such as shipping, fisheries, oil and gas drilling, and port development. While the improved collection, updating and accessibility of data is crucial, present knowledge gaps reveal the dangers of greenlighting offshore renewable energy projects without fully assessing their environmental impact . This is confirmed by the European Court of Auditors’ analysis, which found that the impact of offshore renewables on marine biodiversity has not been adequately assessed.

On designing auctions for new renewable energy projects, the Commission addresses ‘non-price criteria’, which can allow national governments to prioritise environmental and socio-economic factors when selecting projects, instead of relying solely on price. While the guidelines recognise the importance of competitiveness and supply chain resilience, environmental sustainability and public participation are only given a marginal role, and it remains up to Member States to decide whether to introduce other criteria in their scope.

Regardless, national authorities can use the best practices accompanying the new guidelines to ensure that both marine biodiversity and people get a seat at the table. Further examples can be found in Seas At Risk’s feedback ahead of the Commission guidance, including a list of non-price criteria that reflect the importance of nature protection and citizen’s participation.

The Commission is expected to adopt binding measures to clarify auction criteria for renewable energy projects in 2025, according to the upcoming Net Zero Industry Act. In the meantime, it is up to Member States to set the right course by keeping offshore renewable energy out of marine protected areas, assessing the environmental and social impact of each project, promoting nature-inclusive design, and involving citizens in this transition.