The ocean holds the key to a wind-powered Race to Zero

To mark World Ocean Day, Alastair Dutton, Chair of the Global Offshore Wind Task Force at the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), outlines the vast opportunities to scale up offshore wind energy around the world to mitigate climate change. By Alastair Dutton | June 8, 2021

What do you see when you look out at the ocean? Some may see the incredibly diverse ecosystems beneath the surface, from coral reefs to cetacean mammals. Others see the interlinked channels of tidal currents which shape our weather patterns around the world.

At the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), we see the expanse of the ocean as holding vast potential to mitigate climate change and prevent the most harmful impacts of global warming. The key to this potential is in offshore wind.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of how offshore wind can transform our global energy system. There is enough technical resource for offshore wind to meet the world’s entire electricity demand – 18 times over. This indigenous, sustainable resource is distributed in every region of the world, from Latin America and the Caribbean to sub-Saharan Africa to South East Asia.

There is only 35 GW of offshore wind installed today, mostly in Europe and China, equivalent to less than 0.5% of the world’s installed power generation capacity. On World Ocean Day 2021, a growing coalition of voices from across government, business and civil society are calling for greater recognition of the untapped global offshore wind potential around the world.

Offshore wind has the potential to generate around 10% of global electricity by 2050. Image: Unsplash.

Science-based targets require accelerated deployment

Offshore wind will be an increasingly vital technology to deliver large-scale, reliable and affordable renewable energy, which can accelerate the global energy transition.

According to the UN-linked Ocean Panel, ocean-based solutions can provide 21% of the needed GHG emissions by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C by end-of-century, in line with the Paris Agreement. Of all ocean-based climate action areas, offshore wind and other forms of ocean-based renewable energy provide half of the needed mitigation, reducing global GHG emissions by up to 5.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, or the US’ total carbon emissions in one year.

The magnitude of offshore wind needed to meet our climate targets has also been highlighted by the largest energy institutions, which view offshore wind as a necessary technology to displace fossil fuels. The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap shows that annual global installations of offshore wind must grow by 13x over the next decade, from around 6 GW in 2020 to 80 GW by 2030.

In an earlier outlook this year, IRENA called for as much as 2,000 GW of offshore wind installed by 2050 to achieve net zero emissions. This would require offshore wind capacity to increase by nearly 60x over the next three decades, to generate around 10% of global electricity by 2050.

This is no easy feat, considering that decades of innovation, planning and multilateral coordination were required to progress the sector to its state today. But this work has made offshore wind one of the primary market-ready technologies to support our carbon neutrality targets, with costs for fixed-bottom offshore wind having declined by two-thirds in the last decade and floating offshore wind set to reach commercial scale by 2030.

The opportunity just off our shores is too great to overlook – and the clock is ticking on the Race to Zero.

Where greater ambition is needed

There is strong opportunity in every region to make new or increased commitments to offshore wind development. The World Bank Group has quantified the global technical potential at a tremendous 71,000 GW, and exploiting just 1% of this potential would meet more than 10% of the world’s electricity consumption today.

Europe and China are currently leading the way in installations, with strong offshore wind targets to 2030 or 2040 set by countries like the US, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others. Looking ahead to 2050, GWEC has estimated where 2,000 GW of offshore wind could be built. A great degree of growth is needed from every region of the world.

To date, only the EU has set a long-term goal to 2050 for 300 GW of offshore wind. Meanwhile, many other geographies lack any national policy framework or vision for offshore wind. Several are large economies which will be critical for the coal-to-clean transition and reaching global carbon neutrality by 2050.

Offshore wind does more than decarbonization. The industry creates demand for a wide range of components and services, leading to new jobs and local economic development on a huge scale. Studies have found that one 500 MW offshore wind farm can create around 10,000 jobs across a diverse value chain over the 25-year lifetime of the project. The industry also offers a workforce transition pathway for the offshore oil and gas, marine engineering and ancillary sectors which face labour dislocation in the energy transition.

Taking action in the next six months and beyond

There is unprecedented consensus between intergovernmental institutions, business, civil society and climate activists on the scale of change urgently needed to meet the Paris Targets.

We need more national policymakers to recognize the role of offshore wind in their long-term energy system planning in the next six months ahead of COP26 at least, and within the next decade at most. First and foremost, governments should reference offshore wind within their decarbonization plans and NDCs, moving towards setting ambitious long-term capacity targets and then action plans to create enabling policy and regulation.

The recently revamped UNFCCC Climate Action Pathway for Oceans and Coastal Zones outlines a number of offshore wind milestones to 2050: concrete national capacity targets, concerted environmental impact assessments, integrated ocean planning at national level, governments accelerating the allocation of seabed for offshore wind, and more.

On World Ocean Day 2021, GWEC has launched a resource hub for offshore wind which provides straightforward signposts to policymakers to understand the socioeconomic benefits of offshore wind, the fundamental building blocks of a thriving offshore wind sector and the relationship between offshore wind and other ocean uses. GWEC and the Ocean Renewable Energy Action Coalition (OREAC) have also launched a set of maps that illustrate the technical resource potential for 42 countries and geographies, to support policymakers in setting national ambitions.

When you look out at the ocean, we hope that you now share our vision: 2,000 GW of offshore wind installed by 2050, and every region of the world home to a thriving offshore wind sector that contributes to our net zero goals.

Find out more about offshore wind’s role in global climate action here: