An offshore wind power project is planned off the coast of Hiumma island, Estonia. But the project has been opposed by locals, who believe that not enough consideration is given to wildlife, aesthetics and tourism. Photo: © Peter Aleksandrov /

Overcoming windpower conflicts in the Baltic Sea

Two conflicts regarding the location of offshore wind power in Estonia and Poland, show the benefit of including a wide range of stakeholders at an early stage in the planning process.

If managed in accordance with Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), the Baltic Sea can make a crucial contribution to addressing multidimensional sustainability challenges. But the Baltic Sea is in decline. Marine spatial planning  has been introduced to address the mounting pressure on finite marine resources driven by climate change, overexploitation, pollution, and the increasing number of competing activities. Conflicts about how to harness benefits from marine resources in the Baltic Sea are widespread and intensifying.

A key factor to successfully address conflicts is to acknowledge them early, so as to mitigate future challenges. Several conflicts found in the Baltic Sea reveal challenges facing existing ocean management methods. These are important to adress to adopt a multidimensional sustainability approach and effectively manage deep-rooted struggles over rights, ownership, access, benefits, and human-nature relationships.
Our study, built on ongoing international research, highlights emerging conflict and related environmental and social justice concerns in the context of offshore wind energy planning and marine spatial planning in the Baltic Sea, with insights from Estonia and Poland. We also suggest pathways toward collaborative marine spatial planning and conflict transformation.

The offshore wind energy conflict in Hiiumaa, Estonia, began in 2009 and is still ongoing. It revolves around the potential effects of the offshore wind energy project on the environment, social values, tourism, aesthetics and human health, as raised predominantly by a local environmental group. The conflict quickly evolved from requests for a detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA) and studies on social impacts, to a series of legal oppositions, which resulted in a 2018 Supreme Court verdict invalidating the offshore wind energy project due to an insufficient EIA. While the developer revised the project’s EIA in 2019, the local group is not satisfied. Other institutional stakeholders (e.g., defence, nature conservation) also continue to raise concerns about the project’s impact. The list below summarises our recommendations to move forward:

  • An ecosystem approach to offshore wind energy siting/planning can reduce environmental impact and enable comprehensive dialogue on risks/benefits.
  • A social impact analysis and collaborative offshore wind energy planning with locals can better identify community concerns and relationships to the sea/coast, enable social learning and build trust.
  • Development of benefit-sharing mechanisms with local communities can enable buy-in.
  • Engage ornithologists and local bird enthusiasts in bird surveys and offshore wind energy EIAs.
  • The existing energy crisis related to Russia generates conditions that place increased pressure on offshore wind energy opponents to adopt a more favourable sentiment toward the offshore wind energy project. However, steps should be taken to ensure that greater expediency sought to develop offshore wind energy is not harmful to democracy, nature, and human wellbeing.

In the context of climate change and the importance of growing interests in the Baltic Sea as a key contributor to the region’s post Covid-19 economic recovery, a key challenge facing ocean planners is integration of coastal groups.

In Poland, we found that planners struggled with rendering marine spatial planning processes and decisions just and fair for coastal groups, especially small-scale fisheries and youth. A key reason is that marine spatial planning regulation confers special rights to stakeholders from industry and the defence sector, but not to others (e.g., coastal municipalities and community groups, youth etc.). For instance, stakeholders from industry were active in the early stages of marine spatial planning, thereby heavily shaping the agenda of marine spatial planning. Local actors were only consulted at the later stages of marine spatial planning, when there was little or no possibility to redefine the scope and direction of marine spatial planning. This led to small-scale fisheries “feel[ing] like small, irrelevant users of the Baltic Sea who simply have to remove themselves and make room for huge amounts of money”, explained a fishing cooperative worker. Other factors included the failure of planners to adapt MSP communication to targeted audiences. It is vital to enable stakeholder inclusion and integration early in marine spatial planning processes to minimise these conflicts.
How to address marine spatial planning conflicts in Poland:

  • Communicate about marine spatial planning at an early stage and in less technical terms.
  • Enact policies that recognise and protect territorial user rights for small-scale fisheries.
  • Engage more directly with heterogenous small-scale fisheries to understand and consider different contexts, claims and needs.
  • Develop alternative modes of communication and participation i.e., localise and digitalise marine spatial planning communication/participation e.g., through the use of social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp) and local newspapers. This can address obstacles to participation of youth and small-scale fisheries in marine spatial planning (e.g., time, logistics, power inequalities).
  • Planners need to assess marine spatial planning outcomes in terms of whether or not they close the gap between science and lay knowledge, land and sea, national and coastal needs, present and future generations.

To be able to sustainably use the benefits of the Baltic Sea, such as those generated by offshore wind energy, it is important to learn from and address conflicts such as those described above. While it is challenging to address multidimensional sustainability goals, marine spatial planning needs to move toward addressing conflict proactively. In addition to recognising a broader range of actors, particularly coastal community actors’ knowledge, experiences, concerns and needs, marine spatial planning processes need to actively consider justice-related distribution.

Ralph Tafon, Fred Saunders & Michael Gilek

Further Reading
Tafon R., Glavovic B., Saunders F. & Gilek M. (2022) Oceans of Conflict: Pathways to an Ocean Sustainability PACT. Planning Practice & Research, 37:2, 213-230, DOI: 10.1080/02697459.2021.1918880
Saunders F., Gilek M, Ikauniece A, Tafon R., Gee K & Zaucha J (2022) Theorizing Social Sustainability and Justice in Marine Spatial Planning: Democracy, Diversity, and Equity. Sustainability, 12, 2560; doi:10.3390/su12062560
Tafon R., Howarth D. & Griggs S. (2019) The politics of Estonia’s offshore wind energy programme: Discourse, power and marine spatial planning. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 37:1, 157–176 DOI: 10.1177/2399654418778037



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