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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Natural capital impact analysis of the UK low-carbon and renewable energy transition

Extensive near-term renewable energy (RE) deployment is required as the key means for decarbonising the wider UK economy. However, wind and solar technologies are spatially extensive compared to fossil fuel sources. This creates challenges in reconciling their deployment with land and sea use – with potentially cumulative impacts. There is a lack of research at the nexus of RE and the land and sea use changes engendered by contemporary RE-centric energy strategies. Therefore, this study aimed to explore the scale, impacts and limits of the land and sea use changes generated by the key RE technologies central to the UK’s RE transition. Impacts and limits were explored through the lens of natural capital (NC) and ecosystem services (ES). These objectives were achieved by firstly identifying the projected installed capacities for onshore wind, offshore wind and ground-mounted solar up to 2050 and by quantifying estimates of their required area. Impacts were then explored from a NC and ES perspective by utilising UK RE planning data to uncover the relationships between consented RE projects and land cover data. This indicated the Broad Habitat classification extents and ES affected. Finally, limits were explored via GIS MCDA by removing technical constraints for RE deployment from UK land and sea area, followed by removing thematic groupings of land and sea designations which recognise areas of high-value NC and ES. Main findings show an imminent step change in the use of land and sea. Operational RE presently utilises just under 2% of land, projected to increase to over 5% by 2050. Meanwhile, utilisation of the area available for fixed-foundation offshore wind is estimated to increase to 18%, from 2.5% at present. However, while some Broad Habitats have been disproportionately affected thus far, results of the GIS MCDA indicate that areas of high-value NC and ES do not impose constraints on 2050 RE deployment targets. Key discussion points highlight that there are several other services also competing for land use and that future area analyses needs to use exhaustive criteria for siting RE to determine true limits to their deployment. The recommendations are to implement a dedicated and cross-cutting government body to preside over designing and planning for sustainable land and sea use. In terms of RE, the focus should be to rapidly and holistically evaluate the NC and ES impacts associated with different RE technologies. This is critical for optimising land and sea use, and informing decision-making for siting RE, to generate the least impact or to deliver net gains to NC and ES.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.