OPINION: European leaders this week have shown a path ahead to bring about a real-world energy transition while ensuring security and affordability of energy supply — by harnessing the huge potential of the North Sea.

At a summit in Ostend, Belgium, leaders of seven European Union nations and Norway, plus UK Energy Minister Grant Shapps, gathered to set out common goals to supercharge development of offshore wind power in northern European waters.

The nations’ leaders set a target to deploy 120 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030 in the North Sea and northern seas including the Irish sea, increasing it to 300 GW by 2050.

This would be a more than four-fold expansion of current capacity, which stands at around 25 GW.

In a joint press conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store on Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen summed up the scale of European ambitions.

“The wind harnessed in the North Sea will help power Europe’s clean tech industry [and] provide secure and affordable energy to meet Europe’s needs,” she said.

Norway alone aims to deploy 30 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030, Gahr Store said.

These and other recent developments show the North Sea has the potential to become one of the drivers of European decarbonisation — a colossal engine room where renewable power is incessantly generated for use by industry and homes, and where carbon emissions are permanently stored under the seabed.

According to mapping by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, sites on Norway’s continental shelf could store more than 80 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in geological formations or depleted oil and gas fields.

Estimates from the British Geological Survey suggest the UK North Sea could also store some 78 billion tonnes of CO2.

Cracking the energy transition

While still underdeveloped, scaling carbon storage in the North Sea can offer a viable way to deal with hard-to-abate emissions from European heavy industries such as steelmaking, cement, chemicals and fertilisers.

The combination of high renewable power generation and vast carbon storage potential is critical to crack the energy transition dilemmas.

With both on Europe’s doorstep, it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

At the same time, a vision of the northern seas as green energy hub driving economic growth is not enough on its own.

For this engine to work as it should, all its components must be in place, be it government policy, capital availability or corporate action.

Existing policies are “falling short” of what is needed, according to industry association WindEurope.

European wind supply chains must develop exponentially to achieve the capacity targets set by the Ostend summit. This includes ensuring procurement of components and critical materials — an area where the European approach has often been stumbling.

The signatories also point to cost of capital and financing, which should fall to facilitate entry and speed up development.

But corporations with the ability to do so should also be more decisive with their action plans.

Oil majors that delivered record profits over the past year are now swimming in cash. If their low-carbon and decarbonisation ambitions are more than just green PR, this is the time to put skin in the game.

Some short-term losses as these industries scale up is a price these companies can take, given the long-term game at play here and the political will to make this work.

The North Sea could become one of Europe’s great green engines. The vision is there. Collective action must follow.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)

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