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Wind turbines in the North Sea. © Shutterstock
Belgium has 65 km of coastline. The adjoining Belgian waters of the North Sea cover 3,454 km², which is about the size of one of the country's provinces. That equates to barely 0.5% of the total surface area of the North Sea, the stretch of Atlantic Ocean that lies roughly between the UK, Norway, Denmark, and the Low Countries.
Despite this fact, a great deal of activity goes on. And it not only concerns fishing and shipping, but also nature conservation, energy production, aquaculture (or fish farming), sand mining, tourism, dredging, scientific research and more.
Economic activities related to oceans, seas and coastlines have recently become increasingly high-profile. After all, this 'blue economy', as it is known, offers many opportunities, not least to guarantee a green, climate-neutral future. 'To be truly green, we also need to think blue,' the EU Commissioner for Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius said recently.
Culture reactors with microalgae in the ILVO laboratory. © ILVO
Playing 'blue trump cards'
In Belgium too, we are increasingly realising we can no longer ignore the fact that we are indeed a maritime nation. Diplomats are already thinking hard about how we can play our 'blue trump cards' to greater effect.
Because those blue trumps are not insignificant. One of the most discussed activities in recent times is offshore wind energy. There are currently 399 offshore wind turbines that can generate electricity for 2.2 million families (2.2 GW). This makes Belgium the fourth largest offshore wind energy producer in the world. Capacity needs to almost triple by 2030.
Belgium also has expertise in floating wind energy (DEME). And the maritime test platform Blue Accelerator (Ostend) is currently investigating the extent to which floating solar panels can be useful for energy production. In addition, our country is actively developing green technologies (cleantech) such as the digitalisation and security of the electricity network (VITO, Elia, TWEED) or the recycling of raw materials (Umicore).
The North Sea bed contains high quality sand that is better than sand from the desert. Sand is an essential ingredient of reinforced concrete. In the future, demand will only increase, since there are many construction and infrastructure projects on the horizon while sand supplies are being depleted worldwide.
The sea can also support food production. The scientific institutions ILVO and VITO are currently conducting research in Ostend on the promising potential of seaweeds and micro-algae as food (ValgOrize). In the same place, a Norwegian company is presently starting up the largest land-based fish farm in the EU. Near Nieuwpoort, the Colruyt Group will cultivate mussels, and in time oysters and seaweed.
The numerous companies with expertise in the marine environment have joined forces to form the 'Blue Cluster'.
Diagram of the future cultivation of mussels, oysters and seaweeds by Colruyt Group. © Colruyt Group
North Sea and Norwegian Sea
But we certainly don't have to limit ourselves to our own 'blue province'. There are many opportunities available in the rest of the North Sea and further northwards.
For example, the countries around the North Sea (UK, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway) are being called the 'future powerhouse of Europe' because of the enormous potential for wind energy. Closer contacts with these countries are vital if Belgium is to meet the EU's renewable energy targets. Our country recently has entered into a political agreement with Denmark for the construction of an undersea high-voltage cable more than 600 km long. This could be used to transport surplus electricity from 2030 onwards. In addition, a second connection to the UK is being investigated, on top of the existing 'Nemo link'. There are also opportunities in Norway.
A number of Belgian companies have specialised in dredging and maritime infrastructure works (DEME, Jan de Nul). They have often received international acclaim for these works, such as with the Palm Islands in Dubai. With the growing interest in offshore wind farms and energy hubs, the importance of dredging is only set to increase. Our dredgers are already working on the construction of a gigantic wind farm on the Dogger Bank, off the UK coast.
The British and Norwegian continental shelves – the shallow area of the sea – offer opportunities to store carbon under the seabed. Belgian ports (Antwerp, Zeebrugge) but also the Belgian steel (Arcelor), cement and chemical industries are already involved in the exercise. This is important, because Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will be essential in any case if Belgium and the rest of the world want to become climate neutral by 2050.
With its Fluxys gas terminal – the key gateway for gas to North-Western Europe – the port of Zeebrugge can benefit from the trade in 'blue and green hydrogen'. During a temporary transition period, natural gas extracted from the North Sea can be used to produce 'blue hydrogen' (Fluxys, Exmar). Together with 'green hydrogen', which is completely renewable and climate-neutral, this can power ships. The hydrogen can also serve to replace natural gas for domestic consumption. At present, the Belgian ports are setting up a new business model with Fluxys in relation to the import of hydrogen, combined with the export of CO2.
All of these activities also offer opportunities for Belgian investment banks.
The LNG terminal in Zeebrugge can also be used for the trade in green and blue hydrogen. © Shutterstock
Diplomats in action
To make the most of all these opportunities, companies here need the right contacts. And that is where our diplomats in the various embassies have a major role to play in continuously expanding and maintaining their economic and policy-orientated networks.
These contacts can be made from country to country, but contacts between regions can also be of help. For example, Belgium has recently been promoting dialogue between the Benelux Union – this year chaired by Belgium – and the Nordic countries. Our country also currently chairs the North Seas Energy Cooperation. In this capacity, it regularly brings together the ten coastal countries around the North Sea to discuss offshore wind energy. The Benelux is also a strong advocate of green hydrogen as a building block for a climate-neutral EU by means of the 'European hydrogen backbone'. The European Union also supports the blue economy.
Even in more remote areas such as South-East Asia and East Africa, our companies can deploy their 'blue expertise'. South-East Asian countries, for example, are showing enormous interest in our offshore and cleantech expertise, judging by the countless questions received by our diplomatic posts in that region on the subject.
Marine Spatial Plan
All these economic opportunities must not cause us to lose sight of the fact that it is also crucial to manage and protect the oceans in a sustainable way. Belgium is already taking this on board. Our country was a pioneer in the EU in the elaboration of a detailed Marine Spatial Plan (MRP) in 2014.
In the most recent MRP (2021-2026), 37% of the Belgian North Sea territory is designated as protected area, which is significantly more than the Europe-wide average of 8.9%. Within these areas, nature conservation is being carried out and future restoration is planned. A number of other zones were also designated, with the clear main concern of reconciling economic, ecological and social aspects.
Belgium regularly carries out activities to reduce the 'plastic soup'. It is also a pioneer in the reduction of underwater noise from shipping and in monitoring the impact of wind turbines on nature. The additional wind turbines (see above) will not simply be built without considering their impact. Currently, 24 nature studies are underway to determine the conditions under which these additional turbines can be installed in Natura 2000 sites.
The Marine Spatial Plan of the Belgian North Sea. © FPS Public Health, Safety of the Food Chain and Environment
Internationally, our country is also a pioneer for the oceans. Belgium is a key driving force of the Blue Leaders, a group of countries that want to protect at least 30% of the oceans by 2030. The Blue Leaders also argue for a robust new UN convention for the protection of biodiversity on the high seas. These actions are intended to increase the health and resilience of the oceans, which is an absolute must if we want to fully utilise our blue economy.
Belgian shipowners and companies are closely involved in innovations to make maritime transport more sustainable. Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Belgium also advocates upgrading the link between oceans and climate.
In 2023, Belgium will sit on the International Seabed Authority, which will allow it to closely monitor environmental legislation and the sustainability of seabed exploitation. Our country also encourages scientific research on deep-sea mining for metals.
The Belgian company DEME, through its subsidiary GSR, is a pioneer in deep-sea mining technology. Sustainable extraction of rare ores and sand from the seabed gives us access to essential raw materials for the energy transition, while reducing our dependence on foreign countries at the same time.
Let us be clear: our oceans are essential to our future. For example, the ocean provides us with half of the oxygen we breathe and it provides us with food and substances for medicines.
Sea wind, geothermal energy (= energy from the deep Earth) and tidal and wave action will prove indispensable for the climate-neutral society that we want to achieve. And, of course, there are plenty of opportunities in the blue economy. But our oceans can only play this role if they remain healthy. Belgium intends to devote itself fully to this delicate but vital balancing act of utilisation without causing harm.
Challenges and opportunities
An ice-free Arctic: a challenge with opportunities
Looking just beyond our North Sea, we can see that the Arctic region is rapidly changing. And this causes a great deal of concern. By 2050, we could have completely ice-free Arctic summers with a rise in the sea level as a result, not to mention the massive amounts of methane that may escape from the thawed permafrost.
Suez Canal of the North
At the same time, this evolution also offers opportunities. An ice-free Arctic could turn into a kind of Suez Canal of the North, with much shorter shipping routes. For example, the Antwerp-Shanghai route via the Arctic will be only 13,600 km compared to the present route of 20,900 km via the Suez Canal.
There will also be new opportunities for renewable energy (wind, hydro, geothermal), carbon storage and mining (rare earth elements). Greenland, in particular, could benefit more than a little from this.
A seat on the Arctic Council
One of the main bodies through which the Arctic states consult with each other is the Arctic Council. The core countries are the USA, Russia, Canada, Finland, Iceland and the Nordic countries, but there are also a large number of 'observers' including even countries like China and Spain. The EU is a de facto observer.
For the time being, Belgium has no involvement. Nonetheless, our country offers some real strengths. For example, we have economic expertise in many fields (see above) and above all, a globally recognised scientific know-how about the Antarctic and the Arctic (including the cryosphere or 'frozen atmosphere').
Our diplomats are currently exploring ways in which we can become more involved in the Arctic Council and other bodies. It is important that Belgium first increases its involvement in the Arctic region. Thereafter, observer status on the Arctic Council should be justifiable. In the meantime, our country is already a member of the Arctic Science Ministerial, the consultative body of the Arctic science ministers. The federal parliament is also showing an interest. In principle, a resolution calling for more attention for the Arctic region will be voted on before Christmas 2021.
It should be pointed out that our country already has many interests in the Arctic. One quarter of our fish comes from there, over 20% of our gas comes from Norway, and many Belgian companies already operate there. The region also has an undeniable impact on our security. After all, the superpowers – the US, Russia and China – are literally in each other's way over sea. A rising sea level affects us too, of course.
It is important for our country that the Arctic region remains safe and stable and that international law is respected there. The EU's recently revised Arctic Strategy will undoubtedly be an essential guide when it comes to shaping Belgian policy in relation to the Arctic.