How do we protect our coasts from climate change without destroying their ecological value?

Many of the cities, towns and transport links of Ireland and Wales are situated on the coast. These coastal assets are protected by an extensive network of sea defences which will need to be modified, strengthened and realigned in order to adapt to the increased storminess and sea level rises predicted as effects of global climate change. Growth in the marine renewable energy sector will also be required by Ireland and Wales in order to meet their targets for emission of greenhouse gases. This will require further development of the coastline, including large coastal structures, such as the sea walls of proposed tidal lagoons. The Irish and Welsh coasts are home to much of the region’s biodiversity and provide important ecosystem services to Ireland and Wales. Large stretches are designated as Natura 2000 sites, in recognition of their importance to the integrity and coherence of Europe’s natural environment.

Construction for sea defence and marine renewable energy has the potential to threaten coastal habitats, directly through habitat loss and indirectly by affecting coastal processes and facilitating the introduction of non-native species. In Wales and Ireland, the tension between protecting lives and coastal assets from the effects of climate change and conserving the coastal environment is recognised. The environmental disadvantages of ‘hold the line’ strategies, based on the construction and/or maintenance of hard coastal defences, are widely acknowledged but hard coastal defences are accepted as necessary in order to protect key coastal assets such as cities, transport links and energy generation.

In recent years, researchers around the world have begun to explore the possibilities of building ecologically sensitive design into coastal structures. This eco-engineering approach has the potential to create structures which retain much of the biodiversity and ecosystem function of natural shores, allowing them to function as green infrastructure, providing ecosystem services to coastal communities and wildlife corridors to link protected areas. In addition to offering solutions for the protection and development of Irish and Welsh coasts, coastal eco-engineering provides opportunities to expand the green and blue sectors of the Irish and Welsh economies. Consultations with local stakeholders indicate that awareness of the potential of coastal eco-engineering is low, but that interest would be high if appropriate products were accessible and came with the assurance of a solid evidence base.

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