Towards a Green Coastal Deal for the Wadden Sea Region

The trilateral Wadden Sea Forum (WSF) has recently initiated the process of developing a Green Coastal Deal for the Wadden Sea Region. The Wadden Sea Forum was established in 2002 as an independent multi-stakeholder partnership for the Wadden Sea region, complementing and supporting the intergovernmental Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation (TWSC). From the beginning, the WSF has sought to facilitate exchange of knowledge, experience and good practice among a broad group of stakeholders across the Wadden Sea region in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. Whereas the formal TWSC is focused on the conservation of the Wadden Sea itself, the WSF is concerned with the sustainable development of the wider coastal region, helping to position the Wadden Sea conservation efforts (now a World Heritage site) site within its wider geographical context.

The international Wadden Sea Region: Source: Agenda voor het Waddengebied 2050

The concept of a Green Coastal Deal takes its inspiration from the announcement of a European Green Deal by the European Commission, under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen.  It is an ambitious programme with the overarching aim of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. It is a growth strategy that:

 “aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use”.

The European Green Deal seeks to tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss while ensuring economic growth and prosperity, and is viewed as an integral part of the EU’s strategy to implement the United Nations 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.

A Green Deal Vision for the Wadden Sea Region?

Applying the concept of a European Green Deal to the Wadden Sea Region implies adapting a future-oriented perspective, recognising the urgent need for economic transformation to tackle current environmental challenges in a holistic and integrated manner. The concept of a Green Coastal Deal offers the prospect of linking the conservation efforts at the Wadden Sea to a programme of socio-economic renewal and sustainable transformation. There is significant potential to build on existing good practice at the Wadden Sea, such as the initiatives of the islands of Ameland and Juist to achieve climate neutrality and the broad sustainable development ethos of the Danish Wadden Sea National Park. Yet there is also evidence of fragmentation and missed opportunities as day-to-day work continues to be conducted within specific, mostly sectoral contexts and institutional settings. To overcome this, integrated cross-sectoral strategies or perspectives are necessary which seek to identify and build on synergies and opportunities for networking and partnership across both sectoral and geographical boundaries. The EU Territorial Agenda 2030 adopted under the German Presidency of the European Council in December 2020, explicitly calls for integrated, place-based strategies to facilitate the transition to a sustainable green economy.

One example of such a strategy is the recently published Agenda for the Dutch Wadden Area in 2050, an integrated policy vision for the Wadden Sea, its islands and coastal hinterland. This policy statement is a leading example of an innovative cross-sectoral strategy. It builds on the previous work of the Programme for a Rich Wadden Sea and the Ecology and Economy strategy for the Ems delta. The Wadden Agenda 2050 seeks to address the challenges of climate change, energy transition, demographic change, technological innovation, morphological developments and the increase in tourism and recreation, issues which have gained in importance since the designation of the Wadden Sea as a World Heritage site in 2009. The Agenda builds on a number of principles which come from distinct spatial points of reference:

  1. Aiming for one coherent international Wadden Sea region with the landscape as a carrier or common element.
  2. Respecting the natural dynamics of the Wadden Sea and give space to strengthen that dynamic where possible.
  3. Cherishing the unique qualities of the islands.
  4. Committing to strengthening the various place-based identities in the Wadden Region
  5. Approaching the coasts of the Wadden Sea region as robust zones and as part of one coherent coastal strip.

The Agenda explicitly recognises the different perspectives on Wadden Sea Region and the need to take them into account. For coastal communities, islanders, entrepreneurs, ecologists, locals and visitors, the nature and landscape of the Wadden Sea is respected, valued and appreciated in different ways, which can be mutually supportive of each other but can also pose challenges where solutions and ways forward need to be actively negotiated.

An Impression of the ‘Wadden by Day’: The international Wadden Sea Region: Source: Agenda voor het Waddengebied 2050.

There is potential for the WSF community of stakeholders to learn from the Dutch Agenda 2050 process and to consider the value of producing similar visions or future scenarios for other parts of the Wadden Sea. Differences in governance cultures, ways of working and institutional arrangements across the Wadden Sea region, however, make any simple transfer of good practice difficult. The TWSC is by its very nature, heavily invested in highlighting and promoting that what holds the cooperation together, a shared transboundary ecosystem of world renown. The WSF is currently engaged in the process of developing and mobilising regional roundtables with the aim of better embedding the work of the WSF at the regional level in southern Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, Groningen and Friesland. Perhaps this initiative will provide an opportunity to engage more closely with the different ways of managing the Wadden Sea and its hinterland found in each region and recognising that this diversity may be a core strength as much as an obstacle to be overcome in cooperation at the trilateral level (see also book chapter here: Walsh 2021).

To make the prospect of a Green Coastal Deal for the Wadden Sea Region a reality requires the development of ambitious, cross-sectoral strategies and programmes, building on synergies and shared knowledge. This will require in the first instance, the drafting of funding proposals to facilitate the joint working of wiling participants towards a common goal. Opportunities for aligning with the European Green Deal are to be found within programmes such as the INTERREG Programme for the North Sea Region, ESPON and HORIZON Europe.

Making a Green Coastal Deal a reality will require:

  • Building on the strengths of the Wadden Sea region as evidenced through existing best practice;
  • Capitalising on the potential for the Wadden Sea World Heritage to act as a catalyst for sustainable socio-economic development, while remaining mindful of the potential risks posed by increased tourism and recreation activity;
  • Developing future-oriented, cross-sectoral visions and strategies and place-based integrative perspectives;
  • Recognising the diversity found in multiple perspectives on the Wadden Sea nature and landscape and fostering understanding of why people value the Wadden Sea; Cultural and biological diversity are complementary!
  • Building on regional perspectives and ways of working rather than seeking to develop ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches;
  •  Fostering both ecological and socio-economic connectivities at the land-sea interface so that the dike-protected coastline becomes less of a ‘hard barrier’ in both physical and mental, socio-cultural terms;
  • Engaging with and building on existing processes of integrated coastal zone management and maritime spatial planning;
  • Assessing the potential and fostering the development of circular economy approaches;
  • Respecting and learning from both material and immaterial cultural heritage while looking to the future in a pragmatic, goal-oriented manner.

This commentary was informed by the author’s reflections on a WSF plenary session, focussed on the Green Coastal Deal, held on 17.03.2021. It is also, in part, inspired by his reading of Jens Enemark’s personal account of his time as secretary to the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation and head of the CWSS, as well as the author’s own research work on the Wadden Sea coastal landscape.

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