Marine spatial planning and the transition to a low carbon economy
: A critical evaluation of the UK approach

  • Jane Clarke

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Without a substantial and sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, climatic change will increase the likelihood of severe, and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Such change requires the acceleration of multilevel (social, political and technological) and cross-sectoral transformation towards a low-emissions world. This transition to a low carbon economy is particularly pertinent in the marine environment, comprising a range of measures (e.g. area-based conservation, and spatial planning) and activities including offshore wind deployment, habitat restoration, and technological innovation (e.g. electric ships). Facilitating the low carbon transition thus requires the resolution of highly interrelated economic, environmental, social, and cultural conflicts of interests.

Spatial management of these activities, via mechanisms such as marine spatial planning (MSP) will be central to realising the transition by integrating decision-making. Advanced as an accessible and ecosystem approach to marine management, MSP has quickly become adopted as a rational governance process for addressing spatial and temporal distributions of marine activities and issues. In practice, however, MSP initiatives appear to repackage the status quo in empty participatory rhetoric providing the appearance of democratic legitimacy to neoliberal exploitation. The collaborative and contested nature of the low carbon transition compels this study to consider how leading MSP initiatives function to create cross-community understanding and coordinated action.

In response, this thesis claims to make three key contributions to knowledge. The first relates to a better understanding of institutional resistance in MSP. An analysis of political texts (speeches and documents), marine plan documents, and semi-structured interviews illustrates how realisation of the low carbon transition within the UK’s MSP programme was fundamentally restricted by the broader institutional context and political regime. This thesis thus challenges the notion that MSP can be re-politicised so as to facilitate a step-wise change in the governance of the marine area. The second relates to a comparative analyse of MSP in England and Scotland in which the constitutional complexity of the UK’s pioneering climate and MSP legislative frameworks is foregrounded. The justification and realisation of MSP the low carbon transition is reflective of the asymmetrical distribution of legal powers to Devolved Administrations. MSP thus propagates the centralisation of decision-making and returns.

Finally, the thesis makes a theoretical contribution by developing a theoretical framework – distinguishing between boundary and pseudo-boundary objects - for examining the dynamic process of multi-community cooperation where there is the expectation of obstructive collaboration. The concept of ‘boundary objects’ has provided a rich framework for analysing collaborative processes involving heterogeneous communities. A bias within the literature was found that sought to black-box every cross-community thing, regardless of how it functions between communities, as a boundary object. This study argues that conceptually extending boundary objects to cover situations that are both enabling and inhibitory weakens the core value of the concept. Subsequently, by focussing on the functions rather than the features of boundary objects and linking this to the way knowledge may be controlled at community boundaries, the theoretical framework introduces an alternative typology: pseudo-boundary objects that operate in situations of obstructive collaboration. The development and subsequent application of this framework helps clarify how power inequalities can corrupt the sharing of knowledge within the implementation of MSP in England and Scotland.

Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy & Marine Institute
SupervisorWesley Flannery (Supervisor) & Geraint Ellis (Supervisor)


  • Marine spatial planning
  • climate change
  • transition to a low carbon economy
  • boundary objects
  • marine governance
  • participation

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