The Baltic Sea is ill

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Satu Hassin artikkeli STETE:n Nordic Forum for Security Policy-verkkojulkaisussa
Kevät 2010 

For hundreds of years the Baltic Sea has connected the people living on its shores. Centuries ago, cities belonging to the Hanseatic League were connected via sea transport routes. The sea is still a major transport channel both for goods and people. Every year millions of people take a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn or Stockholm, or between other cities on the Baltic Sea coast. The biggest cities of the Nordic countries are located on the coast, as are St. Petersburg, Hamburg and Gdansk, to name just a few.

A less known fact is that the biggest desert in Europe lies at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Eutrophication has lead to oxygen depletion in the deeper parts of the sea. Although areas with low levels of dissolved oxygen have always existed on the seabed, the man-made increase of nutrients in the basin has expanded these areas significantly.

This dead area cannot be seen from the shore or on a map. The signs of eutrophication that are visible to our eyes are a reduced transparency of the water and blue-green algae that looks like green porridge. Unfortunately this ugly porridge is also toxic. Swimmers must keep themselves away from it during the hottest summer days.

Most people from elsewhere in Europe to whom I have spoken about the Baltic Sea being one of the most polluted sea areas in the world have been amazed. They have thought that everything is fine and clean in northern Europe, its societies are well organised and the people are law abiding and protect the environment.

The Baltic Sea is extremely vulnerable. The cold climate and its brackish water mean that many of its species live on the limits of their existence. The sea is very shallow, with an average depth of only 57 metres. It takes around 30 years for the water of the Baltic Sea to refresh itself. This means that any pollution stays in it for a long time.

Tens of millions of people live in the Baltic Sea’s catchment area and marine transport is intensive. Oil transport has multiplied in the past decade, which of course also multiplies the risk of tanker accidents. Even without an accident shipping is a major source of pollution, emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide, sulphur and nitrous oxides as well as soot particles often referred to as black carbon.

For too long the Baltic Sea has been treated as something that everyone can take advantage of but nobody is responsible for. In reality, the health of the Baltic Sea’s ecosystem is not only important to the ecosystem itself, but also to the many ways in which we are benefiting from the sea, not least fishing, recreation and tourism. We must understand that to make the Baltic Sea area flourish economically and culturally, we need to raise environmental conservation to a new level.

Very few Europeans seem to know that eutrophication is the biggest environmental problem of the Baltic Sea or that agriculture is the biggest source of eutrophicating emissions. A large share of the eutrophicating nutrients come from agricultural fields in EU member states. This means that the EU can – and should – do its part by changing the rules for agricultural subsidies in a way that will reduce eutrophication. Maybe it would even be possible to introduce stricter rules for using nitrogen and phosphates in the Baltic Sea’s catchment area.

Of course we need the co-operation of all the countries around the sea, including Russia. There is still a lot to do in cleaning up waste water in Russian cities on the Baltic shore, also in St. Petersburg. Co-operation is also necessary for preventing oil tanker accidents and releases of other toxic substances into the sea.

The heated debate on the Nord Stream gas pipeline has underlined the necessity of international environmental impact assessments on activities that have a cross-border impact. In my view, if Russia wants to be seen as a responsible partner, it needs to ratify the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context.

Climate change makes protecting the Baltic Sea even more important than before. The blooming of toxic blue-green algae is expected to grow even stronger as the temperatures increase, and fisheries that are important to the inhabitants of the Baltic Sea region may suffer from the changing climate.

The most recent update in climate science, known as “The Copenhagen Diagnosis”, was published in November 2009. It sums up the development of scientific knowledge since the latest IPCC report in 2007 and concludes that global sea levels may rise between 1 and 2 meters by 2100. This would of course be a major problem for all coastal cities and communities.

However, the Baltic Sea also offers ways to mitigate climate change. The most obvious of these is the potential for wind energy that the sea and its coasts offer. It is widely recognised that a significant increase in wind energy is an important part of the clean energy production mix of the future, and onshore and offshore areas offer many of the best places for wind turbines. At the moment there are vast differences in the ways the countries of the Baltic Sea region take advantage of this potential.

In other words the Baltic Sea is facing many threats but it also presents us with opportunities. However, the threats will not go away on their own and the opportunities cannot be grasped without effort or exclusively through voluntary actions. If we want to keep our precious sea as we know it, we need strong policies and measures to protect it.

Satu Hassi
Member of the European Parliament