Measures to save the Baltic Sea are not working

28 March, 2022

Most of the Baltic Sea is still affected by eutrophication and bottom degradation. Policies to save the sea are not working, according to a recent study. No country has implemented everything it promised to reduce nutrient emissions from agriculture.

– The goals are clear, but the policies to achieve them are lacking,” says Mark Brady, associate professor of natural resource and environmental economics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and one of the researchers behind the study.

Since 2007, the nine countries around the Baltic Sea have had a joint action plan – the Baltic Sea Action Plan – to save the sea. It sets concrete targets and measures to reduce emissions.

The work is being carried out in the framework of the Helsinki Commission and already in 1998 the countries concerned agreed on basic measures to limit the environmental impact of agriculture. Much is focused on manure management.

Baltic Sea
The Baltic Sea, seen here from Fårö, is severely affected by eutrophication and bottom degradation. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“It’s surprising”

Sweden is the best in class with the most measures in place, but no country has done everything.

– It is surprising. The cooperation has been going on for a couple of decades and there are still many basic measures that have not been implemented by the countries,” says Mark Brady.

The worst performers are the countries in the East. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, for example, have no cap on phosphorus inputs.

– The most obvious is the economic difference between, for example, Sweden and Denmark and the old Eastern countries, which have much lower GDP. Citizens there are less willing to pay to save the Baltic Sea. They have other priorities, so it’s difficult nationally to justify a tougher approach,” says Brady.

According to the study, stronger local authorities and institutions, such as water boards and advisory services, would be needed in several countries.

– In Poland, for example, there are tens of thousands of farmers who would need to be reached. In particular, free counselling is very important, but it is missing there.

Costs vary

The researchers also point out that the cost of reducing emissions varies greatly from country to country. It depends on local factors such as climate, soil type, farm structure and economy. One consequence is unnecessarily high costs to achieve the objectives and a perceived inequity in the distribution of costs.

– The Baltic Sea Action Plan does not take into account where it is cheapest to reduce emissions. “Research shows that you can reduce emissions at a much lower cost if you focus measures in the right place,” says Brady.

Costs could be redistributed between countries. For example, Sweden could support Poland in implementing measures that have a greater impact on the sea than measures in Sweden would have had.

– Eight of the nine countries are in the EU, and the EU has the institutional power to make them live up to their promises. ‘There is a lot of money in agricultural policy, but in many countries very little is spent on reducing nutrient leaching,’ says Brady.

Question of survival

In the Nordic countries, voluntary agri-environmental payments are proposed to be redirected by linking them to the extent to which a measure reduces emissions. This is to get more environmental value for money.

Ultimately, it’s about the future of the sea.

– 80-90% of the Baltic Sea is affected by eutrophication and widespread bottom degradation. The question is how long this unique ecosystem can survive.

The study was carried out by researchers at the Agrifood Economics Centre, a collaboration between the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and the School of Economics at Lund University.

The researchers looked at how the Baltic Sea Action Plan is being followed by the nine countries around the sea. Each country is committed to reducing its annual emissions of phosphorus and nitrogen by a certain amount of tonnes. The focus has been on agriculture, which in Sweden accounts for 55% of nutrient emissions into the Baltic Sea.

According to the study, the current environmental policy for the Baltic Sea is inadequate for three reasons:

Many countries have not implemented the promised measures to reduce nutrient emissions from agriculture.

The will to reduce emissions is undermined by an action plan that is unnecessarily costly and perceived as unfair in some countries.

Eastern countries have weak local institutions while others have ineffective environmental support.

Source: report “Is the policy for a cleaner Baltic Sea working?”

Text: TT
Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT, Robert Westerberg

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