The Standing Committee of the BSPC met in the Ozeaneum of Stralsund, Germany – face to face with the ‘population’ of the Baltic Sea. They engaged with presentations on ocean science and literacy, the protection of the Baltic Sea, and its meaning for the region. Another presentation highlighted the importance of peatland restoration in climate change mitigation and strengthening the region’s resilience. After that, the Standing Committee was informed about the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity’s results after three years of work, agreed on the subsequent working group and discussed possible contents of the 32nd BSPC Resolution.
About 35 participants, representatives and delegations of the BSPC members from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Estonia, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Latvia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden participated in the meeting.
BSPC President Johannes Schraps opened the meeting, praising the UNESCO World Heritage site of their host city, Stralsund, and its long history in Baltic cooperation, from the Hanseatic League over having been part of Sweden. He also noted that the CBSS Foreign Ministers’ Summit and the VASAB Ministerial Conference had just occurred in Stralsund’s sister city of Wismar. President Schraps had participated in the CBSS summit.
Prof Dr Burkard Baschek, the Scientific Director of the Ozeaneum, welcomed the Standing Committee to the facility. He explained that the German Ocean Museum consisted of four museums: the now fifteen-year-old Ozeaneum, the old Marine Museum, the Natureum, and the Nautineum. He underlined that the task of a museum, such as the Ozeaneum, was to educate, in this case, to bring across knowledge and understanding of the oceans.
He said there were many daunting tasks ahead of the Baltic Sea region, such as climate change, the war in Ukraine, and the many stresses on the ocean itself. The need to act was very urgent. Resilience was key in what had to be implemented – in preserving democracy and giving the people a perspective for the future but also in strengthening ecosystems on land and in the sea during climate change. Only a truly healthy ecosystem could make it into the future. The problem was that, on the one hand, ecosystems had already been under duress before climate change, and, on the other, no one really knew what a healthy ecosystem actually looked like. They had lost the baseline of what that was. It was easy to destroy something but much harder to recover. Decision-makers had to keep in mind that protection was vital.
At the German Ocean Museum, their work dealt much with marine mammals, such as the harbour porpoise. There were western and eastern populations, with the western still healthy but the eastern facing extinction. Among others, by-catch in fishing was a problem. There was also good news as the grey seal was returning, although fishing conflicts had to be tackled. Prof Baschek himself was a physical oceanographer rather than a biologist. His field brought together much of the Ozeaneum’s tasks, both biological and physical processes. In particular, he worked on small ocean eddies – currents transporting nutrients, oxygen, and energy. They were meandering back and forth, moving around. Science was only now realising how important the small ones were in stirring up the ocean and fuelling the water’s life. Very short-lived at around 12 hours, up to a few kilometres in size, they were everywhere and were estimated to provide half of the global phytoplankton production. Phytoplankton generated half of the world’s oxygen; thus, small ocean eddies created every fourth breath a human took. Prof Baschek stressed that this process had long been overlooked and thus was not included in ocean modelling. Likewise, many other unknowns in the oceans had major impacts on the world. At the same time, he stressed that having such unknowns could not be an excuse not to act against climate change.
The museum’s job was to explore the oceans in their many facets and to supply facts. Decision-makers had to consider these facts but also demands from the population and other aspects.
He closed by pointing out that even to the informed observer, it was difficult to picture what was going on in the oceans below the surface. If that devastation were happening on land, there would be a huge outcry. Thus, he called for fully protected marine areas. Just because something was hidden from view did not mean that it did not need protection.
Ms Anna Kassautzki remarked that the lack of borders in the oceans made cooperation as in the BSPC so necessary. Ms Eka von Kalben asked if complete protection was possible. Secretary General Bodo Bahr wondered if closer cooperation with the polar ocean researchers could benefit work in the Baltic Sea. He further asked if recent climate change and biodiversity treaties would include enough measures or if more was needed. Prof Baschek stated that the ocean could not be fully protected, with zero impact of any sort. Even in the Mariana Trench, plastic waste could be found; climate change would eventually reach every part of the ocean. However, the immediate impact from, e.g., fisheries, tourism, or construction could be barred. He added that many impacts were not even considered, such as wind farms churning up the ocean and mixing the two-layer structure of the ocean, thus affecting the transport of nutrients. Furthermore, much could be done locally to improve the ocean’s health, such as the recovery of seagrass beds. Whether enough had been done in ocean protection, far strides had been taken, but more should be protected especially the coastal ocean. As to the different roles of science and politics, he found it crucial that science not step towards opinions but stick to facts. That would not preclude being pushy. Looking for joint solutions by all stakeholders for sustainable oceans was indispensable. Such solutions, found by the wealthy and well-educated nations of the Baltic Sea region, had to be simple enough to be translated to other regions of the world. Bodo Bahr noted that the intended BSPC’s calls to action to the governments included the protection of coastal regions and ecosystems.
Representing the Interdisciplinary Centre for Baltic Sea Research at the University of Greifswald (IFZO), Prof Dr Sebastian van der Linden, one of the Speakers of the IFZO, and Dr Alexander Drost, the Academic Manager of the IFZO, said that the humanities, social sciences, and biology came together in their studies of the Baltic Sea. All their teaching and networking were focused on this region, seeking to understand what kept the region together and what challenges lay ahead. Key was to transfer this knowledge and make it applicable.
Dr Drost said that in 2019, the Centre had launched its conceptual phase. Financed by the Ministry of Science and Education, they had seven research clusters working in all fields, looking to integrate all the Baltic Sea region research at the University of Greifswald and make it more visible. One of the main elements of the IFZO was the annual conference which served to engender a dialogue between science and politics. The latest dealt with predictable futures and the impact of insecurity, with an eye to systemic risks. One finding was that crises rippled through other systems, with social responses amplifying some effects. The round table discussion, featuring representatives from several countries, considered the “Zeitenwende” (so-to-speak the sea change) in politics, society, trade, and science. He highlighted the idea of critical junctures, such as the present one, where the re-securitisation of the Baltic Sea region was part of an ongoing process, requiring new identities, changing policies, and the effects of the war in Ukraine. Here, early warning systems and guiding principles for national security efforts were needed. The issue of trust towards Russia had been addressed, along with the historic divide in western and eastern views. Dr Drost underscored that the war in Ukraine had not been the intended topic of the discussion but had dominated, nevertheless.
Interdisciplinary research in the Baltic Sea region involved the sustainability transformation and other aspects requiring multiple points of view. By disseminating this knowledge through events, articles, and podcasts, the IFZO aimed to guide the transformation efforts. Examples of the IFZO’s work were presented, such as a paper on Lithuania proactively driving its energy independence from Russia which also strengthened the country’s resilience in terms of security. Another article dealt with the NATO expansion and the new role of Germany in the region, with a renewed willingness to engage militarily in the region’s defence. Thirdly, the idea of ocean literacy was the topic of a third publication, i.e., that people had to be enabled to act sustainably on the shores of the Baltic Sea, by teaching them the effects of their actions on the waters. Next, their research on health systems and innovations therein were mentioned, e.g., the respective digitisation. Cultural impacts on these transformation processes were also investigated, such as the meaning of the “Z” symbol in Russia. Humanities research on the region, as in the past 20 years of the centre’s work, had looked, for instance, into keeping the Baltic Sea region in the global context, such as in artistry.
Recently, the IFZO had expanded its interdisciplinary range, now including natural sciences and geography. The latter supplemented the humanities and social sciences approach. For instance, a repository of geo data had been put together as basic information for further research. This was intended to be developed into an atlas. An example was looking into the massive forest fires in Poland between 2015 and 2021, analysing not only the damage but also the composition of tree species, post-fire recovery, or the impact of former Soviet military bases on the event.
The IFZO was accompanying the transformation of the Baltic Sea region with relevant knowledge for the societies to cope with these processes. Their research was to promote further investigations. Moreover, the Baltic Sea region was to be perceived as a global area rather than the periphery of Europe. Finally, their data was to help preserve the natural space of the area.
BSPC President Schraps noted that the discussion in the BSPC had changed since the departure of the Russian delegations. He wondered what opportunities the IFZO representatives saw in the new situation, e.g., to discuss new topics. Ms Bryndís Haraldsdóttir asked about the science community’s reaction to the severed ties with Russia. Ms Eka von Kalben contributed. Mr Enn Eesmaa asked if there were studies on possible harm that Russia could inflict on the west, such as the pollution in the St Petersburg area. Dr Drost noted that the block of Russia had forced scientists to remap their work into new networks, sometimes even stop projects altogether because there no longer was access to Russian archives. On the other hand, they could now evaluate how past decisions had been taken or not and what path dependencies had existed and could now be reformed. Furthermore, Dr Drost underlined that Russia’s actions would continue to impact the environment in the Baltic Sea region, regardless of diplomatic status. He concurred that the security issue, in particular with regard to Kaliningrad, had to be addressed. A respective policy brief had been produced by Polish researchers. Regarding cooperation with Russia, that was very difficult. Some countries forbade all official collaboration, although some individual contacts were continued, even though this had become more cumbersome. Moreover, a large number of Russian scientists supported their regime, making them and their information less trustworthy. Prof van der Linden added that the security issues had come to dominate the discussions at the centre, but his field of natural sciences allowed him to speak about the intentional flooding of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine. His side was not analysing possible similar incidents, admitting that the idea of such warfare frightened him. Even more devastating processes were conceivable, such as intentional pollution or emissions. He doubted that something like that or, e.g., intentional forest fires could be stopped. Mr Enn Eesmaa painted a scenario of a staged terror attack on a nuclear site. Mr Staffan Eklöf asked if the IFZO also studied the shifts in domestic attitudes towards topics such as Russia. Dr Drost confirmed the latter. One of their clusters focused on new nationalism in the Baltic Sea region, dealing with the last 10 – 15 years and thus populism, right-wing movements, and the latter’s reach into youth. This was affecting the crises as well as the implementation of resilience patterns. The IFZO was organising its second summer school on anti-feminism and antisemitism this August. Mr Eklöf wondered about the root causes being studied rather than the responses, mentioning that cohesion and trust were diminishing, especially in areas with high numbers of immigrants in Sweden. Dr Drost noted that the roots were part of their social and humanities research, but responses were used in this field to determine the root causes. Data was first collected, then provided for analysis. At this point, they were still in the former stage in their cluster. As an example, he explained that in Latvia and Estonia, questionnaires were distributed in schools to determine the various attitudes between speakers of Latvian, Estonian, and Russian, looking for which terms were used to describe certain phenomena. This was analysed by historians, linguists, and political scientists, together with legal scientists.
Mr Jan Peters, Managing Director of the Succow Foundation, spoke about peatlands and their key role in the European Green Deal policies. The Succow Foundation was one of the partners of the Greifswald Mire Centre, a science-policy interface, joined by the University of Greifswald. Their goal was to disseminate their findings into politics but also into society for a better understanding of peatland’s importance.
An area was called peatland when the peat layer was at least 30 centimetres thick. Peat was organic soil formed in situ from died-off subsurface biomass under constant water conditions. With water, peat accumulated but decayed without. Functioning as a carbon sink, it was also key to biodiversity as well as nutrient and water retention, increasing climate change resilience. Drying peat emitted CO2, nitrous oxide, and methane. Thus, the carbon footprint of dairy products from drained peatlands was 4 – 5 times as high as that from other areas. Based on the extensive maps from the Greifswald Mire Centre, the Baltic Sea region was the most important peat area in Europe. This also included vast peatlands in Russia, Mr Peters noted. Unfortunately, 25 % of all peatlands in Europe were degraded, rising to 50 % within EU member states. In Germany, 95 % were drained. This was primarily due to agriculture and forestry but also peat extraction. The result was that a quarter of all agricultural and land use emissions in the EU stemmed from peatlands, despite taking up only 3 % of the area. Globally, the EU was the second-largest emitter of peatland carbon dioxide, right after Indonesia.
Thus, it was necessary to rethink and restore peatlands. To that end, new ways of utilising and managing peatlands had to be developed. At the same time, the social component was required, visualising the end result and making it liveable. Alternative income options from wetted peat included paludiculture – wetland crops – or carbon farming schemes – rewarding emission reduction through private or public payment schemes. The products from peatlands could be used in construction, insulation, bioenergy and bio refinery. Mr Peters said that major rewetting efforts could turn the Baltic Sea region into an innovation cluster for paludiculture.
Looking at the European Green Deal, peat was crucial to fulfilling the targets set in various policy directives, such as the carbon removing framework or the soil health law. Research, such as Horizon 2020 programmes, were supporting these efforts. Counteracting the Green Deal, though, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was unfortunately still the main driver of peatland degradation due to payments for drained areas. A new standard for good agricultural practice had been established in the CAP, including the protection of wetlands, but this was delayed in many member states until 2025. Even with the reforms, Mr Peters criticised the soft regulations and that little support was given to climate benefits such as rewetting efforts. He moved on to the EU Nature Restoration Law, the instrument for the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, which focused on alternative uses of peatlands such as paludiculture rather than renaturalisation. The Succow Foundation had analysed what these measures meant in terms of meeting the climate targets in peatlands. By 2050, when the EU was planning to be climate-neutral, there would still be quite substantial emissions from peatlands, up to 25 – 30 megatons in Germany and up to 25 in Poland. The current plans failed to fully exploit the carbon reduction potential from rewetting peatlands.
There were specific projects funded by the EU under the Horizon Green Deal call, the largest of which was the Waterlands Project, implementing action sites for rewetting as well as knowledge sites for research and data sharing. They were developing better practices for rewetting. Further projects were Alpha Wetlands and Wet Horizons generating data while OrgBalt dealt with organic soils and peatlands in the Baltic States.
Mr Peters closed by saying that rewetted peatlands were still islands within drained seas. Conceding that paludiculture was more expensive than conventional land use, he hoped that the Green Deal policies would allow a return to living landscapes of benefit beyond the area itself.
Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson asked how political support for rewetting purposes should exactly be implemented. Mr Staffan Eklöf recounted highly varied results of rewetting forest areas in Sweden, wondering how geology determined the most suitable sites. He further asked if carbon sequestration in wood was included in the calculation of CO2 emissions. Ms Anna Kassautzki underlined that rewetted peatland could not catch fire as was currently the case in Germany, adding that the water retention of peatlands was highly desirable. Mr Peters agreed that support for farmers was crucial as individuals could not easily rewet their land alone. It was most important to find consensus among landowners and land users in one region, with a caretaker appoint to advise on and coordinate the process. He referred to a Dutch model of farming collectives. Here, he highlighted the concept of living labs which gave scientists and practitioners safe spaces to test their methods. Aside from farmers, the industry also had to be taken into account as they had to buy the products and thus finance the efforts. Regarding forest rewetting, Mr Peters concurred that it was a delicate and complex problem, adding that forestry, after all, was inherently a long-term business. At the same time, life-cycle analyses had to determine how the carbon originally sequestered in trees, whether in short-term products like paper or long-term storage such as construction. This was a knowledge gap, he conceded, that e.g., the University of Greifswald was currently working on. He cautioned that the long-term storage of peat should not be sacrificed to the short- or mid-term storage of wood grown on that land. He cited Finland’s continuous cover forestry as an excellent model which allowed the forest to remain while raising the water level. There was no one-size-fits-all solution, he underscored. Mr Peters went on to warn that wildfires, including peat fires, were accelerating at an alarming rate, releasing huge amounts of carbon. Thus, it was crucial to keep the water as long as possible in the land, establish local cooling measures and have good growth conditions for plants. Again, this pointed to Russia: His side had had a large-scale project on peat fires in European Russia which had been abandoned over the war in Ukraine. He called this a catastrophe for peatland protection.
Mr Himanshu Gulati asked if recent behaviours had made the trends worse. Mr Enn Eesmaa stressed the importance of drinking water, wondering if the vast reservoir of fresh water in the Baltic Sea region might save southern regions in a future disaster.
Mr Bodo Bahr pointed out that tropical forest countries used the continued large-scale CO2-emitting use of peatlands as an argument to maintain their behaviour concerning the use of tropical forests and wondered whether this argument continued to be significant in the international climate debate. Mr Peters did not see any change in the situation in recent years but cautioned that drained peatlands continued to emit carbon dioxide without there having to be new drainage operations. However, knowledge had changed, precisely the huge amount emitted by peat. Awareness had grown, but there was a long way to go before it was widely known by the public. Regarding drinking water, he underlined peatland’s sponge-like behaviour that could maintain water even in drought conditions. That helped keep the water level high in other regions. He pointed out that the German capital of Berlin received most of its drinking water from peatland. Similar rewetting efforts were pursued by Scottish water companies. He could not predict the future but stressed the manifold benefits of restoring peatlands. Considering the international sphere, he confirmed that this argument was still being made. Mr Peters called peatlands the Baltic Sea region’s rain forests. He noted their connections to Indonesia, citing the raging peat fires there and the government’s strict efforts to restore peatlands, already having restored two million hectares in two years – more than the EU had restored in its entire history. As the second-largest emitter, the EU also had the obligation – and the money – to act on a large scale. Policies had to support these efforts. Ms Kassautzki underlined that farmers were open to rewetting but needed guidance on how to do this and how to continue living with – and using – that land. On the other hand, the peat industry threatened that stricter regulations in Germany would make them harvest the peat in the Baltic States. Thus, she argued for joint efforts and regulations across borders to preserve peatlands. BSPC President Schraps joined in that, as a German politician, he did not appreciate seeing his country stand out on a map as the place that needed to do the most.
The follow-up to the 31st BSPC
President Schraps announced that responses had been received from the governments of Åland, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hamburg, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Norway, Poland, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden. Because of their elections, the answer from Finland would be sent later. All would be included in the compilation on the BSPC website.
Considerations about the future accommodation of the BSPC Secretariat
President Johannes Schraps summarised the previous considerations, developments and investigations into possibly establishing a future headquarters of the BSPC Secretariat, including possible options and diverging opinions by the members of the Standing Committee. After the completion of the Presidium in Brussels and the recent announcement of the agreement of all members to the increased contributions and thus the now available clarity about the financial basis, the working group could deepen now the previous discussions on the basis of further information, particularly about financial aspects that have been provided in the meantime as already envisaged. The Standing Committee agreed to the proposal of President Schraps to includethe former BSPC presidents Prof Jānis Vucāns and Ms Carola Veit, with their long-standing experience in that group.
After further contributions by Ms Hanna Katrín Friðriksson, Prof Jānis Vucāns, Ms Carola Veit, Mr Enn Eesmaa, Mr Staffan Eklöf and Mr Jarosław Wałęsa on the consideration of the practical aspects, the secretariat, the financial side, the Rules of Procedure and the time frame of the process, Mr Schraps explained that the plan was for the Presidium’s working group to meet on 13 July 2023 and to present their findings to the first Standing Committee meeting under the Danish presidency in November 2023.
The Standing Committee agreed with that procedure.
Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity
BSPC President Johannes Schraps noted that the working group had completed its three years of work at the meeting in Gdanśk on 15 May 2023 with 25 unanimously agreed calls for action to be included in the 32nd BSPC resolution. BSPC Secretary General Bodo Bahr submitted a proposal to shorten the final report to a more manageable size, along with a political executive summary. The Standing Committee agreed to the proposal.
New BSPC Working Group after the 32nd Annual Conference
President Schraps explained that the Latvian delegation, with support from the Baltic Assembly, had submitted a comprehensive proposal for a working group on energy security, self-sustainability, and connectivity.
The Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, represented by Ms Eka von Kalben, asked for the topic of Resilience to critical infrastructure to be added to the Latvian design. Mr Himanshu Gulati fully supported the Latvian proposal. Mr Staffan Eklöf equally agreed with the proposal, suggesting that interconnectivity and electricity prices also be included. Prof Jānis Vucāns clarified that this was a proposal from the Baltic Assembly, adding that the propositions from Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden were already part of the submitted range of topics but agreed to put more focus on these.
The Standing Committee agreed to forward the proposal from the Baltic Assembly to the Conference for final approval.
BSPC Rapporteur on Sea-Dumped Munitions, Ms Anna Kassautzki, had attended an expert roundtable on the topic in December 2022, organised by the CBSS. They had discussed with researchers and representatives from NATO and the European Commission. Ms Kassautzki had submitted the proposals of the BSPC Working Group in this respect as well as the German government’s grant of 100 million euros to build a prototype mobile disposal platform. It had been consensus that enough data had been collected for action. The Baltic Sea should serve as the pioneering site for these technologies and processes. The EU was interested in funding further such disposal platforms once the prototype would prove successful. She underlined that several countries around the Baltic Sea were pursuing this topic.
Prof Jānis Vucāns noted that the Baltic States would provide further reflections on this issue as part of the considerations on the draft resolution.
President Johannes Schraps added that the topic of sea-dumped munitions had also been deepened at the Ministerial and VASAB meetings of the CBSS in Wismar one and a half weeks earlier. This proved that the parliamentary efforts of the BSPC worked and affected the government level.
The Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
President Schraps informed the Standing Committee about the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum in conjunction with the Conference. The topic would be Democracy Under Siege – How Do We Make Democracies More Resilient? 8 members of parliaments would work closely with the young participants to elaborate the recommendations of the Forum. The organisers were still looking for further experts and high-level speakers. A fireside session was intended for Saturday, featuring former BSPC President Franz Thönnes, who would talk about the history of the BSPC. The Secretariat and the CBSS were currently reviewing the applications. A virtual pre-meeting was planned to inform the youths about the BSPC’s workings and the Forum’s plans. Mr Staffan Eklöf suggested another member of the Swedish delegation to join the roundtable discussion.
The 32nd BSPC, Berlin, 27-29 August 2023
The title of the Conference was Strengthening the Resilience of the Democratic Baltic Sea Region – Boosting the Democratic, Maritime, and Digital Resilience and Reliable Neighbourliness and Close Cooperation. The propositions from the preceding Standing Committee meeting had been incorporated into the programme.
The Standing Committee went on to discuss the contents of the Resolution for the Berlin Conference as well as the procedure to finalise the text in the run-up to the Conference. Mr Staffan Eklöf suggested regarding invasive species, lower fishing quotas, and that the many conflicting interests had to be balanced. Ms Anna Kassautzki commented on fish stocks, recommending a study on pike under various aspects. Ms Eka von Kalben addressed the further procedure. President Schraps underlined that amendment proposals could be submitted in writing by the end of the month. Ms Bryndís Haraldsdóttir noted that she would provide a proposal regarding human rights. Prof Jānis Vucāns presented some wording changes and a proposal on how to present an abstract on sea-dumped munitions. President Schraps and Secretary General Bahr were grateful for the text and agreed it would be shaped into the final form. Prof Vucāns stressed that it was important to show results achieved from the BSPC’s efforts, especially in this field.
At the Standing Committee meeting in Berlin, it had been agreed that the contributions from the members of the BSPC would be increased to make up for inflation since 2007
and considering the current composition of the membership. The SC was informed that the transfer of the increase in the membership fees to the BSPC from all members was expected soon. This provided the financial underpinning of the budget decided in Brussels. President Schraps noted that parliaments hosting BSPC meetings in the current year had already felt beneficial effects.
BSPC President Johannes Schraps remarked that he had been invited to the CBSS Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Wismar, where he gave an impact statement on offshore wind, providing insight into the BSPC’s discussions and the parliamentary dimension, particularly on sea-dumped munitions. There had been the opportunity for additional conversations in the margins of the meeting with high-level representatives.
Regarding the first Standing Committee meeting of the Danish presidency, upcoming President Henrik Møller stated that it would take place on 12-13 November 2023 in Maribo, where they could visit the Fehmarn Belt construction site. This was Denmark’s largest infrastructure project which would immensely shorten travel times between Scandinavia and Central Europe.
Ms Jessy Eckerman confirmed that the Åland parliament would take over the presidency of the BSPC after the 33rd annual conference in Denmark and hold the 2025 Conference in Mariehamn.