In its first in-person meeting after four digital sessions, the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity met in Åland for a two-day event. On the first day, they learned about the islands’ efforts towards a fully sustainable society. With the support of government, the private sector and the people, efforts are ongoing to establish wide-ranging structures for offshore wind parks, solar power plants and tying these into international power grids. Furthermore, a new concept for island sustainability has been developed to international acclaim, making habitability a measure for the unique characteristics of islands.
About 30 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Estonia, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Latvia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Poland, and Sweden attended the meeting.
Ms Veronica Thörnroos, Head of the Åland Government, who had also been very engaged in the BSPC work for many years, offered a wholehearted welcome to the working group meeting participants in the 100th anniversary year of Åland’s autonomy. She underlined the importance of international cooperation and close contact between politicians from different countries around the Baltic Sea. She wished the working group members much success in their ongoing work dealing with crucial issues for the Baltic Sea.
In her introduction to the members to the fifth meeting of the Working Group, Chair Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby pointed out that this was the first time the group had been able to meet in person, after all-digital meetings due to COVID-19 restrictions. She highlighted the deep involvement of the Åland parliament, the Lagting, in the BSPC, having hosted the annual conference three times as well as several working groups and the Standing Committee on numerous occasions. Ms Tenfjord-Toftby pointed out that the BSPC had frozen all connections to Russian representatives, including this working group.
Vice Chair Liz Mattsson, also representing the meeting’s host country of Åland, offered a welcome of her own to Mariehamn. She underlined that this year marked the 100th anniversary of Åland’s autonomy. The BSPC was important for her parliament as cross-border cooperation, namely also between parliamentarians, had never been as crucial as right now.
Mr Berndt Schalin, CEO of Flexens Ltd, spoke about the project Smart Energy Åland his company was implementing. Born in 2014 from a cluster of clean tech companies in Finland, the goal was to show how a society could run on 100 % renewable energy only. The academic phase of the project had been completed in 2018, after which time the project was incorporated as a company, still primarily funded by the Finnish government. The excellent conditions for wind and solar power as well as the island’s existing endeavours in this regard and its self-contained energy market regulation contributed to Åland serving as the testbed, with a large service and transport sector as well as a sizable population of 30,000 people. This allowed experiences there to be scaled up to other countries and Europe as a whole.
Existing technology could not support a wholly renewable economy so that the project had chosen to put together small-scale demonstrations of future technologies that would have to be developed. On Åland, electricity was not a major emission source as the power provided from Sweden was nuclear and hydro-electric. Instead, heating and traffic were the main emitters, in particular maritime traffic. For a fully sustainable economy, energy would come mainly from solar and wind power. Being weather-dependent sources, that meant storage was required, in the case of Åland preferably as heat storage rather than batteries.
Mr Schalin listed three sub-projects, one about an energy island community as part of the Horizon 2020 programme, plans for a hydrogen-powered ferry and an abandoned mine to be turned into a hydro energy storage facility. In that regard, Mr Schalin pointed out that usage determined technology – if the end use was heat, heat storage was best; if hydrogen-based mobility was looked for, hydrogen was ideal, but on the other hand, the poor efficiency in turning hydrogen into electricity again made that a bad proposition. Current wind power installations produced 60 MW, with the potential for more than 6 GW in offshore wind parks, while a solar park producing 30 MW was planned.
Looking at futureproof technologies, Mr Schalin focused on hydrogen, first explaining that batteries were 90 % efficient in conveying power to the vehicle while hydrogen fuel cells only yielded 60 % – still a notable advance over the 35 – 40 % achieved by internal combustion engines. Synthetic fuels were less desirable as they added another conversion level in-between the original hydrogen and the use in the engine, i.e., creating more efficiency loss and greater costs. Looking at the use case of ferries, the higher efficiency and lower cost of batteries was countered by their significant weight so that hydrogen was more economic on longer duration journeys. He conceded that the advantage of synthetic fuels was that they could be run on existing engines. The real bottleneck in the energy transition was the permission process on the side of governments, as local complaints were processed too slowly.
In response to a question from Ms Tenfjord-Toftby about European energy taxes, Mr Schalin clarified that Åland was part of the EU but subject to Finnish, non-EU taxation which followed a different scheme. To another question by Prof Jānis Vucāns, President of the Baltic Assembly, he clarified that his company was owned by a consortium of enterprises and universities, the city of Mariehamn, the government of Åland and local energy companies.
After a question from Secretary General Bodo Bahr regarding the maritime fuel cell debate in Germany 10 years earlier, Mr Schalin pointed out that hydrogen-based solutions were already in use, such as trains or ferries in San Francisco.
He underlined that the Baltic Sea was a very good place for hydrogen production through e.g., offshore wind. Finland and Sweden were collaborating in a push for the Baltic Sea to become the energy-producing “Gulf States” of the future for Europe, running the open BotH2nia network collaborating in hydrogen production.
Mr Ralf Häggblom, Department of Infrastructure in the government of Åland, spoke next about the project Sunnanvind (Sea-based Wind Power), concerning the establishment of large-scale offshore wind farms in the areas of planning and permissions. Rather than developing and implementing the wind farms themselves, Sunnanvind was laying the administrative groundwork, through cooperation across borders, for instance with the Danish Energy Agency, but also in the various municipalities where the farms would be housed. Moreover, they were communicating information to stakeholders as well as outside interested parties.
The government’s maritime spatial plan had determined six suitable areas, all owned by the government, with the north offering better cost-competitiveness and efficiency. While the potential energy production was huge, the primary concern was how to get the power to suitable markets in cost-efficient ways. Aside from directly tapping into power grids, hydrogen could be produced offshore, although onshore production and refinement – based on offshore energy – was more cost-competitive. The project was investigating possible threat scenarios for wind park operators, such as the ice risk. Furthermore, they were evaluating which energy distribution schemes made the most sense.
Currently, the wind farm locations were being auctioned off. Estimates were for 10 – 12 years of building up the capacities, requiring a long-term organisation to adjust plans and manage Åland’s interests. Added to this was the 30 – 35-year lifetime of a wind farm. The present project, though, would be ending in 2026, with the termination of its EU funding.
Mr Häggblom addressed the permit process which was shared between Åland and Finland in some crucial respects. For instance, environmental and construction permits were Åland’s responsibility while defence assessments or seabed investigations fell to the Finnish side. Accordingly, close cooperation with the Finnish authorities was needed, and similar collaboration was required with Swedish ministries for exporting power to that country.
Ms Tenfjord-Toftby asked about wind conditions in the Baltic Sea, noting that to her knowledge they were better than the west coasts of Sweden or Norway. She further mentioned a current debate in Sweden about who would bear the costs of connecting offshore energy production to onshore power grids, governments or end users. Mr Häggblom clarified that Åland’s wind installations would be market-based, without government subsidies. As for the energy grid connection, the government was still negotiating and evaluating options. Nevertheless, that meant energy prices for end users would incorporate these costs. To a comment by Mr Arvils Ašeradens, MP Latvia, Mr Häggblom said that he expected wind farms to be implemented only around 2030. He further specified that the northern area covered some 600 km² and that the wind farm would be visible from shore in good weather. As for the sea conditions, present standards called for depths of no more than 50 metres to install wind power generators nor less than about 20 metres. 30 metres were a good target for secure operations. Regarding a question of Mr Kacper Płażyński, MP Poland, about nuclear power on Åland, Mr Häggblom pointed out that the sea was the natural resource available to the islands and government investments were targeting wind rather than nuclear power.
Mr Christian Pleijel spoke about habitability on the island of Kökar, as far out at sea as was possible in Åland. The project approach was bottom-up, from the island perspective. There were 230 residents on Manhattan-sized Kökar, a municipality of its own, with its own legislative authority. Four years earlier, a sustainability analysis had been launched for the island, supported by EU funding. It turned out that the ordinary sustainability tools were not detailed enough to apply to so small a location, especially given the peculiarities of an island environment. Therefore, Kökar had developed a concept of their own, focused on habitability rather than sustainability: What mattered for a small island was that people wanted to live there, including such factors as jobs, cheap energy or ferry access. These were lacking in regular sustainability analyses. With forty indicators developed, Kökar put together a habitability plan based on seven main areas: prosperous people, confidence in the society, clean water, ecosystems in balance, attractiveness, renewable energy and the local economy. Results showed that Kökar was not – per their own definition – habitable in some areas, such as prices. Costs of living on Kökar were 150 % of the respective costs in Åland’s capital of Mariehamn. Energy was another problematic factor as Kökar residents were frequently using ferries, and these were rarely full. So, the municipality, along with the company Flexens, applied to the Horizon 2020 programme and received 1.2 million euros to remake their energy system, as a pilot project for a multitude of similar islands in the EU.
The habitability concept was developed further, with academic and EU assistance, piquing the interest of several other islands. The revised seven areas now started with place identity. Here, he mentioned the difference of summer and winter on islands – filled to the brim with visitors in the former, only the few locals remaining in winter. These two different identities made energy planning very complicated, the same applying to water and sewage as well as ferry schedules. Indicators now measured inter alia full-time and part-time residents as well as the population dynamics shifting over a year. The UN had introduced a tourist-to-locals ratio for countries, with Andorra reaching a world record of 36 tourists to 1 local resident. Kökar, though, had a ratio of 250 to 1. He underlined how crucial population dynamics were to islands, increasing the difficulty of planning. The next area was distance. Kökar was only 20 kilometres from the next destination, but it took two and a half hours to get there. Accordingly, time was the relevant measure for the so-called perceived distance rather than kilometres.
After that, there were ecosystems, fresh water, energy, local economy, public service and prosperous people. Ecosystems dealt with land and sea, specifically how natural events were affecting the island. Fresh water concerned water resources, such as rain and snow but also the question of desalination. For each of these indicators, there was now a formula in place to determine its status. Examples were provided for each of them as well.
Energy looked at its consumption, how much was produced in situ and how much was renewable. Local economy considered the business ecosystem of the island, such as work opportunities, the local turnover, the spending leakage by shopping elsewhere. This area also included the brand of the island, i.e., whether it was attractive for both tourists and prospective residents. Public services included local administration, school system, taxes and the like. Prosperous people investigated age distribution, health, safety and integration. The final – and most important – consideration was whether the population was growing.
Mr Pleijel noted that this habitability system was now being applied to 12 Finnish islands, the other 5 island municipalities of Åland as well as islands in Croatia. He underlined that habitability was vital for new projects, such as the wind farms in the earlier presentations, as acceptance by the local population was necessary. Wind power was a huge opportunity for islands, but it had to be dealt with in a very delicate manner.
After a question by Mr Bodo Bahr, Mr Pleijel noted that this concept could be applied to all islands, with their own peculiarities, including as an example Helgoland in Germany. As the EU funding had concerned the development of the habitability concept, Ms Tenfjord-Toftby asked if further EU money was needed for the investments needed to develop Kökar, given the low number of residents and thus tax-payers. Mr Pleijel clarified that the original project was part of Interreg, the second Horizon 2020. But that energy project had not been started yet, because of resistance on the island. He insisted that Kökar was seeking to finance the transition themselves, as much as possible, so as to own most of the facilities.
Åland has a long-term project on fulfilling the sustainability targets on the islands, called Bärkraft. Ms Petra Granholm and Mr Niklas Lampi spoke about this project.
Ms Petra Granholm introduced herself as a civil society representative in this respect, responsible for the goal of biodiversity. Aiming to become fully sustainable no later than 2051, after 9 parliamentary periods, the Åland parliament and government had launched their efforts in 2014, based on the internationally recognised definition of sustainable development and adapted to the needs of the islands. The strength of the agenda lay in its wide spread among several sectors, including civil society, academia, business and government. One of the two guiding lights of the project was Åland’s vision that everyone could flourish on the islands of peace, along with the 2030 target for the global sustainability goals.
Of the seven goals of the Åland project, the first two concerned social sustainability, three and four dealt with the environment, the fifth was attractiveness of the islands, the sixth was climate change and energy efficiency, and the seventh was about sustainable and mindful patterns of consumption and production. To that end, a roadmap had been developed that was constantly being updated. In the near future, the latest status report was about to be published, indicating how far Åland had come in the key indicators. In 2019, the project had received the European Sustainability Award. Ms Granholm mentioned a survey several years earlier showing that a large part of the population was aware of the efforts and supported them. The sustainability project, she underlined, had a deep entrenchment in Åland society. After six years of work, the structure for the work was now in place.
Ms Tenfjord-Toftby wondered if the key to Åland’s success was the small size of the project, making it easier to reach people from all kinds of sectors. Ms Granholm agreed but rather saw the building of the structure as decisive and bringing everyone on board. Mr Simon Påvals, MP Åland, added that the grassroots approach had been vital in his view, communicating the goals to the people from the start. It had been genius and the basis for the success of putting everything into everyone’s consciousness from the beginning. He had been involved in the process at the beginning as a social fieldworker. Now, he could see it from another perspective as a member of Parliament.
To a further question from Ms Tenfjord-Toftby, Ms Petra Granholm said she believed their efforts could be scaled up, although she noted Åland’s unique characteristics.
Mr Niklas Lampi, responsible for the topic of climate change in the Bärkraft project, considered himself the representative of the local business sector. The recently revised target in this area had been set for Åland to become climate-neutral by 2035, influenced by the Finnish climate law currently debated in parliament. Aside from the benefits in itself, climate change mitigation also offered new opportunities for growth for the local community. In their efforts, Åland was focused on greenhouse gas emissions, with a number of sub-goals. Mr Lampi cautioned that some of these were very difficult to reach, such as 80 % lower emissions by 2030. More achievable was a 50 % reduction in road transport emissions since private companies were already pursuing this in smaller vehicles. Cost-effective solutions for lorries and other large vehicles were still lacking, though, and had to be developed. The third goal, though, was one that the Nordic countries had already almost reached – complete provision of electricity without fossil fuels. Water, nuclear, solar and wind power would soon be the exclusive electricity sources. The fourth goal was the phasing out of fossil energy in heating buildings and switching to climate-smart solutions.
He explained that climate emissions in Åland had been going down since 2005, although there was still a long way to go. Three major emitters of the present day were expected to significantly drive down emissions in the coming years: heating, road traffic and commercial shipping, with the latter under pressure from EU regulations. Another emitter, farming, offered both a risk and an opportunity as a carbon sink. The archipelago ferries, though, used diesel engines and were under no legislative pressure to change over to renewables, unlike commercial shipping. Electricity came in last as a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Here, he mentioned the planned offshore wind park that could provide as much as a third of the power consumption of Finland.
As a positive development, Mr Lampi highlighted that the EU countries were moving away from cheap Russian fossil fuels to create a new future. While other fossil fuels would replace some of these, the Green Agenda would be pushed forward and could prove a gamechanger for the energy system in Europe.
Chairwoman Tenfjord-Toftby inquired what the Bärkraft representatives saw as the key factors of Åland’s success, allowing it to be scaled up to other countries. For Mr Lampi, short distances were a vital aspect, not least between business and politics. The project also brought together people from backgrounds who normally would not discuss these issues, offering fresh perspectives. Ms Tenfjord-Toftby noted that the bottom-up approach seemed to be a connecting factor in all the projects on Åland, mentioning one example of seaweed being harvested and turned into a product rather than clogging up the waters. The support of the people was decisive but ramping up from the small populations of Åland to entire countries looked challenging. Mr Lampi agreed but countered those countries had better resources, e.g., in data collection, already in place.
Prof Jānis Vucāns, President of the Baltic Assembly,asked about the share of archipelago ferries in the overall emissions. Mr Lampi replied that they made up 8 % and were part of the Bärkraft project. Commercial shipping, at 30 %, was not included. Bärkraft’s logic was that shipping was under the EU’s purview, effecting enormous force, so that Åland was concentrating on issues they could affect directly. Prof Vucāns was also concerned with climate neutrality as rising energy prices for fuel had led to backslides in some countries. In Mr Lampi’s view, these prices were rather pushing the electrification of vehicles.
Mr Bodo Bahr asked about the progress made in Åland since the BSPC had learned about the efforts six years earlier; Ms Granholm explained that it was difficult to quantify because the goals had been revised during that time. New understanding had led to improved indicators, shifting the ambitions. Mr Lampi added that, for electricity production, Åland used solely wind power, and the Nordic countries were mostly emission-free in that regard. Because that goal had already been achieved, the target had been expanded to other energy sources. He described setting the goals as a living process.
Mr Kacper Płażyński wished to know about the timetable for the offshore wind farm. Mr Lampi explained they were in the early stages, exploring possible areas and talking to companies interested in setting up the 500 windmills. The most optimistic scenario was for 2030, after clearing the hurdles of a permit by the defence ministry as well as environmental and biodiversity concerns.
This led into Ms Petra Granholm speaking about biodiversity. Being a part of nature, it was vital to do no harm to the existing species. That attitude was crucial, underlined by a finding that most people in Åland saw an intrinsic value in plants and animals, beyond human use. The majority also saw benefits in human health and the economy through environmental efforts. For this region, planning was a complicated affair since Åland’s sixteen municipalities had their own plans, making coordinated mitigation of climate effects and the establishment of green passages more difficult. Further targets of the project focused on keeping the impact of invasive species as low as possible, establishing protected areas as per EU strategy and legislation and finally restoration of locally lost species and rewilding. The primary challenge for Åland was that they were far behind the goals called for by the EU Biodiversity Strategy to implement protected areas. As demanding as EU legislation was on the small administrative staff, Ms Granholm underlined that it had been a driving force in the autonomous region’s environmental endeavour.
Ms Tenfjord-Toftby wondered if raising awareness about losing biodiversity was more difficult. Ms Granholm agreed and applauded the working group’s combination of this topic with climate change. She referred to Sir David Attenborough who was championing this approach of solving – at least some – climate change problems through nature and being aware of humans as part of the web of life. As an example, she mentioned natural carbon sinks. Storytelling was crucial to communicate this message. Mr Lampi noted that biodiversity and ecosystems offered services that assisted in confronting and adapting to climate change – services that were also economically beneficial.
On the margins of the parliamentary session held that day in the Lagting, members of the working group met the Speaker of Parliament, Bert Häggblom, the former BSPC President Jörgen Pettersson and the Director of Parliament, Susanne Eriksson, and had the opportunity to talk to the Minister of Finance, Roger Höglund, the Minister for Infrastructure Christian Wikström, and the Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Annette Holmberg-Jansson.
After the consultations in Lagting, the working group visited the municipality of Degerby on the island of Föglö and had an in-depth exchange of views with the chairman and other members of the Åland Islands delegation to the BSPC Wille Valve, Liz Matsson, Simon Påvals and Jesper Josefsson, as well as with the Chairwoman of the Municipal Council of Föglö, Gun-Britt Gullbrandsson and other representatives of the island. (more impressions download here part1 part2 part3 )