The BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity met in digital form to hear expert presentations on the role that peatlands, seagrass and forests played in carbon sequestration or storage efforts. Innovative technologies in shipping were explored to learn about the carbon reduction opportunities alternative fuels offered. Finally, representatives from the recent Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum explained their calls and ideas on how to improve the environmental situation in the Baltic Sea region. More than 50 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden attended the meeting.
Chairwoman Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby gave voice to her hope that this digital meeting would be the last of its kind and that the working group could begin meeting in person. That would improve their work even more, not least by seeing best practice examples on location. She noted recent media attention in Sweden on climate change and biodiversity, affected in particular by forestry, underlining the importance of the group’s work. Furthermore, she pointed out the working group’s interim report, representing a strategic summary of the first year of its efforts.
Mr Jan Philipp Albrecht, State Minister for Energy, Agriculture, the Environment, Nature and Digitalization of Schleswig-Holstein, spoke about his state’s Vice-Presidency of HELCOM, looking at the intermediate steps achieved and how to go forward. He noted his appreciation for the work of the BSPC as it was part of the overall effort of bringing together forces to tackle the crucial issue of climate change as well as how people were using the sea and the land. The minister noted that the sources of and reasons for pollution, for example, had not been adequately explored before. Now was the time to come together to implement the measures necessary to make oceans and seas cleaner and more resilient. As current chair of HELCOM, Germany was deeply engaged in this field, ranging from climate change over species extinction in the Baltic Sea to sea-dumped ammunitions. Minister Albrecht saw the BSPC as essential in bringing people together and getting the necessary tasks done.
Dr Walter Hemmerling, Managing Director, Foundation for Nature Conservation Schleswig Holstein (SNSH), considered 40 years of his foundation’s work. Its goal was to buy and develop nature, measuring 40,000 hectares acquired since 1978. Sprawling over the whole state of Schleswig-Holstein, it offered a last refuge for many endangered species. In addition, it allowed citizens to explore and enjoy nature. With reinforced public support since 2019 and Fridays for Future, politicians have been looking for “nature-based solutions”. Schleswig-Holstein was concentrating on peatlands, making up 9 % of the state’s whole area. 88 % of them had been drained for agricultural use, even though drainage caused significant global warming emissions. Thus, the foundation was purchasing such lowland peat areas and rewetting them to fix carbon dioxide, also involved with a federal peatland strategy. He noted that healthy peatlands were about 10 times as effective as forests in storing carbon while drained peatlands were emitting large quantities of global warming emissions. Biodiversity was also positively affected, rewilding high and low moors into a species-rich wetland. That would mean the area was no longer arable. On the other hand, biomass production as well as animal farming remained possible. Innovations such as biochar production allowed new resources for the textile, cement and fertiliser industry or for the production of green hydrogen. At the same time, the original farmers had to be fairly compensated.
The foundation’s work was based on green infrastructure, species conservation, renaturation and environmental education. Green bridges across roads allowed wildlife to cross safely, a butterfly project sought to protect rare species, new wilderness areas were being created in forests and bogs while military training grounds had been converted since the 1990s into abodes for wild horses or cattle. Environmental education was another major pillar of the foundation’s work. Civil society participation was ensured through a variety of links to other organisations and the state.
In response to questions, Dr Hemmerling conceded that there were many conflicts surrounding the purchasing efforts, particularly with the original farmers who required adequate compensation and alternate farming areas. An intensive and long-term effort and collaboration with the agricultural societies as well as the farmers themselves were necessary. It had to be noted, though, that this was a highly complex approach, with various interests that needed to be satisfied. On top of that, the existing infrastructure in those areas had to be redeveloped. Regarding young people, Dr Hemmerling underlined that more education of children and teens on environmental issues was necessary. The foundation was seeking to extend its network of cooperation both on the regional, national and international level. The speaker addressed Schleswig-Holstein’s environmental law which he saw as a first step that had to be extended in depth. On financing, Dr Hemmerling mentioned public funds – from the EU, the federal government of Germany, Schleswig-Holstein and municipalities – as one major source alongside interests, selling “eco points” (public and private compensation measures for carbon expenditures) and private donations. He underlined that the foundation did not get any institutional support. Mr Joschka Knuth, MP of Schleswig-Holstein, added that sustainable construction materials could be harvested from the peatlands, for e.g., thatched roofs but also tiny houses.
Dr Wilfried Rickels, Director Global Commons and Climate Policy, Kiel Institute for the World Economy, presented on the resettlement of seagrass meadows as a contribution to climate protection and marine biodiversity – analysis of costs and benefits. Carbon could be sequestered and stored in seagrass, saltmarsh and mangroves, although that accounted for a small share of the area at this time. Losing such areas, though, increased the carbon release – such as a loss of 6,600 hectares in the Baltic Sea over the past century through anthropogenic use. Nevertheless, various water control measures had led to a recovery of seagrass since the 1980s. Climate effects – such as heat stress – might threaten this recovery. Restoration efforts would see benefits in carbon sequestration, although that might be seen as comparatively small. Costs of restoration efforts compared to carbon sequestration were high. Yet additional benefits were generated, such as cleaner water, coastal protection, increased biodiversity and secure fisheries yield, outpacing the results from sequestration alone. With those in mind, the relative costs fell dramatically. He stressed that such efforts had to be embedded into marine and maritime strategy to mitigate other stressors as well, such as eutrophication. Dr Rickels underlined that aspects beyond carbon dioxide had to be taken into account to assess ocean health. He highlighted the Baltic Health Index on the socio-ecological status of the Baltic Sea. The speaker noted a research project on restoring seagrass meadows on the German Baltic coast, evaluating the costs and benefits as well as analysing the acceptance and perception of these efforts.
Mr Jens-Birger Bosse, Head of the Department of Organic Production, Schleswig-Holstein State Forests, elaborated on forest management and conversion towards a climate-resistant forest. The state had a share of 11 % of forests in its area. The public enterprise State Forests owned 30 % of all forests in the state, 89 % of which consisted of mixed forest and were expanding annually, whether through anthropogenic efforts or nature. Charged to provide protective and recreational/social functions, the enterprise had to combine these with improved economic efficiency. Various levels of protection areas had been instituted for forest areas, inter alia including the FSC and PEFC certificates. Mr Bosse mentioned that global temperatures had risen by 1.6 degrees in the past 30 years which had contributed to rainfall levels on the whole sinking, although extreme weather events meant harsh changes in the annual precipitation. While vegetation periods expanded as a whole, some species could not withstand present temperature changes, such as beech trees. He underlined that effects could not be seen in short-term scales but rather be measured in 100 or 200 years, thus requiring long-term financing. Furthermore, nitrogen inputs contributed to fungal tree diseases. Parasitic species and drought were another threat.
Regarding forest fires, he noted that the mixed forests of Germany lessened such threats whereas heavy storms could devastate forest stocks. Furthermore, the State Forests invested in game protection, spending e.g., 1.2 million euros on fencing off areas, yet both deciduous trees and conifers there suffered biting damage from game species as saplings. Regarding forest management for the future, the most important step was stabilising the forests, e.g., through diversification and thus risk dispersion. That also assisted in economic stability. In “close to nature” forest management, sustainable and planned development had to aim for a mixed forest with different tree species and varying ages, having usable water capacity available for new forests. This had to be done without clear-cutting, pesticides or fertiliser while protecting soil, water and stands as well as integrating aspects of biodiversity.
Forest conversion included combining native with non-native species, such as maple or oak with Douglas firs and red oak. He pointed out naturally seeded trees had better root systems, thus improved carbon sequestration, but plantation was necessary as well, making up a third of forest regeneration. Tree felling was implemented not just for economic reasons but also to thin out the forest and allow further diversification. Mr Bosse explained that the political goal in Schleswig-Holstein was to increase the forest area from 11 to 12 % of the state’s overall area, despite a huge associated cost. Yet the forest – in particular forest bogs – served as CO2 sinks. In all those efforts, scientific research and knowledge was crucial and had to be integrated into the operational processes in the field. Furthermore, the State Forests were engaged in civil dialogue to provide information to society via social media, PR and their own educational institutions including youth forest homes and guided tours.
He concluded that the forests had to be stabilised to be resilient against future extreme or debilitating events, despite the necessary costs. Monitoring had to be connected to management, to guide the shifting ecological balance while avoiding tipping effects.
Responding to questions, Mr Bosse explained that “close to nature” forests had been in place – albeit to a small extent only – for some 30 years, under close scientific monitoring. He emphasised that this was an ongoing and long-term learning effort with continuous new insights. To that end, plenty of well educated people were needed to staff such efforts. Noting the planning for the next 40 years, the percentage of conifers would decrease from 52 to ca. 30 % because of the specific expected changes in Schleswig-Holstein. He underlined that this could not be generalised to other areas. Mr Bosse explained that funding was solely derived from the commercial exploitation of the forest, which was presently threatened by the falling timber prices. He was not certain that the State Forests could continue to support their operations from their own revenues alone. As for connections and cooperation with other public and state forests, Mr Bosse said that his network extended primarily across Germany with some occasional contacts to Poland or Sweden.
Dr Alexander Dyck, Institute for Maritime Energy Systems in Geesthacht, deliberated on innovative technologies for shipping without CO2 emissions. He pointed out that vessels required autonomous power generation on board. Presently, shipping was responsible for ca. 3 % of global emissions, due to be reduced by half. He noted that bulk carriers and container ships were the primary emitters of carbon dioxide. Emission control areas had already been implemented in some areas. As for types of fuel, battery-driven shipping might be possible in the short ranges of the Baltic Sea but was unfeasible on longer hauls e.g., in the Mediterranean or the North Sea. Questions to be investigated concerned how to store and load fuels on board, how to use converters, develop energy-efficient grids on board while ensuring electricity, heat and cooling remained available. Manoeuvrability also had to be guaranteed. Alternative fuels ideally were used and made available to vessels in harbours. In their research, the Institute partnered with industrial cooperation partners across the entire value chain, such as shipyards, technology manufacturers as well as shipping companies and port operators. Dr Dyck described the goal as wholly green with the abolition of fossil energy systems. One pathway to get there was the use of hydrogen produced in the more sunny areas of the world where production was cheaper. As for other suggestions, he noted that LNG only saved 20 % of gases but was risky in terms of accidents wiping out these savings.
Apart from that, there was a wide range of alternatives with their own benefits and drawbacks, including hydrogen, metal hydrides or batteries. To determine which choice to make, storage and energy density were decisive along with greenhouse gas emissions and risk potential as well as the fuel’s feasibility in the maritime environment. New regulations had to be put in place by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Ship design would change because fuel tanks would be larger than in present-day systems. The Institute for Maritime Energy Systems was pursuing a holistic approach considering the strong synergetic effects of ships and harbour, implementing system demonstrations before they could be transferred into practical applications. Energy storage systems or new hull designs were analysed in test facilities as well as in a research vessel to be implemented in the near future.
Answering questions, the speaker stressed that standards were necessary for the required infrastructure and that new vessels had to run on alternative fuels from 2030 at the latest. Concerning fuel cells, he pointed out that methanol-driven fuel cells were currently being implemented and would be featured in vessels soon, yet the power level currently was by far not enough to power large-scale vessels such as cruise ships. Every country sought to put renewable energy on the market, although not all were fuels but rather e.g., batteries in which Norway was leading. Saudi-Arabia for instance was building ammonia plants that would e.g., be used as complementary fuel to batteries.
Presentation by the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
Chairwoman Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby noted that the dedicated and engaged discussions of more than 100 young participants at the Forum would contribute to the working group’s efforts, not least with the conclusions derived at the event.
Ms Kamila Ciok from Poland and Mr Liviu Pintilie from Estonia, representatives of the Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, presented said conclusions. Ms Ciok underlined that they were not experts but could only share their thoughts and impressions. What young people were good at, though, was questioning everything, and they wished to offer questions that all sides together could work to answer. Mr Pintilie explained their first idea concerned innovation and that nature-friendly farming methods should be implemented while phasing out the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers as well as researching less hazardous alternatives. He believed that stricter regulations were necessary to reduce synthetic pesticides. In their second idea, they called for greater sustainable innovation in green energy, improving what had already been achieved, as well as green transportation options for urban life. In both concerns, the young people called for think tanks and expert organisations to be involved in these efforts so as to keep politics close to science. Regarding the circular economy, the youth forum asked for fishing and other industries to be regulated in such a way that biodiversity was not harmed, and the efforts stayed aligned with the IPCC report/Paris Agreement needs. Furthermore, the building of facilities from recycled materials should be promoted along with the re-use of construction materials. Indeed, the latter should be a prerequisite for demolition permits. Furthermore, public bail systems should be introduced for plastic bottles in the Baltic Sea Region. Waste in general should be eliminated as much as possible to reinforce the circular economy. Economic and ecological concerns had to be balanced.
Ms Ciok said that strengthening cooperation through e.g., HELCOM and reconstruction of the marine environment were highly important. The discussion had to include people not yet involved, such as fishermen, to build awareness and understanding of what the present situation of the Baltic Sea looked like. Conversely, it was necessary for politics to understand the complexity and details on the practical level so as to target efforts at the people immediately affected as well as their needs and concerns. Nobody should be left behind as part of these measures.
Moreover, the idea of “youth washing” was raised, i.e., that political organisations were using political representation as a public relations tool. Ms Ciok and Mr Pintilie underlined that they understood that the BSPC was serious and sincere about including the voice of the youth in their decision-making.
The working group discussed the final form of a questionnaire to inquire the Baltic Sea region governments about their efforts and plans with regard to climate change and biodiversity. The deadline for answers was set for 28 February 2022 so the working group could discuss the replies ahead of the next annual Conference of the BSPC in June 2022.
The working group decided that their next – and the first physical – meeting would be held on 21 March 2022 on the Åland islands, rather than an earlier date in January. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern would serve as host for a meeting in the second half of the year.