In the second day of its meeting in Åland, the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity gathered information from the archipelago’s government on its efforts towards a sustainable society and from the LEADER group about local action groups implementing the change on the ground. Furthermore, the group discussed its calls for action to governments as part of the BSPC’s 2022 Resolution and matters such as the upcoming Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum. The Working Group also visited a Wetland for increased biodiversity and climate-adapted stormwater management as part of Mariehamn’s environmental programme.
Chairwoman Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby opened the second day of the meeting of the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity, dedicated to further presentations on Åland’s endeavours in sustainable development as well as interior business.
Mr Alfons Röblom, Minister for Environment, Climate, Energy, Housing and Higher Education of Åland, explained that the wide portfolio of his office had been combined to allow moving forward faster towards a sustainable society. Sustainability could not be restricted to one department. In particular, connecting higher education to energy had proved to be a fortunate connection, especially in the huge push in the energy transition currently ongoing. Moreover, international cooperation was paying off as the Nordic countries would be sharing their best practices and experiences in creating, e.g., large wind farm projects.
Ms Anna Kassautzki inquired about low-oxygen areas around Åland and how this as well as nutrient input into the water were dealt with. Minister Röblom explained that several projects were working to reduce the outflow of nutrients, e.g., through wetland restoration. He conceded that the fish farming industry was a problem as they contributed greatly to eutrophication. The government was still negotiating with the industry to find good solutions. For the future, he believed that hydrogen production could be part of the solution since oxygen was a by-product that might be fed into the ocean. That would raise different concerns though and had to be well considered.
Prof Jānis Vucāns noted that increased wind power led to a need for energy storage, e.g., through hydrogen. Minister Röblom agreed that this was a huge international issue. For Åland, this was a new topic with the recent building of windmills, so they were still collecting information but focusing on the construction of the wind farms. In his view, connecting the power grids of countries could be helpful by distributing excess energy to regions needing it at that time. Offshore hydrogen plants might also take up the energy for storage and to one day provide fuel for shipping.
Mr Alexander Mohrenberg was interested in the energy transition of the archipelago. Given that the new infrastructure and power facilities would transform the skyline of Åland as well as provide benefits, he asked how this was communicated to the people. Minister Röblom replied that onshore windmills had been the first renewable power sources on the islands so that the idea of wind power had become familiar, even though there had been serious resistance at one point. Moreover, the government had put great effort into communicating the benefits of renewable energy and further insisted they were working not to corrupt the natural beauty of the islands.
Ms Tenfjord-Toftby pointed out that the departments of energy and the environment were often in conflict in other governments and wondered how he balanced that, being in charge of both. Minister Röblom said that they would be taking note of sensitive underwater fauna as well as birds and other wildlife once their huge wind farm project would near the implementation phase. In his view, it was good for energy and the environment to be united in one ministry.
Secretary General Bodo Bahr pointed out that the new HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan was seeking to meet the goals its predecessor had not. To the question of how Åland was pushing to achieve these, Minister Röblom highlighted the archipelago’s close collaboration with the Finnish government and that they were seeking to raise awareness of the particular problems of Åland, such as the fish farms.
Ms Kassautzki mentioned German efforts to make fish farming more sustainable, such as using mussels to reduce the nutrient spill into the Baltic Sea. She suggested an exchange of best practices to which the minister readily agreed.
Ms Alexandra de Haas spoke about the transition to a green economy through local action. She explained that LEADER was a method funded by the European Union since 1991, now in its 31st year. The acronym stood for the French “Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale”, meaning Links between Activities for the Development of Rural Economy. It was also called community-led local development, a bottom-up and grassroots approach to allow the people to make decisions on their future. In this partnership between civil, private and public sectors, it was important for the latter not to dominate these Local Action Groups (LAGs) or Fisheries Local Action Groups (FLAGs). Defining a specific rural LEADER area, the LAGs created partnerships and networks to analyse the local needs from the local perspective and design a local development strategy for a seven-year period. Finland had launched its LEADER groups in 1996, now featuring 55 LAGs and 10 FLAGs out of 3000 LEADER areas in Europe.
Åland’s association had been founded 15 years earlier, implementing the method through both the Rural Development Programme and the European Maritime Fisheries Fund. Thus, one LAG and one FLAG had been implemented covering the entire archipelago, with their own strategies for rural and maritime development. From 2007 to 2013, the focus had been mostly on village development and cultural heritage while the present programme period concentrated on nature, the environment and sustainability. To preserve the archipelago’s natural heritage, awareness of environmental concerns had been raised to kick off local projects which currently numbered more than 120. Half of the land-based projects were directly linked to increasing biodiversity or reducing eutrophication, such as restoring beach meadows or overgrown areas. The target was not just restoration but also the availability of areas for leisure and/or as beautiful vistas. Of the marine projects, 55 % were about restoring fish populations.
The Rural Development Programme demanded that non-productive areas be established, such as restoring wetlands and minimising eutrophication leakage by creating nature preserves. After an initially poor response from the farming community, the LEADER project had been given the task of promoting these unattractive measures. Ms Tenfjord-Toftby asked for clarification, and Ms de Haas mentioned that in the first programme period, there had only been two restoration projects. Mr Simon Påvals pointed out there was a unique type of sheep on Åland. In consultation with farmers and local communities, creative solutions could be found, making investments more available.
As much as farmers needed nutrients for their fields, Ms de Haas stressed that these had to be restricted to agricultural land, preventing leakage. Chairwoman Tenfjord-Toftby pointed out that the war in Ukraine had rendered the fertiliser supply scarce so that farmers would have to recover the nutrients, meaning that an environmental concern had become an economic problem. Ms de Haas noted that the recent dry years had already made farmers create ponds or ditches to trap the nutrients, allowing them to be reused. In one example, such a pond was benefiting biodiversity as well as being available to the public for leisure activities and education, along with a pavilion. Mr Påvals interjected that younger farmers, born in the 1980s, were more open to environmental issues and saw the value in them.
Ms de Haas went on to note EU interest in Åland’s local-based efforts, awarding them the prize LEADER Pearl of Finland in 2020. Further examples of the archipelago’s success included combining nature preserves with hiking paths, reducing the human effect on wildlife through so-called “slow tourism” and urban farming projects to increase awareness. Sedimentation projects and pond building also contributed to fish restoration as did obstacle removal for fish movements and new nurseries as spawning grounds. A sign of the eutrophication was the proliferation of reed on Åland where the harvest allowed land restoration, but remaining reed corridors provided shelter for fish. This applied to ducks as well, Mr Påvals added. To a question from Ms Anna Kassautzki, Ms de Haas explained that fish could neither live nor spawn in the reed fields, with Mr Påvals chiming in that the reeds were invasive species taking away land and water. Moreover, harvesting the reeds also meant removing the nutrients the plants had taken up from soil and water.
Through the close collaboration with the local community and advice on application, funding and accounting, Ms de Haas said that LEADER could achieve more than conventional funding systems allowed. She underlined that the whole society had to be involved in a grassroots movement.
Ms Kassautzki addressed possible problems with low oxygenation in the Baltic Sea around Åland. While Ms de Haas could not give any exact information, Mr Påvals noted that all their projects were lowering the nutrient flow from land to sea.
Prof Jānis Vucāns was interested if the reeds were used for renewable energy. Ms de Haas replied that several options were being explored, such as improving farming land. To another question from Mr Vucāns, the speaker noted that LEADER’s contacts outside Åland were mainly with Finland but also Sweden and other local action groups in the EU. These were important to see the larger context as well as to learn from each other. Mr Andres Metsoja asked about funding: Ms de Haas explained that Finland required EU funds to be kept separate; the local action groups represented various companies, municipalities or other groups across the archipelago. The new strategy from 2023 – 2027 was being prepared in collaboration with the municipalities and the civil sector, to determine needs and opportunities.
Mr Påvals noted that LEADER’s success was based on the notion of people in small communities collaborating without expecting financial remuneration. This tradition was so ingrained in Scandinavian society that a word for it had been coined in each of the associated languages, allowing LEADER to find fertile ground for its endeavours.
The Working Group had conducted a survey among the BSPC governments for information regarding the group’s topics. Chairwoman Tenfjord-Toftby declared that the answers from 11 governments were very good, providing an excellent overview. That also helped in knowing what had already been done elsewhere, so that understanding could be shared and did not have to be done over and over again.
Given the critical impact that the war in Ukraine was having on energy and food security as well as safety overall, the group debated launching another survey asking the governments how the war had affected their efforts in mitigating climate change and restoring biodiversity. Prof Jānis Vucāns noted that the war had sped up efforts in the Baltic countries, such as a large new wind farm project. Co-Chair Liz Mattsson, Mr Kacper Płażyński and Ms Tenfjord-Toftby further contributed.
The Working Group decided to include this question in a second survey to be sent out after the BSPC’s Annual Conference in Stockholm in June.
Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
The working group discussed the upcoming Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, which would be partly on-site and partly digital. Mr Kacper Płażyński inquired about the selection process. Ms Tenfjord-Toftby informed him that the CBSS as a partner organisation was handling recruitment through their own youth platform as well as contacts with NGOs and youth groups. While representatives would come from every currently active country in the BSPC, she noted that the decision had been made not to include Russians. The chairwoman underlined her pride at the high-level discussions that had been the hallmark of the first forum, with the young people providing a great deal of new approaches, but also the parliamentarians’ obligation to listen and put the youth suggestions into their own work.
Calls for Action to the Governments as part of the BSPC’s 2022 Resolution
Discussing the calls for action to be included in the present year’s BSPC Resolution, Mr Płażyński, Prof Vucāns, Ms Tenfjord-Toftby, Mr Bahr, Mr Philipp da Cunha, Mr Arvils Ašeradens, Mr Alexander Mohrenberg, Ms Mattsson discussed the issue of a secure energy supply at competitive prices, considering nuclear as well as zero-emission and domestic energy. In addition, Ms Beate Schlupp, Mr Andres Metsoja, and Mr Ašeradens, also contributed to the further debate about other calls for action, such as the role of science and NGOs in decision-making or the recycling of construction materials as well as a cascading use of raw materials.
After further discussion, the Working Group unanimously agreed on eleven calls for action to the governments for inclusion in the 31st BSPC resolution and adoption by the Annual Conference. These recommendations also considered the proposals of the previous Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum, in line with the results of the earlier consultations (recommendations here).
Since Mr Kolbeinn Ottarsson Proppé had left parliament and would therefore no longer serve as co-chair, a replacement was selected with Mr Philipp da Cunha. Moreover, Chairwoman Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby herself would not seek re-election in the Swedish general elections in autumn, thus requiring a replacement as well afterwards. The first co-chair, Ms Liz Mattsson, had declined taking over the lead position. The working group decided to propose Mr da Cunha as future chairperson to the Standing Committee.
Regarding the next meeting of the working group in August 2022 in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Mr da Cunha noted that the location might be changed from Schwerin to Greifswald because of the proximity of several interesting projects, including peatland, fusion energy, a fission nuclear power plant as well as the offshore grid for windmills. Further hosts and times for future meetings of the working group during its extended mandate were discussed.
Visiting the Project Nabbens Wetland
The Working Group also visited a Wetland for increased biodiversity and climate-adapted stormwater management as part of Mariehamn’s environmental programme (information here).
Mr Ulf Simolin, Environmental Coordinator for the City of Mariehamn and Ms Linda Sundström gave detailed information about the Wetland, the environmental programme and the goals that reduce the city’s environmental impact on coastal waters, beaches and watercourses and discussed the results with the working group members.
In this way, the Working Group was able to gain direct insights into the implementation of the goals in practice and the concrete results. (more impressions here)