In its first in-person meeting for 20 months, the Standing Committee listened to expert presentations on NGO collaboration, the IPCC report on climate change and the host city of Hamburg’s intraregional activities. In light of the troubling situation at the Polish-Lithuanian–Belarus border, the Standing Committee called for urgent humanitarian relief to be provided to the refugees.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi welcomed the attendees to the first in-person-meeting of the BSPC Standing Committee after more than 20 months. Given the skyrocketing numbers of infections in the Baltic Sea region, he cautioned that a switch back to all-digital meetings might have to occur. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, troubling times had arrived, making parliamentary cooperation – thankfully in-person – all the more crucial.
Mr Anders Bergström, Representative of the Baltic Sea NGO Network (BSNGON), took part in the meeting via a video message. He explained that the BSNGON was supporting civil society involvement in societal development. Its mission was to enable a broad involvement of stakeholders to efficiently address the complex societal challenges of today. This included civil society organisations contributing with valuable expertise. The BSNGON value supporting and promoting people-to-people contacts across borders as well as supporting the democratic process in the political decision-making processes on all levels. Based on national platforms in the 11 member states around the Baltic Sea, offering programmes and capacity-building activities to its member NGOs. Moreover, the BSNGON facilitated contacts between the NGOs and primarily the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) and the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR). Thematic platforms, so-called “flagships”, provided forums for NGOs to co-create solutions together with public and private stakeholders.
Recently, the BSNGON had initiated a reform process to update its approach to collaboration. Their goal was to work better with other stakeholders in the public and business sectors as well as in academia, by functioning as a contact point and providing access to a pool of experts. A major change of the past five years had been the establishment of Participation Days, providing local authorities and NGOs the opportunity to exchange and work on ideas, primarily feeding into the European Baltic Sea Strategy. The BSNGON planned to expand on this concept of Participation Days to better channel ideas from the grassroots into the policy processes. These processes were also something the BSNGON wished to be more directly involved in, in all fourteen policy areas. Equally, the network sought to deepen its relationships with the various collaborative organisations in the region, such as the CBSS, the Baltic Council of Ministers and the BSPC. The final major goal of the reform process was to serve as partners in projects in the Baltic Sea region. The BSNGON planned to finalise this process by the end of 2021, hoping to include suggestions on collaboration with the BSPC.
Mr Bergström presented three proposals on how to strengthen the BSNGON’s collaboration with the BSPC. The first of these concerned the Participation Days, first developed in the Danube region. At this point, they were organised together with the Union of the Baltic Cities (UBC) back to back with the EUSBSR Annual Forums, serving as starting points for multi-level cooperation across sectors and borders. His proposal in this respect was to invite the BSPC as participants in the dialogue between civil society organisations and local authorities. The BSNGON did not expect this to be a costly endeavour for the BSPC as members would only have to cover travel expenses.
The second proposal concerned national workshops. Capacity-building for transnational Baltic Sea collaboration was vital for working on grand societal challenges, such as climate change or sustainable democracy. These thematical workshops allowed stakeholders to learn more about possibilities for collaboration and shared knowledge. Mr Bergström suggested that the BSPC could co-organise such workshops with the national platforms, e.g., on the topics of sustainable working life or sustainable production and consumption of food. They could also be linked to the priorities of the respective BSPC presidencies. Again, this option did not have to be financially stressful as these could be organised within the framework of the Baltic Sea Strategy or the parliaments.
The third proposal was to form a think tank together with the BSPC to engender more transnational collaboration, bringing together people with experience and ideas to jointly tackle the more complex societal challenges. Success could not be achieved solely by one municipality, region or country alone. New formats of collaboration had to be developed – cross-sectorial, transnational and multi-level. This proposal, though, would come with a financial burden, although seed money for the launch could be acquired as part of a larger activity. Here, in particular, the BSNGON was looking for input from the BSPC on how to elaborate and implement this concept.
The response by the Standing Committee was overwhelmingly positive, underlining the ever-increasing value of and need for collaboration across borders and the sharing of ideas and knowledge. In particular, it was highlighted that NGOs had already frequently provided their expertise to both the Standing Committee and the BSPC Working Groups, adding great value to their work. It was decided to elaborate more concrete suggestions on how to pursue cooperation with the BSNGON.
Prof Dr Daniela Jacob, Director of the Climate Service Center Germany (GERICS), a scientific organisational entity of Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, gave a presentation on climate change. She was presenting some findings from the latest report of the IPCC. First of all, the current situation saw the highest concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, more than 418 ppm in March of 2021. Methane had also reached its highest concentration ever, leading to a group of 80 countries banding together at the recent COP 26 conference in Glasgow to pursue methane reduction. Prof Jacob underlined the importance of these efforts, especially as their implementation in most regards was not so difficult. Looking at Germany as an example, there had been a temperature change of about 2° C above pre-industrial levels in the last 10 years. Much like other regions in northern Europe, the years of the 21st century had been the warmest on record.
Climate change was obvious, not just in the long term but also regarding the short-term weather variability. Here, she highlighted that infrastructure had been built with the variability of fifty years ago in mind so that e.g., roads, power lines and the like were vulnerable to climate change. Taking into mind the recent pledges of COP 26 and other announcements, modelling projected a temperature rise to the end of the century of 2.1° C. That, though, was not enough to limit the increase to the 1.5° C targeted by the Paris Agreement. Yet it could be considered a good first step in mitigating climate change.
As per the IPCC’s special report, each half-degree of temperature rise indicated a drastic change in climate and weather. 1.5° C meant less extreme heat, drought, precipitation and less flooding compared to a 2.0° C rise. Sea levels would be raised by 10 centimetres less, limiting e.g., the saltwater intrusion into sweet water supplies needed for agriculture. Given the complex, interlinked system of the world, there was a long chain of effects affecting human livelihoods in the end. Furthermore, there was good evidence showing that a rise beyond 2.0° C would lead to irreversible changes and therefore had to be avoided at all costs. Anything below was relatively similar to today’s weather and climate, but above would render entire regions of the world uninhabitable.
In the next 20 years, the world would reach the 1.5° C mark above pre-industrial temperatures. Action taken now could contain the damage to the biosphere. Currently, production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, was highest in the northern hemisphere. In the projections, the Baltic Sea region would experience drier summers but more precipitation in the other three seasons. This affected agriculture. Prof Jacob noted that Schleswig-Holstein for instance had been seeking for centuries to dry out the land for agricultural use but now had to consider how to prevent droughts.
Extreme temperature events – e.g., heat waves or droughts – would occur more often, be more intense and last longer. Heat waves might be five degrees warmer than today – meaning temperatures of 35° C over weeks. The same applied to precipitation. All ecosystems would be affected, in turn impacting economic sectors such as energy, agriculture or tourism.
Prof Jacob underlined that the peak temperature rise had to be reached as soon as possible, calling for a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies, decarbonisation not only of the energy sector but the entire economic system. The ever-increasing energy demand had to be countered with greater energy efficiency since renewables would not keep pace. A CO2-neutral society was urgently needed. She also pointed out that some CO2 emissions were inevitable – not least because of natural emissions – and had to be balanced out, for instance through natural carbon sinks in the Baltic Sea region, including peatlands, reforestation and a change in agricultural management methods. In addition, it was necessary to look into technologies that would withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere and how to either store or ideally use it. In the next ten years, research into these technologies was crucial, in particular to investigate their side effects, both positive and negative. These would likely have to be both large-scale ventures, such as air carbon withdrawal facilities in sub-Saharan Africa, but also on the small scale of individual buildings. Many avenues of measures had to be pursued at the same time in order to be able to reach the goal. This was for the good not only of the ecology or the economy but also for human habitats. People might have to be resettled, villages or entire cities.
Her view of the results of the COP 26 conference was that, on the one hand, the pledges to mitigate climate change were not enough to stay below 1.5° C by the end of the century. On the other hand, she was satisfied to see efforts being made, with countries beginning to talk to each other. Of particular importance was the US-China discussion. Some European countries taking good steps forward was also a good sign. She emphasised that the COP did not make decisions but rather, it was nations. While there were some promising ventures, the financial situation would have to be resolved soon, especially considering climate justice.
With knowledge of the past, understanding of the climate system, it was now possible for humans to create a new era in the planet’s history. Limiting climate change would not mean a return to the 1960s but that a new balance had to be struck. Rather than going backwards, a new innovative lifestyle would have to be found. That was called the Paris lifestyle, after the Paris Agreement. To achieve that, everyone could make a difference. Communicating the importance and the prospects was of paramount concern, and the message had to be kept alive in people’s minds.
State Counsellor Ms Almut Möller, Plenipotentiary to the Federal Government, the European Union and for Foreign Affairs of the Senate of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, addressed current activities of Hamburg in the Baltic Sea region. She began by noting that Hamburg, due to its geographical place, had always reached out to many parts of the world, establishing long-standing relationships. The Baltic Sea region stood out among these, since it was deeply interlinked with it. The city of Hamburg was keen on actively connecting the Baltic Sea region both within and with other parts of the world. In her view, the already highly interwoven and dynamic region would enhance its status in the coming years. Hamburg was intent on formulating and enacting a new vision for the Baltic Sea region, in particular for the so-called STRING megaregion stretching from Oslo over Gothenburg, Malmö and Copenhagen to Hamburg. This was to become a green megaregion. The green transformation was to run as a common thread through all activities in the Baltic Sea region, in trade, investment, research, academic education, transport and civil society exchange. By doing so, Hamburg believed they also contributed to shaping one of the largest projects of the European Union, the Green New Deal. Another aspect of the city’s efforts was to turn the region into a green investment hub.
Through Horizon 2020 projects, Hamburg was also collaborating with several other cities in the region. They were also participating in the Move 2020 mobility scheme as well as the InterReg Baltic Sea programme. Each of the projects in the latter framework addressed issues at the very local level. Collaboration with others improved things across the board, not least in connecting people. The Baltic Science Network was an important flagship project Hamburg had developed within the EU Baltic Sea Strategy, enabling cross-border cooperation in science policy. Moreover, Hamburg had recently become a member of the Union of Baltic Cities, the leading network of cities in the Baltic Sea region. It fosters best practice exchange on a city-to-city level. In addition, there were bilateral relationships the city was intensifying, dealing with questions such as mobility or smart digitisation. In particular, they were fostering their relationship with the city of Warsaw.
As Germany’s largest port, Hamburg was one of the most important international trading centres within the federal republic, giving the connection to Russia – in particular Hamburg’s long-term sister city of St Petersburg – a very important role. For that reason, they appreciated Russia being an integral part of Baltic Sea cooperation. As both a city and a federal state of Germany, Hamburg believed they had something to bring to the table in cooperation efforts.
In reference to a question about collaborative education efforts as part of the migrant crisis of 2015, Ms Möller highlighted that it was a valued aspect of the city’s efforts. Harkening back to the presentation by Mr Bergström on the NGO network, she explained that the city had a lot of contacts throughout the city where they were working strategically on questions often embedded into the EU framework of activities. Dealing with local level issues organically brought civil society organisations and NGOs into the mix for which Hamburg was providing a framework. That collaboration was highly fruitful.
BSPC President Pyry Niemi Received the Baltic Assembly Medal
Together with the current President of the Baltic Assembly, Mr Andrius Kupčinskas, the upcoming and former President of the Baltic Assembly and former BSPC President Prof Jānis Vucāns, awarded the Baltic Assembly Medal to President Niemi for upholding the unity and cooperation of the Baltic States, outstanding contribution and cooperation in implementing joint cooperation projects, promoting regional cooperation in an enlarged Europe.
The Baltic Sea Parliamentary Youth Forum
The Forum had been held two days before the BSPC Annual Conference of 2021, bringing together about 80 young people to discuss among each other and with BSPC representatives matters of climate change and biodiversity as well as sustainable democracy, how to promote democratic values and trust in the democratic system. The response by both the young participants and the parliamentarians was very positive.
Ms Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby, Swedish MP and Chairwoman of the BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity, pointed out that the issue of “youthwashing” – similar to “greenwashing” – had been raised at the Forum. Organisations these days were very eager to involve young people in their work but only for show. In contrast, the Forum participants felt that the BSPC had taken their ideas seriously and were expecting – rightfully so – the Working Group in particular to include the young people’s input in their reports. BSPC Vice-President Johannes Schraps, MP German Bundestag, highlighted the young people’s insistence on action rather than talking. Moreover, they had raised the issue of migration, not least driven by climate change, as a major concern.
The Standing Committee was united in seeing the need for continued cooperation with the young people in the Baltic Sea area. The fresh ideas from young people were seen as invigorating and helpful.
The 31st BSPC, Stockholm 12-14 June 2022
BSPC President Pyry Niemi presented the considerations of the Swedish delegation on priorities for the next Annual Conference. Not all of the topics of the preceding year had received in-depth attention at the 30th Conference, due to the digital format. Accordingly, they could be given more attention at the upcoming event. These were adaptation to new democracy and challenges to the welfare model; climate change and biodiversity, in connection with the 50+ UN conference; democracy in a changing media landscape; human rights and freedom of expression; crisis management.
The financial results of the BSPC for the year were very good. Much like the previous year, the combination of digital in-person events meant that less than the planned-for budget had been spent. The Standing Committee agreed to maintain the contributions by the member countries at the same level as in the past 13 years.
The BSPC Rapporteurs submitted their reports which have been published on the BSPC website, concerning sea-dumped munitions, integrated maritime policy, sustainable tourism as well as the observer status at HELCOM.
The Standing Committee furthermore discussed BSPC presidencies after the chairmanship of the German Bundestag in 2023.
The meeting also talked about the schedule of upcoming BSPC events and which venues would be available as hosts.
Statement by the Standing Committee on the Humanitarian Crisis at the Polish—Lithuanian–Belarusian Border
The Standing Committee discussed very intensively the worrisome situation of the refugees stuck between Poland and Belarus without access to basic necessity. The case of Belarus had already been raised as part of the Resolution of the 30th BSPC Conference, yet the overall situation had deteriorated further. Standing Committee members underlined that Belarus was an important neighbour of the Baltic Sea region and thus had to be taken into account.
Primarily, though, the Standing Committee stood united in the need for humanitarian relief for the refugees and decided to issue a statement, referring to the various resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations that condemn any form of human trafficking in the strongest possible term. The Committee voiced its deep concerns about the insufficient access for humanitarian organisations to provide basic humanitarian services to refugees and migrants and strongly demanded of the Belarusian authorities to allow full access to humanitarian organisations to provide food, shelter and medical assistance to those refugees and migrants suffering at the border. They requested the countries in the region to fully cooperate in and contribute to stopping the practice of organised human trafficking to the BSPC member states and further. Finally, the Standing Committee of the BSPC urged all countries and international institutions to act responsibly, minimising human suffering.
The statement of the BSPC Standing Committee can be downloaded here.