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Strong governance of the Baltic Sea

IMAGES: Nicklas Hägen

The Baltic Sea is currently in a slightly better state than a few years ago. Nevertheless, extensive measures are still needed in order for the sea to fully recover and achieve an ecological balance, and the recovery will take a long time regardless of the kinds of measures taken. What is encouraging, however, is that there are numerous efforts at various levels of society which are aiming at improving the state of the Baltic Sea.

“There are obviously pressing problems in the area. For example, we discuss algae almost every summer. The decision-makers are definitely aware of the problems,” says Marko Joas, professor of public administration at Åbo Akademi University.

“Awareness is one thing. Another thing is that we have quite a unique governance system in the Baltic Sea region. It is network-based and very extensive, both as to its form and the number of organisations involved, as well as the degree of interest.”

The Baltic Sea drainage basin covers several states, all having their own legislation and governance systems. However, there is a high level of coordination between the countries. To a large extent, this is on account of the European Union, which has facilitated and directed cooperation by harmonising regulations through the EU Water Frame­work Directive (WFD), EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and EU Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (MSPD, among others. Governance concerning legal, financial and information issues is almost comprehensive.

In practice, governance is carried out through a number of various forms of cooperation, partly between governmental units, and partly by the Helsinki Commission, HELCOM, which is an intergovernmental organisation focussing on the protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea. There are additional organisations covering several sectors, including both public and private actors; hybrid forms of organisations that work on the same types of questions. One such example is Baltic 21, a joint plan for the members of the Council of the Baltic Sea States on the implementation of sustainable development at the regional level.

The networks are strong and there are many who have an interest in the well-being of the sea.

“So we do have regulations and a governance pattern for the Baltic Sea or within the Baltic Sea region, which is efficient, extensive and uses many different kinds of governance methods,” Joas says.

“Of course, new problems emerge, and new problems must regularly be addressed in one way or another, but on the whole, there is quite a comprehensive governance system.”

Everybody is part of the problem

With strong networks, extensive awareness and political interest, it might seem surprising that the problems in the Baltic Sea, such as eutrophication, have not been resolved already. From an administrative perspective, eutrophication is a so-called ‘wicked problem’; a very large number of people contribute to the problem, and thus it is difficult to solve.

This is aggravated by the Baltic Sea having an internal encumbrance. When cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, decompose at the bottom of the sea they consume oxygen, which releases phosphorus from the sediment. The released phosphorus functions as nutrition for more blue-green algae.

“Eutrophication is not only a question of a few individual producers whose activities must be controlled. We have been able to handle certain emissions in some places, but there are still a number of general, diffuse emissions left. These are being worked on and things are moving in the right direction, but it is very long-term process,” Joas explains.

“Another problem concerning the Baltic which is difficult to manage is the ongoing issue of climate change. It is caused by all of us; by you and me. When basically everybody is a small part of a wider problem, it is difficult to handle, since measures that can easily be taken only affect a limited number of the relevant actors.”

From technology to value

Environmental issues started to change from being purely technological questions into political ones with the emerging green movement of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As a result of this, all politicians have had to take a stand on environmental issues as questions pertaining to values.

Several of the countries around the Baltic Sea share a feature which is a condition for positive environmental work; that is, a strong democracy.

“Environmental issues as such are always a question of values, but without knowledge it’s difficult to judge whether they only are opinions for or against something. Therefore, I find one of the absolutely key requirements to be that the scientific evidence is known, and also that it is known where it can be found – the evidence must not be kept secret,” Joas emphasises.

“The same goes for the practices of authorities when granting environmental permits and creating environmental policies. Everything must be transparent and explicit. Openness, insight and the democratic opportunity to participate as a citizen – these are absolutely crucial for successful environmental politics.”

Do you think we will be able to mitigate climate change?

“If all we do is keep moving the problems on from our own regions to create problems in other places, instead of actually solving them, we will not be able to mitigate climate change. At the moment, we are doing a bit of both, but there are signs of a political will to actually resolve the problems.”