Updating the Baltic Sea Action Plan

Brita Bohman,
Senior Lecturer in Environmental Law,
Department of Law, Stockholm University,

In 2021 the Baltic Sea Action Plan will be updated. The Action Plan is a legal instrument under the Helsinki Convention for the environmental protection of the Baltic Sea. It was developed by the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) and adopted in 2007 by all Baltic Sea coastal States to speed up the recovery of the Baltic Sea. The Action Plan takes a holistic ecosystem approach, based on ecological indicators and adaptive evaluations, it focuses on the core environmental problems of the Baltic Sea. The most severe problem is eutrophication. The Action Plan was developed in parallel to the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which takes a similar approach to the EU regional seas.

The aim of the Action Plan is to reach good environmental status by 2021. However, as it turns out this goal has not been achieved for any of the problem areas addressed and instead the Action Plan is to be updated for continued work. The update is an opportunity to take stock, evaluate the effectiveness of the current Plan and adjust it accordingly. So, what has the Baltic Sea Action Plan meant for the problem of eutrophication and what must be in focus of the update?

The fact that the goal, good environmental status, has not been achieved for eutrophication is, as such, not surprising. The eutrophic state of the Baltic Sea has gone so far so that it will take several decades for the environmental status to change even if all eutrophic pollution would stop. This is acknowledged in the Action Plan, which instead focuses on reducing the pollution to levels that will enable good environmental status in the future. The approach taken has led to important progress, however, even in this regard there is still some way to go to reach the goal. The new Plan would gain from increased pressure on the States to take a more ambitious approaches to implementation.

Eutrophication is caused by nitrogen and phosphorus from a range of sources, of which many have been successfully controlled. Most remaining sources are diffuse, over time effective pollution reduction has become increasingly difficult to achieve and to control with legal measures. In addition, pollution must be reduced in all States to achieve the goal.

One purpose of the Baltic Sea Action Plan was to identify and visualize, through modelling, how much pollution each State must reduce and from which sources. This was done by targets for ‘maximum allowable input’. Based on the targets, the Action Plan identified effective reduction measures despite the scientific complexity of the situation. The suggested measures are not binding but the Helsinki Convention obligates all States to take ‘…appropriate measures…to prevent and eliminate pollution in order to promote the ecological restoration of the Baltic Sea Area’, and the States have agreed to reach the goal itself. Hence, the Action Plan defines what States must do to comply with the Convention and with the goal of the Plan.

The operationalization of the Baltic Sea Action Plan has to a large extent focused on reducing pollution from agriculture. Agriculture is the most urgent and most difficult source of eutrophic pollution that remains. However, it is also complex to regulate with traditional legal command- and control measures. Moreover, requirements on reductions related to agricultural activities often meet a political resistance. However, some of this resistance has been overcome thanks to the design of the Action Plan and the adaptive approach leading to many small steps taken accordingly. Scientists and stakeholders at all levels, including NGOs and farmers organizations, are also invited to contribute to identifying measures and to the general implementation of the Action Plan.

The only control measure available under the Helsinki Convention is self-reporting. Still, in relation to the operationalization of the Baltic Sea Action Plan, State implementation has been evaluated regularly through meetings and digital tools and here progress has been monitored. HELCOM has also regularly analyzed the state of the Baltic Sea. Both the data and the legal monitoring of action taken shows that important progress has been made thanks to the Baltic Sea Action Plan. Not least in relation to eutrophication, an area characterized by regulatory and scientific complexity, as well as by political resistance to legal requirements. Against this background, the Baltic Sea Action Plan is well-suited to address the environmental challenges of the Baltic Sea.

In general, the essence of the original Plan will remain. Adjustments planned so far are e.g. to address increased integration of cross-cutting issues and global goals, such as climate change and targets for biodiversity. It remains to be seen what new measures or actions that will be added in relation to eutrophication. However, whatever measures chosen, success in achieving good environmental status depends on increased focus on the range of measures taken and on the States raising their ambitions.

Email: brita.bohman@juridicum.su.se

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