Conference reports The Baltic: An Endangered Sea

Will the Baltic be sick or healthy in 2030? The World Wildlife Fund addressed the future of the sea in a seminar at this year’s Baltic Sea Festival.

Published on on September 28, 2012

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Almost 100 people from the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea gathered at the Finnish Embassy in Stockholm on the afternoon of August 28th to discuss questions like: what will happen if we continue with poor governance of the Baltic Sea? The seminar was based on “Counter Currents: Scenarios for the Baltic Sea Towards 2030,” a report written by the WWF in partnership with Kairos Future, a consultancy firm.

John Tanzer, director of the WWF Global Marine Programme, said that we are facing a watershed and that it is now or never for doing something about the marine environment. According to him, it is time to stop talking and start acting.

“In the countries around the Baltic Sea, there is knowledge, money, stable political leadership, and countries that are interdependent in many ways. The Baltic Sea is an example for the rest of the world. If we fail here, the prospects will be even worse for oceans in the rest of the world,” Tanzer said.

That improvements to the marine environment are actually happening was noted when one seminar participant related that toilet effluent in Saint Petersburg, a city of five million people, is now being treated before it is discharged into the Gulf of Finland. But a great deal still needs to be done.

Andrzej Podscianski of the Baltic Sea Secretariat in Warsaw explained how virtually all of Poland is connected to the Baltic Sea via lake systems, canals, and rivers: “Poland is a country with a large population and substantial quantities of phosphorus and nitrogen from Polish agriculture ends up in the Baltic.” Podscianski contended that the work to reduce discharges and pollution is largely a matter of information. People who live in Warsaw or the southern regions of Poland do not realize that what happens in their local communities can also affect the Baltic Sea.

A carefully prepared seminar

One of those who put the most work into preparing the seminar on the future of the Baltic Sea is Pauli Merriman, director of the WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme. She is originally from the US, where she also worked with environmental issues.

“When I was at university, we talked about Scandinavia as a great hero when it comes to environmental issues. When I moved to Sweden, I was surprised to discover that the Baltic is one of the most endangered seas in the world. So, I decided to work with the environmental problems of the Baltic Sea and took a job with WWF Sweden seven years ago.”

Preparations for the day’s seminar started last year. At a workshop arranged in March this year, participants from all nine Baltic Sea countries learned about trends and uncertainties regarding the future of the inland sea.

One of those who worked with Merriman is Inger Näslund, acting director of WWF Sweden’s Marine and Freshwater Programme. She explained that the workshop in March not only represented the entire Baltic Sea Region, but also various social sectors including government agencies, business owners, scientists, and non-profit organizations. Näslund remarked: “Generally speaking, I would like to see more involvement in environmental issues from the financial, transport, and energy sectors. If they made changes in their operations, we would quickly see major environmental improvements.”

The workshop in March resulted in ten trends and seven “uncertainties” related to the Baltic Sea. Distributed to all seminar participants, the report that presented four Baltic Sea scenarios for 2030 was based on these trends and uncertainties.

Two overarching uncertainties were assessed as strategic and became the two platforms of the scenarios: Ecological Footprint (too low or two high human impact), and Governance of the Baltic Sea, characterized either by integration or fragmentation.

The future – bright or murky?

“Clear Waters Ahead” is the most positive scenario, with high levels of collaboration across and within governments and the private sector. In this scenario, enlightened awareness of marine ecology has led to a low ecological footprint on the Baltic Sea. The opposite scenario is called “Shipwrecked,” and is characterized by fragmentation and mistrust, with little or no collaboration among the countries surrounding the Baltic. The sea is exploited by various special interests instead of being a free and shared resource. The environmental decline has accelerated in 2030. The two remaining scenarios, “Islands in the Stream” and “Dangerous Currents,” illustrate further future possibilities.

At the end of the seminar day, participants were divided into groups based on the scenarios to discuss what can be done for the Baltic Sea. The scenario process was led by Ulf Boman, a future strategist at Kairos Future, a research firm. He pointed out that the various scenarios should be seen as potential developments and that discussing them is useful because it raises awareness of what the future might bring.

“Scenarios are used by business, by nations and government agencies, and by NGOs like the WWF. The scenarios are used to create better understanding of what might happen in the future, to generate preparedness, and to develop new strategies for dealing with the unexpected or uncertain,” said Boman.

Boman then gave a classic example out of history of the benefit of working with future scenarios: “During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Shell was the only oil company prepared for tough times. Thanks to the future scenarios they had developed, they went into the crisis as the sixth-largest oil company and came out of it as the second-largest.

In the panel debate that concluded the seminar, the majority agreed that the “Clear Waters Ahead” scenario would be the best for the Baltic Sea. There were several suggestions for how we should get there. Anne-Marie Warris from London-based Lloyd’s Register suggested that environmental rules should be introduced for cargo ships in the Baltic Sea. David Sweet, special advisor to the European Commission Director General for Regional Policy, asserted that the EU is not in a position right now to increase funding to the Baltic Sea Region. “But,” he said, “These scenarios are a tool to move in the right direction. They show rather dramatically the difference between the clear water and the shipwrecked sea. And if we could add a chapter or two saying how we can move from a course that looks like the shipwreck and turn into the clear waters. I say we will do it, and I say that we will have achieved something really worthwhile.”

The report “Counter Currents: Scenarios for the Baltic Sea Towards 2030” is available for download here: