The Baltic Sea Action Plan was adopted by the Baltic coastal states and the EU in 2007 and aimed to restore good ecological status to the Baltic marine environment by 2021. The plan sets targets and shares the burden amongst the countries, on reducing eutrophication, reducing the presence of hazardous substances, improving biodiversity and achieving sustainable maritime activities.
As the target year 2021 approaches it has become clearer that the ambitious goals of the BSAP will not be fully reached by next year. The work to update the plan is now in full gear, so a new version can be adopted by Baltic Sea state ministers in the autumn of 2021.
Bo Gustafsson, director of Stockholm University Baltic Nest Institute, has assisted HELCOM with marine modelling of eutrophication, for both the current plan and the update.
– What was really pioneering in BSAP in 2007 was to quantify, on a scientific basis, how much nutrients should be reduced. And that the countries took responsibility for sharing the reduction burden, he said at recent Baltic Breakfast webinar.
Objectives – targets – loads
The first step in the process was for the HELCOM countries to agree on environmental objectives for the Baltic Sea, such as clear water and reduction of nutrients close to natural levels. These objectives were quantified as target values for Secchi dept in the water and concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus, for example.
– Once we have those values, we can use numerical models to back calculate how large loads the Baltic Sea can cope with and still ensure that the targets eventually will be reached, says Bo Gustafsson.
When these loads, the maximum allowable inputs, MAI, have been calculated, it remains to be solved how the reductions necessary should be shared between the contracting countries, and this question cannot be solved by scientists alone.
– It is a mixture between science and policy, where science can quantify the input share and the uncertainty in different parts.
In 2013 the HELCOM countries agreed to reduce their nutrient emissions in proportion to their inputs around year 2000.
Input ceilings replace reduction targets
For the BSAP update the current proposition is that the environmental objectives, the targets and the maximum allowable inputs remain the same as in the current plan, but the country allocated reduction targets will be exchanged for nutrient input ceilings, NICs, for all countries.
– In the present agreement there is a reduction for each country to each basin. The problem with having a reduction is that you need to reduce compared to something. The reference input, what we compare with, have changed the last seven years, due to new data and new models, Bo Gustafsson explains.
– If we decide on ceilings for how much each country will be allowed to emit, we are not depending on looking at old data any more. And together, the input ceilings for all countries will add up to the maximum allowable input.
The allocation of the reductions – or rather the ceilings – are now being recalculated, but the allocation principles agreed on in 2013 remain the same. Due to new data this still leads to some changes for the countries. Updated data on the total phosphorus loads from Latvia for example gives a higher ceiling to Latvia and a lower ceiling to Estonia, compared to their earlier reduction targets. New data on atmospheric deposition leads to generally higher ceilings for countries with a higher proportion of such inputs, on the expense of countries with high waterborne emissions.
– But the differences are generally small. For Sweden it’s a few percent.
There has been a wish to highlight the contributions from the major transboundary rivers to the Baltic Sea and there is therefore a proposition to assign certain ceilings to these large rivers.
– This is very important since eight rivers contribute with 50 percent of all the nutrients to the Baltic Sea, says Bo Gustafsson.
The heads of delegations have received the proposal on new NICs and the discussions are now ongoing between the contracting parties of the Baltic Sea Action Plan on formulations and content of the actual document.
Do you think that the goals in the plan should have been revised too?, asks moderator Gun Rudquist.
– I think that one need to close the loop. Probably we will come to a stage where reducing the last tonnes of nutrients will be so intrusive to our lifestyle and the budgets that we don’t want to do them. My dream is to then have better tools to show the tradeoffs for different decisions, says Bo Gustafsson.
The role of HELCOM is changing
Emma Undeman, researcher in environmental science at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre, has contributed to the BSAP update by compiling the current science on some significant hazardous substances.
She describes how the condition in the Baltic Sea regarding chemicals has changed considerably since the Helsinki convention was first signed in 1974. Some old point sources of hazardous substances have been dealt with, but parallel to this, more chemicals are diffusely emitted from thousands of sources, which makes them more difficult to handle. Awareness on chemicals and the regulations have risen and developed considerably. The geopolitical situation in the Baltic Sea region has also changed – the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore and eight of the nine HELCOM countries are now EU members.
– The role of HELCOM has changed over time and so has the type of actions needed to handle hazardous substances.
New chemicals pose new challenges
The current BSAP contain different types of measures for managing already identified hazardous substances. Many measures are investigative – to look for more information before making decisions – or aims to develop monitoring and assessment strategies. But not all hazardous chemicals are identified – another group could be categorized as emerging and unknown threats.
– This is something that HELCOM is not so good at. Hazardous substances are a moving target. You manage some but new contaminants appear in the environment, says Emma Undeman.
– The BSAP certainly includes actions that are supposed to address this, but these actions are not really concretized and, in many cases, not implemented.
Instead, much of the HELCOM work is focused on legacy pollutants, that have been around for a long time and in many cases are banned since long. These are often global pollutants and may reach the Baltic Sea via long range transport. In order for HELCOM to take further actions regarding these chemicals, the researchers at Stockholm University have compiled the current science on some substances that are identified as hazardous and still considered to cause problems in the Baltic Sea: the organic contaminants PCBs and dioxins, brominated flame retardants, PFAS and the pharmaceutical diclofenac.
– What we have done is to identify the major sources and transport pathways, that are relevant for the Baltic Sea, for these substances, and the temporal trends.
The results have been published in a series of four background reports, available online.
PFOS input mainly from rivers
The input of PFOS, one of the contaminants covered in the reports, to the Baltic Sea today mainly comes via rivers – this input is three times higher than the atmospheric deposition to the sea surface. But the PFOS in the rivers originate from atmospheric deposition to the catchment that reaches the rivers via groundwater or wastewater treatment plants, and some also originate from contaminated land sites.
– But the relative importance of these different sources is not known, so it’s very hard to judge if better wastewater treatment or remediation of a contaminated site will have an effect on the Baltic Sea as such.
There are no known direct sources of PFOS into the air in the Baltic Sea region – the substance is banned and the production is phased out.
– But new PFOS is formed from precursor substances, that break down to PFOS. So, the concentration in the air will decline when we stop using these precursors.
Diclofenac reaches the sea via wastewater
The painkilling pharmaceutical diclofenac, on the other hand, reaches the Baltic Sea almost solely via wastewater treatment plants.
– This substance is not really persistent or bioaccumulative, but the concentrations are sustained in the environment by the large inputs.
The prescription of diclofenac in the HELCOM countries is currently declining, but instead there is an increase in the use of non-prescribed diclofenac products, such as creams. The human uptake from such creams is quite small and a large fraction of the substance is instead washed off and can reach the Baltic Sea via wastewater treatment plants.
– There is a large knowledge gap on how much that is sold in the region and how much that enters the sewers.
Important to define the problem
Conclusively there is still a lot of research needed to support HELCOM in updating the BSAP, says Emma Undeman. One key thing that is often lacking when HELCOM is proposing an action is to define the expected effect of it.
– If we implement an action – on what scale will it be effective? HELCOM also needs help to identify the problem: which chemicals are a problem in the Baltic Sea and what are the effects? The lack of updating the list of prioritized substances maybe hinders to move beyond these well-known substances and see if there are other groups of chemicals that also need to be managed.
If you could choose one thing that you would like to see realized in the new BSAP, what would that be, asks moderator Gun Rudquist.
– I hope they will work more on the mechanism to update which chemicals they prioritize and develop indicators that take a broader scope than just the single chemicals. And this is already ongoing work, says Emma Undeman.
– I hope of course that our suggestion for the nutrient input ceiling will be accepted, highlighted and presented in a good way in the BSAP so we don’t have any ambiguities afterwards, says Bo Gustafsson.