It pays to invest in preventing eutrophication

Preventing eutrophication in the Baltic Sea is not only a matter of principle, but is also financially profitable.

Preventing eutrophication in the Baltic Sea is not only a matter of principle, but is also financially profitable.

This is evident in the results of the Protection of the Baltic Sea: Benefits, Costs and Policy Instruments and Cost-efficient Instruments for the Protection of the Baltic Sea research projects, which were published on 8 November 2012.

Not all coastal states have made equal progress in preventing eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. The largest investments are required in countries that do not benefit the most. However, the division of costs can be adjusted to encourage all parties, and cost-efficient operating models will bring considerable savings.

"Cost-efficient measures across national borders can be used to even out the cost of protecting the Baltic Sea. International funding, private operators, foundations and active citizens also play an important role," says Kari Hyytiäinen from MTT Agrifood Research Finland.

According to a survey carried out as part of the projects, people in all coastal states are willing to invest in preventing eutrophication in the Baltic Sea.

Cost-effective options for Finland

The overall potential to reduce nutrient levels in the Baltic Sea is enormous. Finland also has some potential to reduce emissions.

"We evaluated the cost of preventing eutrophication in agriculture and municipal wastewater treatment. The results showed that considerable reductions can be achieved in wastewater treatment and particularly in nitrogen removal at a relatively low cost," says Professor Markku Ollikainen from the Department of Economics and Management of the University of Helsinki, who edited the Economic Aspects of Baltic Sea Protection report with Hyytiäinen.

If large treatment plants remove about 90 percent of the nitrogen in wastewater – the current level in Finland is 56 percent on average – and agriculture reduces its nitrogen loading by 30 percent, wastewater treatment and agriculture will have equal cost burdens. The emission reductions achieved through the suggested levels will be cost-efficient for society.

"Based on the conclusions of our study and the low cost of nitrogen removal, we recommend that Finland consider a nitrogen policy that exceeds the EU directive on urban wastewater treatment in the same manner as the Finnish phosphorus policy," Ollikainen says.

According to his calculations, increasing the level of phosphorus removal would not be cost-efficient. Instead, it pays to invest in more effective measures.

To reduce phosphorus and nitrogen emissions in agriculture, it is essential that Finland address the shortcomings of its environmental subsidy system.

"The present system has not decreased the total nutrient loading. While some reductions have been achieved during the current subsidy period, an increase in the total field area and nitrogen-intensive crops as well as regulations to allow considerably higher amounts of nitrogen fertilizers have increased the total loading. In other words, the system is at fault, not the farmers," Ollikainen points out.

The two research projects were collaborations between the University of Helsinki, MTT Agrifood Research Finland and the Finnish Environment Institute. In addition to eutrophication, the projects examined the effects of oil spills from ships and the costs and benefits of invasive species prevention. The projects were funded by the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Ministry of Finance.

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Professor Markku Ollikainen in the TUHAT research
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Text: Sanna Schildt
Photo: 123rf
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