Compensation for nutrient emissions would boost the conservation of the Baltic Sea

The local-level Baltic Sea panel proposes the introduction of voluntary nutrient emission compensation trade for reducing the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Under the scheme for example wastewater treatment plants could compensate for the nutrients remaining in the water they've purified by funding a reduction of nutrients elsewhere.

The summer of 2018 demonstrated the need for conservation of the Baltic Sea. Unusually hot weather brought exceptionally extensive algae blooms to the region, and news reports of thick, toxic algae porridge covering the beaches alarmed citizens. In the Gulf of Finland, blue-green algae blooms were the worst in a decade.

Algal blooming is impacted by many factors, but among the most important ones is the number of nutrients flowing from land to sea. Algae consume the nutrients carried to the sea in human waste water as well as in fertilisers washing off the fields into waterways. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the key nutrients resulting in eutrophication.

Now, a panel of experts focused on Baltic Sea conservation is proposing that eutrophication of the Baltic Sea should be further curbed by introducing a compensation scheme for nutrient emissions.

Nutrient compensation means that for example a wastewater treatment plant could compensate for the nutrients remaining in the water it has purified, potentially ending up in waterways, by funding projects that decrease the amount of nutrients elsewhere. This could be done for example by helping another treatment plant to acquire new technology and chemicals in order to reduce its nutrient emissions, or funding the gypsum treatment of fields.

“Wastewater treatment plants can compensate for the nutrient load remaining after treatment either partly or entirely by reducing nutrient loads elsewhere. This is financially sound, as the degree of purification in many plants that drain their wastewater into the Baltic Sea is already high enough to make increases in treatment efficiency not cost-effective,” explains Markku Ollikainen, Professor of Environmental Economics at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki.

Ollikainen is an expert in emissions trading and chair of the local-level Baltic Sea panel. The University of Helsinki is represented on the panel also by Professor Alf Norkko who serves as a professor at the University’s Tvärminne Zoological Station.

The government should create a compensation model

Many institutions or actors would have the ability to reduce nutrient loads if only they were provided funding the acquisition of the required purification technology and other necessary measures. Voluntary compensation for nutrient emissions would be one tool with which to connect these two groups.

Indeed, the panel recommends that the Ministry of the Environment take the reins in developing the accounting principles for compensation, creating a model in which the demand and supply of compensation meet, and establishing a certificate of nutrient load reduction verified by an unbiased party. The compensation programme would be voluntary in nature, but a functional framework would be necessary.

The idea is based on flight emission compensation, familiar to many, in which airline passengers can voluntarily compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions of their flight by funding projects that reduce emissions elsewhere.

Water services in the Helsinki region already phosphorus-neutral through compensation

The water services provided by the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY are one example of successful compensation. HSY is a municipal body that produces water and waste management services. HSY and the City of Helsinki succeeded in trialling the compensation for phosphorus residue in purified wastewater, making the city’s wastewater load phosphorus-neutral.

In the pilot project, the City of Helsinki and HSY offset the city’s share of the phosphorus emissions of the Viikinmäki treatment plant for one year by an equivalent reduction in nutrient emissions in the wastewater of Vitebsk, Belarus, and Sosnovy Bor, Russia. The city and HSY supported the Vitebsk plant in acquiring chemicals for removing phosphorus to such a degree that the phosphorus concentration of the plant’s purified wastewater reached the recommended level set by HELCOM, the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Committee. 

Now many other parties are following their lead. The local-level Baltic Sea panel hopes to see compensation for nutrient emissions being increasingly used around the Baltic Sea, stating that voluntary compensation would be an excellent demonstration of the social responsibility of plants and various other parties.

Several methods for conserving the Baltic Sea found through research

Researchers at the University of Helsinki and their partners have discovered (article in Finnish only) several ways to protect the Baltic Sea. These include spreading gypsum on fields, leaving fields unploughed for the winter and supporting wetlands.

One of the most effective ways of reducing phosphorus loads is the gypsum treatment of fields (article in Finnish only). The Baltic Sea panel proposes the immediate gypsum treatment of applicable fields in the catchment area of the Finnish Archipelago Sea. This work could also be supported by the nutrient compensation model, as parties compensating for their nutrient loads could direct funds to gypsum treatment.

“In the last decade, experiences gained from extensive pilots and the most recent research data support the increasingly large-scale application of gypsum for the purpose of controlling scattered phosphorus loading,” says Professor Kari Hyytiäinen, who is a member of the panel’s secretariat.

Professor Alf Norkko emphasises the importance of also carrying on with research focused on other promising methods for alleviating the nutrient load of fields. All practical measures are based on basic scientific research, and yet the funds allocated to such research have diminished in recent years.

 “In addition to practical measures, the conservation of the Baltic Sea hinges on the sufficient funding of basic research and education,” Norkko points out.

Funding for Baltic Sea conservation must support research and local parties 

In September 2018, the Finnish government decided on a framework for the conservation of the Baltic Sea, under which funds are annually allocated for various targets. The overall budgetary framework from 2019 to 2021 is €45 million. For 2019, the government proposed an additional allocation of €15 million to intensify the conservation of the Baltic Sea and inland waters. Among the allocation targets are the reduction of the waterway load caused by agriculture, the increased use of the research vessel Aranda of the Finnish Environment Institute Syke and the promotion of sustainable urban wastewater treatment.

The local-level Baltic Sea panel proposes that funding should support both local parties in their water conservation work and higher education institutions and research institutes in their marine-related work as researchers, teachers and monitors of the state of the marine ecosystem.

Statements by the Baltic Sea panel:

Ravinnepäästöjen kompensaatioista vauhtia Itämeren suojeluun (28 November 2018) (‘Nutrient emission compensation to boost the conservation of the Baltic Sea’, document in Finnish only)

Itämeren suojelun lisäpanostukset täysimittaisesti ja kustannustehokkaasti vesistöjemme tilan parantamiseksi (28 November 2018) (‘Comprehensive and cost-effective additional investments for the conservation of the Baltic Sea to improve the state of our waterways’, document in Finnish only)