State of nature and the environment 2020
Biodiversity is declining, effectiveness of environmental protection must be improved

12.4.2021 9.48
Biodiversity is declining, effectiveness of environmental protection must be improved

Finland has failed to reach is target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020. 12% of Finland’s species and nearly half of the country’s natural habitats are endangered. Our development is not ecologically sustainable. Although we have succeeded in significantly reducing many emissions, we are generally causing excessive burden on the environment.

 

Biodiversity continues to deteriorate

Figure: Agricultural land with high ecological value and volume of decayed wood in commercial forests. (Source: Farmlands and decaying wood Natural Resources Institute Finland)

Retaining biodiversity is a key indicator for the status of ecosystems. The amount of dead and decayed wood in forests provides indirect information on the diversity of forest species, as decaying wood is an important habitat for many species. The share of high nature value farmlands (HNV) reflects the number of agricultural environments that have the conditions for sustaining an exceptionally diverse range of plant and animal species. The diversity of species is the foundation of ecosystem services: the more biological diversity is diminished the more difficult it will be for us to access the prerequisites for our wellbeing from nature.

Finland’s current situation

As Finland is a forest-rich and sparsely populated country, forestry and agriculture play a major role in protecting biodiversity in Finland compared to most other European countries. According to a national estimate for 2019, 11.9% of our species are endangered. Compared to natural forests, there is little decaying wood in Finland's commercial forests. There has particularly been a decrease in traditional rural environments based on grazing.

Together with other EU Member States, Finland was committed to halting biodiversity loss by 2020. The same target had already been set for 2010, but its implementation was unsuccessful. Safeguarding biodiversity will require both a comprehensive network of protected areas and particularly additional measures outside the protected areas. In terms of the surface area of protected areas, Finland is close to the international average. Nature reserves and wilderness areas cover approximately ten per cent of Finland’s overall surface area. The 2030 Agenda's Goal 15 concerns the protection of terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity. According to target 15.5, we must take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt biodiversity loss, and protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species. Globally, there is a need for a considerable intensification of nature conservation efforts, as people are expected to cause the extinctions of species at up to 1,000 times the natural rate of species decline over the long term.

Finland's recent development

Figure: Number of endangered species. (Source: Red List of Threatened Species (in Finnish), Finnish Environment Institute)

In the 2000s, the development of biodiversity has been negative as a whole – in terms of the number of endangered species, biodiversity loss has even accelerated. Between 2010 and 2019, the situation of 461 species deteriorated and 263 species improved. Changes in forests are the primary cause for 733 species becoming threatened and for the open habitats of 639 species becoming closed habitats. Climate change and new alien species spread to Finland pose growing threats. While the majority of endangered species live in Southern Finland, most protected areas are in Northern Finland. According to the report on threatened biotopes, almost half (48%) of Finland’s biotopes are threatened. For example, all of Finland’s traditional biotopes, such as rural meadows, are threatened. The land area covered by farmland that is valuable for biodiversity has shrunk dramatically in the long term. 76% of forest habitats are endangered. While the amount of decaying wood has increased considerably in the forests in southern Finland since the 1990s, its amount is small compared to natural forests. The amount of decaying wood has decreased in the forests in northern Finland. According to the monitoring data on nature management collected from private commercial forests since 1995, in the 2010s, less attention was paid to safeguarding biodiversity than in the previous decade. According to an evaluation of biodiversity policy published in 2020, the greatest pressures on biodiversity are caused by forestry, agriculture, construction, and pollution and climate change. Even though the efficiency of the protection of biodiversity has been improved in many ways, the efforts have still been insufficient to achieve key sustainable development goals.

Other observations related to the indicator

In the 2019 assessment of threatened species, less than half (22,418) of our known species could be assessed. There is not enough information on the current status of other species. It is possible that some rare species have already disappeared or are currently disappearing without this being noticed. On the other hand, the share of threatened species may increase due to the fact that previously poorly known species can be included in the assessment, or individuals of species that have already been thought to be lost are found as monitoring becomes more accurate. The fragmentation of the available information makes it difficult to form an overall picture, and there is a lack of information about the long-term development of many species and habitats. For example, there is little knowledge about the development pollinator rates. This lack of information and natural changes in ecosystems make it difficult to set goals and reference levels for diversity. The international comparison of protected areas is hampered by the fact that the definitions of protected areas vary in different contexts.

Nutrient loading from rivers to the Baltic Sea has decreased only slighty

Figure: Nutrient loading from rivers to the Baltic Sea. (Source: Finnish Environment Institute)

Eutrophication in the most extensive and visible environmental change that affects the state of our water systems. Eutrophication is described by the amount of eutrophicating nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, entering the Baltic Sea from Finnish rivers. The eutrophication of bodies of water weakens people’s ability to utilise them, affects biodiversity and the capacity of aquatic ecosystems to act as carbon sinks, for instance. The increase of blue-green algae is considered particularly harmful.

Finland’s current situation

Finland has plenty of small and shallow water bodies that are sensitive to eutrophication. The Baltic Sea is also sensitive to eutrophic loading, which is transported with water from land and as internal loading from the bottom of the sea and also as part of air pollution. The amount of phosphorus and nitrogen transported by rivers to the Baltic Sea increased in 2019 compared to the previous year. This was predominantly due to an increase in river flow. The aim of the Baltic Sea Protection Commission (HELCOM) is that the state of the sea will be good by 2021. This goal will not be achieved. Climate change makes it even more difficult to achieve the goals. During the temperate winter of 2019–2020, rains flushed exceptionally large amounts of nutrients into rivers, and water warming accelerates eutrophication.

Conservation of the seas and oceans is one of Agenda 2030’s SDGs. Target 14.1 aims to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution by 2025. In addition, SDG 6 aims to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. In line with the objectives set by the EU, waters should have already been in good or excellent condition in 2015. The target was achieved in very few water areas. In Finland, the objective of the Government-approved Water and Marine Management Plans is to ensure that the status of surface and groundwater is at least good and that the status of good quality waters does not deteriorate. Damage to waters caused by eutrophic emissions and other harmful substances as well as by water construction must be prevented. In addition, the aim is to prepare for the risks posed by climate change, such as floods and droughts, and to ensure the preservation of the biodiversity of aquatic habitats and the sustainable management and use of coastal areas.

Finland’s recent development

Eutrophication in water systems has been reduced in the most heavily loaded areas, as emissions from point sources have been reduced by more efficient water purification efforts. Overall, nutrient loading is still too high. Bodies of water are also slow to recover from previous loading. The state of many individual lakes, and the Archipelago Sea and the Gulf of Finland, is alarming. According to an ecological classification system depicting the overall status of waters, the ecological status of most of the surface areas of lakes (85%) and lengths of rivers (65%) is excellent or good. By contrast, only 25 per cent of coastal waters have been rated excellent or good.

The volume of nutrients carried to the Baltic Sea by rivers has remained relatively similar from the 1970s until today. The high level of nutrients in rivers is particularly sustained by loading caused by agriculture. The fact that nutrient surplus on fields has reduced compared to the 1990s, as a result of more accurate artificial fertilisation, is a positive development in the agriculture sector. Long-term nutrient emissions from forest land management are proving to be much higher compared to previous estimates. Natural fluctuations in water flow have a significant effect on nutrient leaching. Changes in rainfall and frost heaving caused by climate change threaten to increase leaching. Leaching can be influenced, for example, with cultivation practices. The greatest current challenges of eutrophic loading involve the management of diffuse loading and the closure of nutrient cycles so that nutrients would end up in fields for use in food production instead of water bodies.

Other observations related to the indicator

Eutrophication is linked to other factors affecting the status of waters. When assessing the status of waters, it is important to take into account not only the emissions transported from land, but also other anthropogenic loads, such as shipping, civil engineering and long-distance transport through the atmosphere. While there has been a decline in oil emissions into the Baltic Sea, an increase in the frequency of oil and chemical transports heighten the risk of a significant environmental catastrophe. Water traffic noise and microscopic plastic litter from various sources also burden the aquatic ecosystems.

We breathe clean air, but should reduce exposure to particulate matter

Figure: Atmospheric sulphur, nitrogen and fine particulate emissions in Finland. (Source: Finnish Environment Institute)

The emissions of many harmful substances into the air have reduced considerably in Finland over the previous decades. Air quality is described by the emissions of acidifying sulphur and nitrogen compounds and particulate matter.

Finland’s current situation

Finland’s air quality is excellent when compared internationally. Even so, health risks emerge particularly in urban areas where there are many sources of emissions and people exposed to the emissions. Problems are particularly caused by wood-fired heating of single-family houses during freezing temperatures in the winter and traffic-related particulate matter in the spring. It has been estimated that air pollution causes approximately 2,000 premature deaths and the loss of around 20,000 healthy years of life in Finland every year. The greatest amount of health hazards is caused by fine particles the most significant source of which is the small-scale burning of wood. The fireplaces of saunas, cottages and homes account for more than half of fine particle emissions in Finland. Finland has been able to effectively reduce emissions from large plants efficiently and to steer these away from people’s breathing height.

Air quality is linked to many of the 2030 Agenda goals. For example, the adverse environmental impacts of cities should be reduced by paying particular attention to air quality (target 11.6). The aim of the Government-approved National Air Pollution Control Programme 2030 is to reduce the health hazards caused by air pollution and to improve the pleasantness of people's living environments. The programme is based on the EU's emissions cap directive, which aims to halve health hazards caused by air pollution by 2030. Finland's current measures are sufficient to meet EU-set reduction obligations for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, fine particles and ammonia. However, this will not be adequate to reduce health hazards significantly. For the most part, the limit values for fine particles are not exceeded in Finland.

Finland’s recent development

Acidifying nitrogen emissions have reduced to less than half and sulphur emissions to one sixth of the status in 1990. The greatest emission reductions took place already before the 1990s in the form of energy production and industrial fuel choices and the more efficient purification of emissions. Fine particles remain an important issue with regard to people’s health. Emissions of fine particulate matter decreased rapidly in the early 1990s. In recent years, the reduction has continued at a slower rate. Fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres are the most harmful for health.

Other observations related to the indicator

Air quality is affected by a large number of different factors that cannot be included in a single indicator. In particular, combustion process-caused heavy metals, persistent organic toxins and soot that accelerates climate change are released into the air.

Environmentally harmful subsidies still paid

Economic steering is a key instrument in reducing environmental damage. Society encourages both citizens and companies with various direct and indirect economic subsidies for environmental protection and aims to reduce environmentally harmful activities by enacting an environmental tax. Some financial aid given for other purposes can cause inadvertent harm to the environment. These are called environmentally harmful subsidies.

Finland’s current situation

Subsidies that are harmful to the environment are examined in the budget proposal. In 2020, they amounted to EUR around 3.6 billion in the first 2020 budget proposal. This was approximately EUR 100 million more than in the previous year. These subsidies are mainly allocated to the energy, transport and agricultural sectors. In the transport sector, the subsidies estimated to be environmentally harmful were the biggest of the three at over EUR 1.4 billion. The subsidy for the energy sector is over EUR 1.1 billion and for the agricultural sector is under EUR 1.1 billion. In addition, in 2020, central government granted a large amount of special support to compensate for the financial losses caused by the measures taken to mitigate the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Some of these, particularly aid granted to air transport, were environmentally harmful. Tax-free fuel and other tax benefits for international aviation are not included in the aforementioned subsidies.

Comparison to target levels

In principle, the objective of ecologically sustainable development is for no environmentally harmful subsidies to be granted at all. The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) that guided European environment policy until 2020 aimed to put an end to environmentally harmful subsidies. Specific targets were set for some topics. According to the International Convention on Biological Diversity, subsidies harmful to biodiversity should have been cancelled, phased out or renewed so that their negative impacts could have been minimised or eliminated by 2020. The Agenda 2030 goals emphasise a cut to subsidies for fossil fuels (SDG 12c) and subsidies that maintain IUU fishing (SDG 14.6). When eliminating subsidies, it should be noted that subsidies that have harmful impacts on the environment can have significant positive impacts on other policy objectives. In addition, the possible impacts on international competitiveness should be taken into account. The rash elimination of subsidies may encourage, for example, industrial production to move to countries where environmental regulation is less stringent.

Finland’s recent development

There is no reliable or adequately unambiguous summary available on the long-term development of the total amount of environmentally harmful subsidies. A report published in 2013 estimated that the total amount of potentially environmentally harmful subsidies was around EUR 3 billion per year. The majority of these subsidies are reduced tax rates and other indirect subsidies aimed at, for example, maintaining employment in an established sector. An example of an environmentally harmful business subsidy is the reduced tax rate for peat. It encourages the continuation of the energy use of peat, which results in high carbon dioxide emissions and harmful impacts on nature and water bodies. This tax expenditure increased from less than 80 million euros a year in the period 2012–2013 to around 200 million euros in 2020. A decision to cut it was made in 2020. A decision has been made to eliminate and partly replace the significant forms of aid of the repayment of industrial energy taxes and compensation for emissions trading and the aid that reduced the price of paraffinic diesel. They amounted to roughly EUR 500 million in total.

Other observations related to the indicator

The definition of environmentally harmful subsidies is difficult as subsidies have many different direct and indirect impacts. For example, subsidising electricity use will undermine the incentive to save energy, but can also support a move away from energy based on fossil fuels. While the natural constraint payment helps maintain agriculture that causes burden on the environment, in addition to food production, it also enables environmental benefits, such as an open rural landscape, which is important for many species. The definition and curtailing of subsidies are also hampered by strong differences of opinion and opposition to change by various stakeholders. Further discussion on the purpose and impacts of the aid, highlighting various interests in a transparent manner will be necessary for the identification and advance prevention of any disadvantages to employment or international competitiveness caused by their removal or reallocation.

Conclusion

Nature is the foundation of our wellbeing. As all renewable natural resources originate from living nature, the vitality of nature is a prerequisite for sustainable development. The use of non-renewable natural resources, such as oil and minerals, affects nature, and natural processes also process various types of waste and emissions caused by human activities. For example, the capacity of nature to store and bind carbon dioxide is essential for mitigating climate change.

Changes made to indicators

1.    The indicator has been updated with the most recent available data. A national assessment of biodiversity is carried out approximately once every ten years.
2.    The indicator has been updated with the most recent available data.
3.    The indicator has been updated with the most recent available data.
4.    As there is no comprehensive time series of environmentally harmful subsidies available, the indicator is based on a qualitative description.


Jari Lyytimäki, Finnish Environment Institute