State of nature and the environment 2019
Finland’s air quality is good, but its biodiversity is diminishing

6.3.2020 15.24
Finland’s air quality is good, but its biodiversity is diminishing

In accordance with the goals for sustainable development, our activities must be adapted in the long term to nature’s carrying capacity and ability to renew so that we can secure good possibilities for life in Finland and globally.

Finland’s biodiversity is diminishing

Retaining biodiversity is a key indicator for the status of ecosystems. Biodiversity can be measured at the genetic level as the abundance of species and at the landscape level. An increase in the number of threatened species is a consequence of the harmful changes taking place in ecosystems. Species that will become extinct if present development continues are considered threatened.

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 well-being from nature. 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.

Finland’s current situation

In a comprehensive national assessment published in spring 2019, 11.9% of our species were considered endangered. The biggest individual reasons for them being threatened are changes in forest habitats, a decline in biodiversity and the fragmentation of nature, and the increasing intensiveness of agriculture. 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 that spread to Finland pose growing threats. The majority of threatened species live in Southern Finland. The majority of protected areas are located 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. 76% of forest habitats are threatened. The share of HNV farmlands of all arable land has increased slightly in recent years in Southern Finland. The amount of decaying wood in Southern Finland’s forests has increased but decreased in Northern Finland.

Comparison to target levels

Agenda 2030 's SDG 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 the loss of biodiversity and protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species. Finland is committed to halting biodiversity loss by 2020. The same target had already been set for 2010, but its implementation was unsuccessful. Even now, achieving this target will be extremely unlikely. Safeguarding biodiversity will require both a comprehensive network of protected areas and 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 definition for protected areas varies in different contexts. 

Finland’s recent development

In the 2000s, the overall development of biodiversity has been negative. Between the 2010 and 2019 assessments, the situation of 461 species has deteriorated and that of 263 species has improved. Birds are among the best known and longest monitored groups of species. Approximately one third of all of Finland’s bird species are threatened. Over the past decade, the decline has been slower in forests and rural heritage environments than in the fells and mires. Many species live in forests, and of the just under 9,500 species assessed in forest habitats 9% are endangered. The built environment is the only habitat in which the rise in the number of threatened species has been halted. The biggest change in a negative direction has taken place on the shores. Mire and field species are also in distress. The protection of biodiversity has been progressed compared to the past, but efforts have still been insufficient to achieve the SDGs. The amount of decaying wood in Southern Finland’s forests has increased considerably from the 1990s. In Northern Finland, the development has been the opposite. The amount of decaying wood in forests has decreased slightly at the national level compared to the 1990s. With regard to the forests, the most important factors are the total number of fellings, the forest management methods used and, in particular, the preservation of old-growth forests in Southern Finland. The land area covered by farmland that is valuable for biodiversity has shrunk in the long term. The preservation of traditional biotopes and, in particular, livestock farming based on grazing are essential for the biodiversity of rural environments.

Other observations related to the indicator

The number of species included in assessments of threatened species has increased, as more information has been collected on different species. The indicator does not describe all species, only the share of threatened species of the species that could be assessed at the given time. 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. In the 2019 assessment, less than half (22,418) of our known species could be assessed. There is not enough information on the current status of other species. The fragmented nature of existing data makes it difficult to form an overall picture. There is a lack of information on the long-term development of many species and habitats. For example, there is no comprehensive information available on the development of the number of pollinating insects. This lack of information and natural changes in ecosystems make it difficult to set reference levels for diversity.

Nutrient loading from our rivers to the Baltic Sea has remained nearly unchanged

Many emissions to waters have decreased significantly in Finland over the last few decades, as the use of the most harmful substances has been banned and effective cleaning techniques have been introduced at large individual emission sources. Eutrophication in the most extensive and visible environmental change that affects the state of our water systems. Eutrophication is described by the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the Baltic Sea from Finnish rivers.

Finland’s current situation

The amount of phosphorus transported by rivers to the Baltic Sea decreased in 2017 compared to previous years. This was predominantly due to a decrease in river flow. 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% of coastal waters have been rated excellent or good. The eutrophication of waters has diminished in the most heavily loaded areas, but the overall nutrient load is too high. The state of many individual lakes, the Archipelago Sea and the Gulf of Finland is alarming. The recovery of water systems has been hampered by internal loading caused by nutrients stored in the Baltic Sea and the bottom layer of lakes over a long period of time and the oxygen pollution in the bottom. Fluctuations in weather conditions also have an impact. In particular, problems caused by the mass occurrence of blue-green algae will become more common, if weather conditions favour the growth of algae

Comparison to target levels

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. The objective of the current 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

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 use of fertilisers, is a positive development in the agriculture sector. Natural fluctuations in water flow have a significant effect on nutrient leaching. The eutrophication effect in both the sea and inland waters is influenced by, among other things, the targeting of emissions in different water areas, the form in which nutrients occur and the way they bind to particles. It is unlikely that the objectives set for the condition of waters that are locally overloaded with nutrients and the slow recovery of ecosystems will be achieved in the next few years without the implementation of substantial additional measures. Changes in rainfall and frost heaving caused by climate change threaten to increase leaching. Leaching can be influenced, for example, with cultivation practices. In the long term, the warming of waters threatens to increase eutrophication. 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

When assessing the status of waters, not only eutrophic emissions but also other anthropogenic loads, such as shipping, civil engineering and long-distance transport through the atmosphere, should be taken into account. While oil emissions into the Baltic Sea have reduced, 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.

Finland’s air quality is good, fine particulate matter poses the greatest health risk

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. The emissions of many harmful substances into the air have reduced considerably in Finland over the previous decades. Air quality is described as the amount the emissions of acidifying compounds and fine particles.

Finland’s current situation

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 are 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. The quality of Finland’s outdoor air excellent when compared internationally, but especially the heating of single-family houses during freezing winter temperatures and fine particles from traffic in the spring cause problems.

Comparison to target levels

Air quality is linked to many of Agenda 2030’s 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. However, exceptional circumstances occur especially in spring when a large amount of particles are produced by urban traffic and on winter days when temperatures fall below zero when a lot of wood is burnt for heating purposes in areas with single-family houses.

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, and 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. 

Total sum of environmentally harmful subsidies is more than 3 billion euros

Economic steering is a key instrument in reducing the 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

Environmentally harmful subsidies are being reviewed in the 2019 State budget proposal, in which their total sum has been estimated to be around EUR 3.5 billion. Environmentally harmful subsidies are primarily granted to three sectors: the energy sector, the transport sector and the agricultural sector. Out of these, the transport sector receives the largest amount of subsidies totalling 1.4 billion euros. However, the subsidy amounts to these sectors are fairly close to one another. Both the energy and agricultural sectors receive just over 1 billion euros in subsidies.

The largest single environmentally harmful subsidy in the 2019 budget proposal consists of a lower electricity tax rate for industry and greenhouse gases. The total sum of this subsidy has been estimated at approximately EUR 600 million. In the transport sector, the subsidy amounts for the lower tax rate for diesel fuel, adjusted by the vehicle tax power tax, the reduction in commuting expenses and the lower tax rate for light fuel used in machinery are all fairly close to EUR 400 million. In the agricultural sector, the largest individual support consists of a natural constraint payment that compensates for the effects of differences in relationships with nature. Its share is approx. EUR 548 million.

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) guiding European environment policy until 2020 aims to put an end to environmentally harmful subsidies. Specific targets have been set for some topics. According to the International Convention on Biological Diversity, subsidies harmful to biodiversity must be cancelled, phased out or renewed so that their negative impacts can be 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 aiming at 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 a particular sector or region. 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 water bodies. This subsidy has increased from less than 80 million euros a year in 2012–2013 to around 189 million euros in 2019. 

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 incentive to save energy, but can also support a move away from energy based on fossil fuels.  The natural constraint payment helps maintain agriculture that loads the environment but, in addition to food production, 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.

Changes implemented to indicators

  1. In the indicator on biodiversity, the time series on high nature value farmland is divided into two; Southern Finland and Northern Finland. A separate time series on the general development in the share of threatened species has been added to the indicator. These comprehensive assessments are carried one around 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, and information for 2000-2010 on the latest models has also been added to the time series describing fine particles.
  4. Based on the feedback, the previous indicator of documented environmental protection expenditure in Finland proved to be uninformative, and there was no comparable and adequately easy to interpret update data available for it. The newly adopted indicator comprises information on environmentally harmful subsidies, as the topic has garnered a great deal of interest and is relevant to sustainable development.