State of nature and the environment 2021
Biodiversity continues to decline, several successes in environmental protection

13.1.2022 13.38 | Published in English on 25.3.2022 at 11.25
Kuvituskuva artikkeliin. Kuvassa suopursuja ja puita.

The decline in biodiversity in the Finnish nature shows that our development is not ecologically sustainable. 12% of Finland’s species and nearly half of the country’s natural habitats are endangered. We have succeeded in significantly reducing many individual emissions, but we are generally causing excessive burden on the environment.

Biodiversity continues to deteriorate

Amount of decaying wood on forest lands and fields of high natural value

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. Biodiversity 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. The decrease has been particularly significant in traditional rural environments with small-scale features resulting from grazing.

Finland has been making efforts to halt the decline in biodiversity for a long time, but the target has not been achieved yet. Safeguarding biodiversity will require both a comprehensive network of protected areas and particularly additional measures outside the protected areas. In terms of the total 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. In 2021, a Government resolution on an action plan aimed at improving the status of deteriorated habitats was adopted (Helmi Habitats Programme). It particularly aims to safeguard habitats of endangered forest species, semi-natural grasslands, mires, wetlands and small water bodies. The programme extending until 2030 includes 40 measures for the restoration, management and protection of habitats.

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. The EU biodiversity strategy aims to protect 30 per cent of both land and sea areas. Of these protected areas, one third should be strictly protected.

Finland’s recent development

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. Even though the efficiency of the protection of biodiversity has been improved in many ways, the efforts made have still been insufficient. The greatest pressures on biodiversity are caused by forestry, agriculture, construction, and pollution and climate change.

Between the 2010 and 2019 national assessments of threatened species, the situation of 461 species deteriorated and of 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 spreading 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, such as fresh and dry meadows, has shrunk dramatically in the long term. Data on HNV areas has been collected since 2006. In the Åland Islands, these areas account for the largest proportion of the field area, approximately 70 per cent. In mainland Finland, the area covered by HNV areas has decreased from 230,000 hectares to 184,000 hectares. In Northern Finland (Centres for economic development, transport and the environment for Lapland, Kainuu and Northern Ostrobothnia), the proportion (16.7%) is higher than in the south. The smallest proportion is in the area of the Centre for economic development, transport and the environment for South Ostrobothnia (2.1%).

The amount of decaying wood in forests has remained unchanged for the whole country, even though in Southern Finland its amount has increased from 2.8 cubic metres per hectare in the 1990s to the current 4.9 cubic metres per hectare. In the forests of Northern Finland, the amount of decaying wood has decreased from 9.5 cubic metres to 7.7 cubic metres per hectare, but the decline stopped in 2019–2020. Compared to forests in a natural state, the amounts are small, but compared to the situation one century ago, the amount of decaying wood in our forests has increased significantly.

Other observations related to the indicator

In the latest assessment of threatened species from 2019, 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 threatened 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 of 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 of rivers to the Baltic Sea varies greatly from year to year

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

Eutrophication is 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. The eutrophication of bodies of water weakens people’s ability to utilise them. The increase in the blooms 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 volumes of phosphorus and nitrogen transported by rivers to the Baltic Sea increased considerably in 2020. This was predominantly due to an increase in river flow.

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. The protection of the Baltic Sea is covered by the protection programme of the EU and Baltic Sea countries (Baltic Sea Action Plan) aimed for 2030, which defines almost 200 actions and measures. 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 purification of waste waters from point sources has been enhanced. Reducing diffuse loading is more difficult. 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 objective of protecting the Baltic Sea was to reach a good status by 2021. The goal was not achieved. The amount of nutrients carried to the Baltic Sea by rivers has remained relatively unchanged from the 1970s until today, although it varies greatly from year to year. 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. Forest land management causes significant long-term nutrient emissions. Natural fluctuations in water flow have a significant effect on nutrient leaching. The risk of leaching can be reduced, for example, by means of 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. Climate change makes it difficult to achieve the goals. Especially in winter, rainfall easily flushes nutrients into rivers when the ground is not frozen, and in summer, water warming accelerates eutrophication.

Other observations related to the indicator

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. Eutrophication is linked to other factors affecting the status of waters. 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 outdoor air, but should reduce exposure to particulate matter

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

The outdoor air quality in Finland 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. In winter, problems are particularly caused by wood-fired heating of single-family houses in urban areas when temperature drops below zero, and in spring, by traffic-related particulate matter. 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 homes, saunas and cottages account for more than half of fine particle emissions in Finland. Finland has been able to effectively reduce emissions from large plants and to steer these away from people’s breathing height.

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.

Finland’s recent development

Today, acidifying nitrogen emissions are only about 40 per cent and sulphur emissions around 12 per cent of 1990 levels. 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. Other factors, such as personal health, overweight and ageing also affect the magnitude of health hazards caused by air pollution. Urbanisation increases exposure to many air pollutants and noise.

The coronavirus pandemic also affected environmentally harmful subsidies

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 means of environmental taxation and different fees. Some financial aid given for other purposes can cause inadvertent harm to the environment. These are called environmentally harmful subsidies.

Subsidies that are harmful to the environment are examined in the budget proposal. The first budget proposal for 2021 included an estimated EUR 3.2 billion in tax subsidies related to energy and transport, which entailed at least to some extent elements harmful to the environment. In addition, a total of EUR 0.2 billion of direct aid was budgeted for the energy and transport sectors that could be considered harmful to the environment. Subsidies amounting to more than EUR 0.9 billion were allocated to agriculture that were estimated to contain environmentally harmful elements. In addition, in 2020–2021, 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 the one-off grants granted to air transport, were unambiguously harmful to the environment. Furthermore, the fossil fuel used in international aviation is exempt from tax.

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 and the proposal for the 8th Environmental Action Programme extending until 2030 aim 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.

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 specific established sectors. 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 EUR 80 million a year in the period 2012–2013 to around EUR 200 million in 2020. A decision to cut it was made in 2020. In spring 2021, additional aid amounting to EUR 70 million was granted to peat producers in compensation for closing down their peat business operations, scrapping their equipment or modifying them for other uses, and for re-employment and training.

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 hampered by strong differences of opinion and opposition to change by aid recipients. Discussion on the purpose and impacts of the aid that highlights the various interests in a transparent manner will be necessary for identifying and preventing in advance any disadvantages to employment or international competitiveness caused by their removal or reallocation.