Simon Tisdall/ The Guardian
Finns aren’t afraid to take on the world. Between 1939 and 1945, military minnow Finland was variously at war with the Soviet Union, Britain and Germany, and survived to tell the tale. The big problem in 1940 was not the large numbers of invading Red Army troops, Finns joked, it was where to bury them all.
Finland, population 5.3 million, challenged the international powers-that-be again last week, hosting an ambitious one-day “action summit” to rescue the Baltic Seafrom decades of pollution, environmental degradation and neglect. National leaders from all nine Baltic coastal states, plus “catchment” countries such as Norway and Belarus, attended. So too did EU representatives and about 1,500 delegates, representing regional organisations, large and small businesses, NGOs and local activist groups.
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel did not come to Helsinki, which was probably a mistake. But Russia’s most powerful man, Vladimir Putin, did. He pledged environment clean-up programmes around St Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland, and in the Kaliningrad enclave. Dropping his tough guy act for a day, Putin emphasised that Russia, too, is green at heart.
While welcoming governmental support, summit organisers stressed their main focus was on harnessing the skills and energy of concerned individuals and businesses across the region. By the end of the summit, over 140 specific “commitments” or pledges to take practical steps, adopt best practices or launch research initiatives to reverse marine degradation had been received from multinationals such as IBM and Nokia, as well as local timber producers and farmers’ organisations.
By pooling resources, and not relying on governments to take the lead, the disappointments and fractious blame-games of December’s Copenhagen climate change summit were avoided. More than that, the summiteers claimed to have created a post-Copenhagen paradigm for future collaborative, cross-border environmental action.
A senior Finnish government official said the Baltic, a relatively shallow, highly sedimented, largely enclosed sea, had suffered decades of unchecked pollution from oil spills, nutrients, toxic dumping and wartime mines and munitions. The seabed is home to an estimated 100,000 shipwrecks. The summit was a boon, the official said, because it began where the politicians had left off.
Events in Helsinki showed that smaller countries, private organisations and individuals don’t have to wait for big international players. It was a first-class illustration of the sort of grassroots-upwards approach urged by commentators and activists since the implosion in Copenhagen. As one diplomat put it, the absence of strategic mega-rivals China and the US in this instance was entirely positive and contributed to the summit’s success.
On the downside, it seems clear that Putin’s main purpose in attending was to reassure the neighbours that the giant Russia-Germany Nord Stream underwater gas pipeline, due to come on line in 2012, would not further harm the Baltic.
The $7.4bn project is being challenged in the German courts by the World Wildlife Fund, which argues that Nord Stream’s environmental impact assessment is inadequate. Quite rightly, it wants to see improved, independent monitoring of the project and better compensation and restoration measures for affected areas. But so powerful are the political and commercial interests involved, and so great is Europe’s need for cheap Arctic gas, that it seems unlikely the court action will have much effect. As Putin smugly noted, governments whose economic zones the pipeline crosses have all given the go-ahead.
The fact that Russia used the summit to advance its own economic and commercial ends does not detract from its value. With Baltic shipping, oil, gas and other export traffic growing exponentially, it is vital to reverse past trends and improve environmental standards. If national security considerations and economic self-interest contribute to that effort, then so be it. And rising public concern is a powerful catalyst too.
The Finnish President, Tarja Halonen, said Finland had taken the lead because somebody had to – and because it was perverse and unacceptable to have “some of the richest and most environmentally conscious countries on earth on the shores of one of the world’s most polluted seas”. Halonen is doubly right. Why should the less powerful wait upon the most powerful? And why only in the Baltic? As Finnish history shows, hoping the big guys will do the right thing is like trying to teach an elk to play the piano.
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