Political and business leaders are meeting in Helsinki today (10 February) to boost efforts to clean up the Baltic sea, which has suffered from decades of pollution and is a focus of Russia's oil and gas expansion plans.
The Baltic, which organisers call the world's most polluted sea, remains for adjacent countries a major destination for untreated sewage and chemical pollutants, including agricultural waste, which causes blooms of algae that choke marine life.
It is also facing rising sea traffic. The Russian port of Ust Luga is being expanded and will eventually handle almost a fifth of Russia's total exports of petroleum products as the country seeks more European business.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be among the participants in Helsinki.
Organisers said they had received close to 140 commitments from companies, NGOs and individuals ahead of the Baltic Sea Action Summit (BSAS), and were focused on getting a strong political will to follow through on past promises.
"To really make it happen at the ministerial level and at every other level, we need this kind of joint push so it gets critical mass," said Saara Kankaanrinta, secretary-general of the Baltic Sea Action Group foundation, a summit organiser.
Kankaanrinta said organisers were not seeking cash donations from business participants but rather pro-bono work or contributions. She cited as an example work done by IBM on improving navigation technology for Baltic sea traffic.
Political interest in the Baltic has grown of late as the start of construction nears for the Nord Stream pipeline, which will transport 55 billion cubic metres of gas per year from Russia to Germany when completed in 2012 (EURACTIV 26/01/10).
The Russian government said in a statement that Putin will focus on "environmental aspects of the Nord Stream pipeline construction" in his planned speech. He will also meet his Finnish counterpart Matti Vanhanen.
The pipeline has all the necessary government approvals and only needs the blessing of Finnish environmental authorities for construction to proceed. The decision is expected this week.
"We will undoubtedly discuss Nord Stream [with Putin]," Vanhanen told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station. "I am personally convinced that the company may build the pipeline in such a way that it will not damage the environment."
Actions, not words
The one-day summit is hosted by Finland and gathers a number of national leaders along with heads of businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
It builds on a 2007 meeting of the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), whose mandate is to protect the Baltic marine environment, where regional countries agreed to cut pollution and restore the Baltic's "good ecological status" by 2021.
Environmental group WWF said it was a good sign that the meeting had reached such a high political level, and the focus should be on enacting past promises rather than making new ones.
"We have never been happy on the same day that something has been written or agreed, only when the implementation starts," said Sampsa Vilhunen, marine programme head at WWF Finland.
"It will probably take 25 or 30 years for the marine basin to get better. People also have to realise that we are not going to reach a pristine environment ever again, because there's nearly 90 million people living on the Baltic sea," he added.
Vilhunen said a test of the summit's effectiveness would be the results of the next HELCOM ministerial meeting in Moscow in May, which will report on progress made in the 2007 plan.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)