Baltic Sea Region – area of enormous possibilities for cooperation and example for many
The past couple of years of my life I have spent in Turku, Finland, as a student of international master’s degree programme in Baltic Sea Region at the University of Turku, therefore, my life has been evolving largely around the issues of the Baltic Sea, Baltic Sea region cooperation and the EU Strategy of the Baltic Sea Region ever since then. And I can say that in the times when the world community finally starts to come to the realization of devastating irreversible effects of climate change and calling for action, I am happy to have ended up in Finland and the Baltic Sea Region, where the actions are taking place already right now.
Why, you would ask? The thing is, Baltic Sea Region is truly a place of enormous possibilities for dialogue and cooperation. Its unique geographical location on the crossroads of Scandinavia, Nordics, Baltics, Arctic, the European Union and its Eastern neighbours brings together the states with different backgrounds in tackling common issues. Unique geographical location and urgent environmental challenges urged Baltic Sea Region states to seek for the ways of cooperation and combating those challenges already decades ago. Maybe for that reason nowadays the region is so rich with the organisations and extensive cross-border cooperation initiatives, and it could certainly give good example to many other regions in the world.
The change starts from each of us
Living in environmentally conscious society where people care about their surroundings during everyday life activities is pleasant and encourages you to be a better person. During the past months of my internship at Centrum Balticum I had an opportunity to assist my colleague during the Turku Book Fair and boat fair Venexpo in representing Protection Fund for Archipelago Sea and the Baltic Sea Challenge. It was indeed amazing for me to observe so many people approaching us in order to make a donation to the fund and being interested in hearing more about both initiatives. These observations made me reach the conclusion – the fight for saving our environment or saving the Baltic Sea is not solely about good or bad politicians who are doing or not doing enough, it’s first and foremost about citizens’ literacy and awareness of the existing problems, citizens’ active involvement and willingness to participate. Policies matter too, but when you feel like voluntarily recycling your household waste, trying to buy less plastic or using your bicycle or public transport instead of car, this is where the changes start. In my home country Ukraine, this is still unpopular thinking, and you could often hear from people “what’s the point of any effort if everyone else pollutes anyway” or “it does not concern me, it’s beyond my power, it’s the government that should do something about it”.
Therefore, besides intergovernmental, regional cooperation between states, there is also lots of effort and cooperation required between the government and citizens in order to raise awareness, strengthen trust, educate conscious and active citizens. In the Baltic Sea Region, the active role in performing this task is also taken by the diversity of NGOs and initiatives, which on a day-to-day basis communicate policies, raise awareness, increase citizens’ participation in the environmental protection by implementing practical cooperation projects, organizing seminars, conferences, fairs and charity concerts, public events etc.
When you live in a society like this, sooner or later you start to see and believe that the effort and willingness of each individual person does help and contributes to the bigger picture, eventually changing the common rhetoric and shaping environmentally conscious public opinion.
One problem – collective solution
Baltic Sea Region, like the rest of the world, increasingly faces environmental challenges due to the climate change. Eutrophication of the Baltic Sea, caused by excessive bloom of toxic algae impacts water life, tourism and fishing. Increasing urbanization and densification of the cities and the intense use of grey infrastructure leads to limited capacity for water absorption in the residential areas, which, together with the rising precipitation levels, ends up in flood damages, health risks and unfiltered excess storm water polluting the rivers and seas. Raising temperatures shift the seasons and contribute to weather extremes.
It’s worth mentioning that Baltic Sea Region altogether unites 9 countries that have direct access to the Baltic Sea coast. Environmental problems don’t know the borders, therefore, the issues and threats connected to the Baltic Sea need the collective solution. For that reason, the states around the Baltic Sea Region over the years managed to establish various networks and platforms for cooperation. There are up to six layers of environmental regulations in the region, and even though some the decisions within these levels are non-binding and bear the nature of recommendations, Baltic Sea Region can still demonstrate some great results in reaching some environmental goals. For instance, Baltic Sea became one of the first sea areas in the world where stricter measures towards ship fuels than in the rest of the world were introduced. This of course has to do somewhat with especially threatening condition of the Baltic Sea, but it also shows that implementing such measures is possible, given the right degree of awareness and determination. In 2009, Baltic Sea Region became the first region in the EU to receive a status of macro-region with a strategy and wide choice of financial tools and schemes for cooperation.
Why studying Baltic Sea Region?
Youth, as the catalyst of change, should be well informed and involved in the environmental issues, as they are the ones to also make decisions in the future and drive the society forward. One of the most powerful way to engage the youth is education. For some, like me for instance, this turn out to Baltic Sea Region and environmental cooperation can even become integral part of future career.
Choosing Baltic Sea Region studies as my master degree gave me the essentials on socio-economic, political, cultural, environmental development of the Baltic Sea Region, helped me to identify my skills and strengths and to envision my own possible role in the region. Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the programme, everyone could find something in it for oneself, regardless of previous academic background. The programme united graduates from absolutely different academic backgrounds, giving the common regional studies framework, and offered courses of different fields, from history and culture to international relations and economics, which was definitely an interesting learning experience. Being seemingly vague at first sight, the benefit of it is that the programme opens for a student an indeed wide spectrum of job opportunities, whether it is research and academic career, or journalism, or project management, or environmental field, as well as diplomacy, international cooperation, politics – you name it. I believe that similar kind of educational programmes and opportunities in different regions around the world would definitely contribute to preparing the next generation of young, environmentally oriented conscious citizens who will one day have the power for a real change.
But even if you don’t choose to spend student years on discovering Baltic Sea Region or working in this field in the future – learning about your surroundings, making your own little contribution every day and encouraging your friends and family to be so too does not demand a university degree.
Today, in the time of increasing need for climate action, it is extremely important to be environmentally conscious, cooperate and to leave the political ambitions behind in order to gather at one table of saving the environment and building more sustainable and resilient world around us. Baltic Sea Region seems to be one good example of that. A lot of work is still ahead, but the essentials, and that is trust, awareness, cooperation, education as well as well-established networks are already in place here.
Text: Viktoriia Hladii
Student of Master degree programme in Baltic Sea Region studies at the University of Turku
Trainee in Centrum Balticum and BALEX