Country profile (Lithuania)
What distinguishes the country?
Climate and geography
Lithuania covers an area of 65 300 km2. The country borders on Latvia in the north, Belarus and Poland in the east and south, the Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation in the northwest, and the Baltic Sea in the west. In 1989, cartographers of the French National Geographic Institute determined that the geographical centre of Europe is located in Lithuania (geographical coordinates: 54°54'N, 25°19'E).
The relief of Lithuania is flat, except for the undulating plains in the east and west that do not exceed 300 m above sea level. Lithuania’s highest point is Aukštojo Hill (293.84 m above sea level). Lakes cover about 1.5 % of the territory. The largest of them is Lake Drūkšiai (44.8 km2). Lithuania lies in the zone of excess humidity and, subsequently, has a dense network of rivers. The longest river in Lithuania is the Nemunas which measures 475 km.
The Lithuanian climate is dependent on the dominating air mass transport from the west. The climate of the greater part of the country is moderately cold with snowy winters. The average temperature of the coldest month is below -3 °C, while that of the warmest month does not exceed 22 °C. The number of sunny hours a year is the highest on the Curonian Spit and the seacoast, amounting to about 1 860 hours, and drops to 1 690 hours moving eastwards. Compared to the period 1961–1990, the number of sunny hours has increased by 80–200 hours. The average annual temperature in Lithuania has climbed by 0.7-1 °C as compared with the period 1991–2006. Annual precipitation averages 675 mm. Each summer occasional heavy rainstorms hit Lithuania with 20–30 mm or more of rain falling within 24 hours. As a result of global warming, the number of days with a snow cover is decreasing. A comparison of the periods 1961–1990 and 1991–2006 has shown that the average number of days with a snow cover declined by four to ten days. In autumn and winter southern, south-western and western winds and in summer western and north-western winds prevail in Lithuania.
In 1989, Lithuania had a population of 3 674 800. From 1990 to 2006 the population decreased by 290 000. In early 2009, Lithuania recorded 3 349 900 inhabitants. The population decline has been mostly affected by increased migration flows and the low birth rate. Although Lithuania is a small state on the European scale, its population distribution is uneven. The highest population density is in cities of over 1 500 people per km2. The population of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, numbers as many as 546 700. Since 1990, population density has been declining steadily. In 1990 and 2009 the general population density constituted 56.6 and 51.3 people per km2, respectively.
The basic principles of environmental protection are established in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania. The Constitution stipulates that the state and the individual must protect the environment from harmful influences and the state shall take care of the protection of the natural environment, wildlife and plants, individual objects of nature and areas of particular value and shall supervise a sustainable use of natural resources, their restoration and increase. Environmental protection shall be based on comprehensive, correct and timely ecological information. The degradation of land, the pollution of water and air, radioactive impact on the environment as well as depletion of wildlife and plants are prohibited by law.
In 1996, the first Lithuanian Environmental Strategy and, in 1998, the Lithuanian Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan were developed. The current main strategic document for the environmental, as well as social and economic, development of the Republic of Lithuania is the National Sustainable Development Strategy, approved in 2003 and focused on long-term sustainable development of the Lithuania state and society until 2020. The main objective of sustainable development in Lithuania is to achieve the present EU average by 2020, according to the indicators for economic and social development as well as resource efficiency, and not to exceed the allowable EU standards, according to the indicators for environmental pollution, as well as to meet the requirements of international conventions limiting environmental pollution and effects on the global climate.
Furthermore, environmental policy in Lithuania is harmonised with EU policy and the respective rules and regulations.
The main legal act for environmental issues, the Law of the Republic of Lithuania on environment protection, defines environmental governance as the activities of national and municipal environmental authorities ensuring effective environment protection and the rational use of natural resources. The law states that, in the Republic of Lithuania, environmental governance is the concern and duty of the Parliament, the Government, the Ministry of Environment, and the municipalities at the respective levels.
The Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania sets the main guidelines for the national and international environmental policy of the state, and the government coordinates environmental laws, which are implemented by the Ministry of Environment as the main environmental governance institution, using various means and measures.
The means and measures foreseen in the environmental laws are managed and enforced, at the respective levels, by the Ministry of Environment and its subordinate institutions: the Regional Environment Protection Departments of the Ministry of Environment, the Environment Protection Agency, the State Service for Protected Areas under the Ministry of Environment, the Lithuanian Geological Survey under the Ministry of Environment and the Lithuanian Hydrometeorological Service under the Ministry of Environment.
The authorities of local municipalities implement environmental measures at municipal level.
The Law on environmental monitoring is the main national act establishing the environmental monitoring system in Lithuania. The current system includes three levels of environmental monitoring: national (state) monitoring, municipal monitoring and environmental monitoring of economic entities. The law assigns the responsibility for organising and coordinating national environmental monitoring to the Ministry of Environment. The measures listed in the Law on environmental monitoring are managed and enforced at the respective levels, mainly by the Environmental Protection Agency and other institutions under the Ministry of Environment.
Transformation from communist to democratic system
After Lithuania regained independence, the 50-year-old economic system, where the Lithuanian economy had been integrated with the economy of the Soviet Union, collapsed. The restoration of independence was followed by a sharp economic decline, hyperinflation and high unemployment. Later on, the recovering Lithuanian economy came under the negative influence of the economic crisis in Russia. From 1990, Lithuania changed its currency several times. In 1993, the national currency, the litas, was put into circulation. Having regained its statehood, Lithuania began building a democratic political system, free market economy and competent environmental institutions.
What have been the major societal developments?
Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Following the declaration of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, its government structure was brought into line with the USSR government structure and private property was abolished. All sectors of the economy underwent speedy restructuring based on the model of the Soviet Union, with disregard for the local conditions, historical traditions of the nation and economic efficiency. The forced appropriation of farmers’ land and the restructuring of their farms into collective and soviet farms as well as the destruction of individual farmsteads were carried out. The launch of mass land reclamation and landscape management based on the principles of land management common to steppes contributed to increased pollution of water bodies with chemical substances, landscape degradation (straightening of small river beds, clearing of woodland and scrubland areas), the disruption of the water balance and the draining of marshes. All this led to the loss of some rare habitats sensitive to anthropogenic impacts and of fauna and flora species that had used those habitats. The greatest damages were inflicted on the biodiversity of wetlands and natural hay flood meadowland, and even habitats of mature forests suffered from the effects of Soviet targeted forest management. Over two-thirds of wetland habitats were destroyed in Lithuania. The regulation of small rivers and their dams blocked or shortened considerably many salmonid migration routes to spawning areas.
Construction of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant was launched in 1977 and the world’s most powerful nuclear plant was built in 11 years. Lithuania has developed the industries of agricultural product processing, agricultural machinery and feed production. The industries of building products, machine tools and radio engineering, machinery production and metal working, chemistry and energy as well as the communications system and the road network have experienced relatively extensive development.
The restoration of Lithuania’s independence in 1991 resulted in the loss of suppliers of raw materials and sales markets. The available export markets for products disappeared and the domestic market was extremely small due to the decline in the real incomes of the population. Following the restoration of independence, some collective farms disintegrated, while others were reformed into agricultural companies. Some collective farmers regained their land and became individual farmers again. Privatisation of state property was conducted at a rapid pace.
Lithuania’s GDP declined significantly after 1990. The deepest crisis hit the economy in 1992 where GDP fell by more than 21 %, compared to the previous years. GDP began growing again from 2000. In 2000–2004, the development of the economy was especially rapid, with average annual GDP change amounting to 6.7 %, and foreign trade turnover (of goods and services) increased 1.8 times. The global economic crisis from 2008 had an effect on the Lithuanian economy as well. At the end of that year, the global real-estate crisis, the tightening of the banks’ lending policy and the elimination of real-estate benefits made the existing Lithuanian real-estate market bubble shrink. In addition, the volume of exports and production contracted, while unemployment increased.
What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?
- National sustainable development Strategy, 2003
- The Department of Statistics (Statistics Lithuania)
- Project of Sustainable development of Industry Programme
- Rural Development Programme for Lithuania 2007-2013
- Rural and Agriculture development Strategy
- Common Programming Document, Tourism
- Common Programming Document for Lithuania, 2004-2006
- National Report for Balansed Development Implementation, 2002
The environmental policy of Lithuania is based on the National Sustainable Development Strategy where sustainable development is understood as a compromise between environmental, economic and social objectives of society that allows for the achievement of the general good for existing and future generations without exceeding the allowable limits for environmental impact.
Lithuania uses nuclear power to produce electricity, since this power is less polluting. However, large amounts of radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel have built up at the nuclear power station. The share of nuclear power has shrunk in recent years, especially since the decommissioning of the first block of the plant in 1995, resulting in a lower volume of used nuclear fuel in the repository. The decommissioning of the second block is scheduled for 2009, and a new nuclear power plant is expected to appear by 2015. Rising oil prices have pushed up annual consumption of gas. The use of gas has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and substances that contribute to acidification processes. In Lithuania, hydropower plants generate most ‘clean’ electricity. At present, renewable and local energy resources account for 8–9 % of all fuels used. Of renewable energy resources, wood is the most widely produced and used resource in Lithuania (about 9.50 TWh/year), while the rate of other resources is considerably lower, including straw (0.50 TWh/year) and fractions of landfill gas, geothermal power, wind energy and biofuels. However, municipal waste and solar energy are virtually unused.
The growth rate in the transport sector has a great effect on Lithuania’s economic and social development and the quality of the environment. The most rapid development has occurred in road transport, but modernising the types of transport with a considerably lower environmental impact (railway and inland water transport) requires large investments. However, Lithuania is enlarging its network of motorways, improving their quality and capacity, and building bypass roads towards reducing urban air pollution and noise. The structure of motor fuels has undergone changes, showing the increasing share of diesel. However, the number of tracks for bicycles and roller skates is inadequate and the development of multimodal urban transport systems is sluggish. The accident rate on motorways is high and is actually not falling. However, the transport road network that is undergoing regular improvement may increase the level of fragmentation of Lithuania’s natural areas.
The production of foodstuffs and beverages, tailoring of clothes, treatment and dying of hides, textiles and chemical products make up the largest share in the structure of product manufacturing and sales. According to raw material and energy efficiency of technologies used, these are low- or medium-technology industries that use relatively large quantities of energy.
Privatisation of industrial enterprises, the establishment of market economy and the introduction of taxes for natural resources and pollution of the environment have contributed to a significant increase in production efficiency at surviving enterprises, more efficient use of natural resources and lower pollution. Industries are introducing preventive environmental measures and cleaner production methods. These measures are taken with a view to reducing or eliminating waste and pollution and minimising the negative impact of production processes on human health and the environment. However, very few enterprises use secondary raw materials, while enterprises that use such materials mostly import them. Lithuania also feels the shortage of economic mechanisms that promote the use of local secondary raw materials.
In recent years, agricultural production in Lithuania has been dominated by animal production accounting for about 28 %, followed by the production of milk (around 22 %) and grain (16 %). The use of pesticides has declined more than five-fold over the last decade.
The use of mineral fertilisers has also decreased considerably. The leaching of mineral fertilisers, especially of nitrogen compounds, into shallow groundwater and surface water bodies as well as eutrophication of those water bodies have diminished significantly. As a result of the falling use of mineral fertilisers and pesticides, the levels of hazardous substances in agricultural products and foodstuffs have dropped, which has led to an improved quality of agricultural produce. The closure of the majority of large animal production complexes and the abandonment of production practices involving high animal concentration have contributed to considerably lower negative environmental effects, especially to reduced pollution of surface and shallow groundwater. The Government of the Republic of Lithuania supports the development of organic farms, the number of which is growing steadily.
About 70 % of all houses are connected to the centralised water supply system and some 50 % of all houses have district heating. However, district heating infrastructure is outdated and energy inefficient, with especially high heat losses in the distribution networks. Most blocks of flats and a large part of individual houses have very low thermal resistance and old and non-airtight windows, which demands more energy for heating (about 200 kJ for one degree per 1 sq. m daily on average) or by 2–2.5 times more than in most other EU Member States. Most cities and towns have centralised waste collection systems in place, while the container-based waste management system is being installed in villages.
The mild climate, natural landscape, abundant recreation resources and cultural heritage as well as the ethno-cultural identity of Lithuania provide favourable conditions for developing tourism and increasing employment and incomes. However, Lithuania’s cultural and natural potential of tourism is currently not used to its full capacity due to the low level of information and tourism management as well as the slow development of incoming tourism. Lithuania is the only country in the Baltic Sea region that has no sea and coastal tourism as it has no developed passenger port and marina infrastructure. A system of inland water routes, quays and beaches has not been developed either. Countryside tourism is the most dynamically growing area of tourism at present. Another large untapped potential of countryside tourism services involves the surviving manor houses and watermills or windmills that can be adapted to tourist accommodation. Lithuania has prepared the Manor Restoration Programme for solving the issues of the use of manors for tourism and other activities.
What are the foreseen developments?
The area of urbanised land is growing regularly and now accounts for 10 % of the territory of Lithuania. Failure to prevent illegal construction, fragmented land management and chaotic developments may contribute to the destruction or alteration of some of Lithuania’s most valuable landscapes, which could result in deteriorating conditions of biodiversity elements such as rare and endangered natural habitats and species that are especially sensitive to anthropogenic impacts.
The short Baltic Sea coastline of Lithuania only measures 90.6 km in length. Multiannual sea coast dynamics show that the coastal strip suffers from erosion, especially in the continental coastal area. Therefore, coastal degeneration processes are likely to expand on such strips. The heavy flow of holidaymakers in areas of intensive recreation has a highly negative effect on the conditions of the coast and especially on the dune ridges. As a result, recreation loads, the development of urbanisation, and climate change will promote the degradation of the dune ridges.
The biodiversity and natural resources of Lithuania are, and may in the future be, affected by the following developments: intensive wood harvesting and commercial silviculture; increased recreation loads; the development of the road network and more intensive transport; intensive hunting of wildlife and commercial fisheries; changes in agriculture, including intensification that involves the enlargement of arable land and sown grassland at the expense of natural meadowland, more intensive use of fertilisers and development of animal farms, and extensification which means loss of habitats of valuable hay meadowland due to withdrawal from farming, and water and air pollution from the industry, energy and agricultural sectors.
Lithuania devotes a great deal of attention to nuclear power. In 2007, the Parliament of Lithuania adopted the Lithuanian Energy Strategy where the strategic objective of building a new nuclear power plant by 2015 is defined as a priority. However, the protracted negotiations with the partners and the economic decline may alter this date. In the period between 2009 and the launch of the new nuclear power plant, the shortage of electricity will be covered mostly by burning fossil fuel. Higher loads will be imposed on the thermal power stations, which may affect not only energy prices but also the quality of Lithuania’s air basin.
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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