Country profile (Latvia)
What distinguishes the country?
Latvia covers an area of 64 589 km2. Forest land accounts for 50 % of the national territory of Latvia. Latvia lies in a temperate climate zone where active cyclones determine rapid changes in weather conditions (190–200 days per year). Annual mean precipitation is 600–700 mm.
Latvia is an independent democratic parliamentary republic. The State President, elected by the Parliament (Saeima), nominates the Prime Minister who forms a Cabinet of Ministers that has to be approved by the Parliament. Fourteen ministries assist the Cabinet of Ministers to achieve its targets.
Since 1 July 2009, there have been 118 national level municipalities in Latvia, including 109 municipalities and nine major cities. Cities and municipalities have elected local governments.
At the beginning of 2008, the population of Latvia was 2 271 000 and 31.6 % of the population lived in the capital, Riga. The average population density was 35.2 persons/km². The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, calculated in purchasing power parity units, in Latvia was 58 % of the average EU27 level in 2007. During the period 2001–07, Latvia had one of the highest growth rates in the average annual GDP in the EU and reached 10.6 % in 2007, but after the start of the world economic crisis in 2008, the GDP rate became one of the lowest in the EU and turned negative in 2009.
During the past six years, small changes in the sectoral structure of Latvia’s national economy have been observed. Three sectors — trade, manufacturing industry and construction — have had the most stable growth. Industry has the top position in the growth of the state economy. During the past seven years, the timber industry, the engineering industry and hardware production have made the greatest contributions to industrial growth. Gradual growth rates were apparent in all economic sectors until 2008, particularly in the transport and communications sector, due to the increase in freight traffic, passenger transport services and the development of the communications sector, as well as the construction sector.
Both local energy sources (wood, peat, hydro resources, wind) and imported energy resources (oil products, natural gas, coal, electricity) are used in the power supply sector of Latvia. In 2007, the share of renewable energy sources in Latvia’s primary energy balance was 28.8 %.
In Latvia, more than 70 % of the total generated thermal energy is used in residential and public buildings. In 2007, there were 347 900 residential buildings with 1 035 700 housing units in Latvia which comprised apartments, private houses, hotels, social care centres, and others.
A convenient geographical location on the Baltic Sea with ice-free seaports (Ventspils, Liepaja), railroad and road networks, gas and oil production pipelines, provide good opportunities for the development of a multimodal transport system in Latvia. Transit and international transport constitute the major part of cargo transport with road transport as the most significant mode of transport.
What have been the major societal developments?
The period from 1950 to 1980 was characterised by the integration of the previously independent Latvian State into the Soviet Union and its state planning system. The collectivisation and industrialisation of all means of production, including all farm holdings, led to massive changes in the Latvian economy and society. The key (environmental) changes that occurred due to these shifts during that period included:
- a substantial change in traditional farming landscapes and village structures to large-scale units and concentrated settlements,
- the draining of wetlands and mires to achieve higher agricultural productivity,
- the pollution of numerous rivers due to insufficient industrial pollution control.
The Soviet system also entailed a lack of economic liberty and free debate, and promoted the immigration of Russian workers into Latvian territory to ensure faster development and integration of the State into the Soviet Union. However, liberalisation within the communist regime of the USSR, known as glasnost, began in the mid-1980s. During the second half of the 1980s, the process of perestroika (restructuring) began in the Soviet Union, which was led by the new Soviet communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Nevertheless, large-scale industrial planning continued and, in 1986, it became widely known to the public that another hydroelectric power plant on Latvia’s largest river, the Daugava, and a subway in Riga were planned. Both these projects further threatened Latvia’s landscape, not to mention its cultural and historical wealth. They also envisaged further immigration of workers from other republics of the USSR, further decreasing the share of native Latvians in the total population of the country. In response, the Environmental Protection Club was founded on 28 February 1987. Under the cover of environmental protection, a cause seemingly harmless to the Soviet authorities, the movement was also able to turn its attention to current political issues. During the second half of the 1980s, the Environmental Protection Club became one of the most influential of a number of mass movements, all of which simultaneously began to make demands for Latvia’s sovereignty. These coincided with further political changes in the Soviet Union and a movement for independence in nearly all the Warsaw Bloc States in eastern Europe and the Baltic States. In Latvia and other Baltic States, the expression of the wish for independence from the Soviet Regime often took the form of cultural events and demonstrations. Thus, the whole process of renewing independence since the late 1980s is known as the ‘Singing Revolution’.
On 21 August 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian Republic announced that the transition period to full independence that was declared on 4 May 1990 had come to an end. Thus, Latvia proclaimed itself a fully independent nation. The renewed Latvian parliament convened for its first session in 1993.
The renewal of independence brought swift changes in Latvia’s economic sphere. At the end of 1991, the country abandoned the planned economy of the Soviet era and switched to a free market economy. In 1993, the Latvian national currency, the Lat, was brought back into circulation. Latvia became an important transit country for the export of Russia’s raw materials. Land and other real estate were returned to their rightful pre-occupation owners or their heirs.
Following the renewal of independence, Latvia rapidly returned to the international milieu. On 17 September 1991, Latvia was admitted to the United Nations, and a few days earlier Latvia had become a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In February 1995, Latvia became a member of the European Council.
With the renewal of independence, Latvia moved consistently towards two of its most important foreign policy goals — membership of EU and NATO. During the 1990s, many social, economic and judicial changes were implemented in Latvia in order to prepare for admittance to these organisations. In close cooperation with EU, a special programme for the integration of immigrants who came to Latvia during the Soviet period was developed and is operating successfully.
On 2 April 2004, Latvia became a member of NATO and on 1 May of the same year, Latvia, together with other two Baltic States (Estonia and Lithuania), became a fully fledged member of the EU.
What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?
Environment policy considerations increasingly spill over into transport, energy, agricultural, cohesion, industrial and research and development policies. Issues of sustainable development underpin decisions on the use of Structural Funds. Latvia as an EU Member State is required to spend these community funds to address, among others, the challenges of biodiversity and nature protection, renewable energy, waste and water management, clean transport and climate change.
The existing environmental situation indicates several tendencies which, in future, may endanger the quality of the environment:
- the pressures on biodiversity continue to be urban sprawl, infrastructure development, acidification, eutrophication, desertification, overexploitation, and the intensification of agriculture and land abandonment. Climate change also increases the threat to biodiversity,
- insufficient public awareness about environmental issues, unsustainable consumption patterns and how public activities impact environment,
- eutrophication of inland and coastal waters caused by urban wastewater, agricultural activities and pollution from sea transport,
- insufficient financing and investment in the environment sector, especially in wastewater treatment and drinking water quality improvement, remediation of polluted sites,
- erosion of the sea coastline and riversides,
- the amount of recycled waste is still insufficient,
- difficulties in finding the compromise between nature values and economic interests,
- the use of environmentally friendly technologies is low; improvements in energy efficiency are needed.
There is still a need for stronger recognition of the fact that socioeconomic and environmental objectives are not in conflict with each other, but that rather the achievement of environmental objectives is an absolute precondition if the socioeconomic goals are to be met in the long term.
The recent economic crisis has sent shock waves around the globe, reaching all parts of the economic system. The crisis is a crucial opportunity to ’green‘ our economy and lay the foundations for low-carbon and resource-efficient growth. As the downturn influences our policies, a stronger environment policy can help spark economic recovery.
What are the foreseen developments?
The main environment goal for the next decade is to ensure environmentally friendly living conditions by enforcing sustainable development, preserving environmental quality and biodiversity, ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources as well as public access to environment information and participation in the decision‑making process.
The following activities are foreseen to reach this goal:
- reducing the level of air pollution,
- improving water quality and increasing the number of connections to water infrastructure services,
- reducing consumption of water,
- reducing the amount of generated waste and increasing the proportion of recycled waste,
- remediating the most polluted sites and reintroducing commercial activity,
- preserving biodiversity and increasing public awareness about the significance of the value of nature,
- promoting the use of environmentally friendly technologies.
The environment priorities will be implemented according to the Environmental Policy Strategy 2009–15. Nevertheless, the implementation is largely dependent on available financial resources. And, sustainable consumption and production patterns must be widely introduced and used.