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Quarterly 2/2019 |  06/25/2019Esa Nikunen

What is Helsinki doing to fight climate change?

Last summer was in many ways an ambivalent experience for myself and many other people in Helsinki. During the holidays, I was able to walk around in shorts all day, and in the evenings, it did not matter if you had forgotten to bring along a long-sleeved shirt. In the archipelago, I noticed for the first time that I was looking for breezy or shadowy places. There was plenty of heat, with lots of ice cream and refreshments consumed. On the other hand, in the back of the mind was the awareness that something is wrong. During the tropical nights, the people in Helsinki were sweating in their homes. Cooling devices were sold out. In the news, people were told to put out cups of water for hedgehogs and other small animals weakened by the heat. Agriculture suffered from drought and the domestic lack of grains had to be compensated with imports (Maaseudun tulevaisuus 2018).

In May, June and July, the average temperature in Helsinki was more than three degrees above average (Finnish Meteorological Institute, 2018a, 2018b and 2018c). In July, the average temperature for the entire country, 19.6 °C, was the highest in Finnish measurement history. (Finnish Meteorological Institute, 2018c). Regardless of how much one enjoys the heat waves, an increasing number of people in Helsinki became acutely aware of climate change. After the summer, the attention was turned more towards the City: what is Helsinki doing to mitigate climate change?

During human existence, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have never been higher (NOOA 2018). The climate change is already happening, and there are attempts to mitigate it through international agreements. The commitments made three years ago in the Paris agreement are not yet enough to restrict the warming to the agreed maximum of two degrees (UN 2018). Thus far, the global average temperature has already risen by 1.1 degrees, while the average temperature in Finland has risen by two degrees. If the emissions are not restricted, the average temperature in Finland may rise by as much as seven degrees by the end of the century.

It has been estimated that the average temperature in Helsinki will rise by 2.3–3.4 °C before the middle of the century (when compared to the 1971–2000 average), depending on the global success rate in the fight against climate change. The winter temperatures will rise more than the summer temperatures. The total rainfall in Helsinki is also higher than before. (Pilli-Sihvola et al. 2018)

If Helsinki wants to achieve its strategic goal of being the most functional city in the world, investments have to be made in the adaptation to climate change. We have to ensure that Helsinki is safe and functional regardless of what the weather conditions are, also in quickly changing climate conditions.

Helsinki’s most significant weather and climate risks are associated with heavy rains, extreme winter conditions (slippery conditions, snowstorms, severe frost) and heat waves (Pilli-Sihvola et al. 2018). During the previous heat wave in 2010, there were approximately 300 premature deaths in Finland, of which 30–40 occurred in Helsinki (Pilli-Sihvola et al. 2018). According to an international research team, the mortality rate caused by hot weather in Finland may triple during 2031–2080 compared to 1971–2020 (Guo et al. 2018). People in the Nordic countries are not used to hot weather and that poses a health risk especially to elderly persons and those suffering from chronic illnesses (Pilli-Sihvola et al. 2018).

Goals of Helsinki and other cities

A lot of countries and cities have toughened their climate goals during the last few years. With the election of the new City Council in 2017, Helsinki also got new, increasingly ambitious climate goals. According to them, Helsinki will be carbon neutral by the year 2035. The new City Strategy brought forward the previous carbon neutrality goal by no less than 15 years (City of Helsinki, 2017).

Helsinki adheres to the definition of carbon neutrality commonly used by Finnish municipalities. The greenhouse gas emissions are initially reduced as much as possible, at least by 80 per cent compared to the 1990 level (City of Helsinki 2018a). The remaining ≤20 per cent of the emissions are compensated for by increasing Helsinki’s carbon sinks and/or by making emissions reductions outside Helsinki in a way that ensures that Helsinki’s emissions impact is zero. The City Strategy provides a good footing for Helsinki’s climate work: the goals are clear.

Are Helsinki’s climate goals up to par in international comparison? The City of Copenhagen has a globally unique goal of being carbon neutral as early as by 2025 (City of Copenhagen 2012). The City of Oslo aims to be carbon neutral in 2030 (City of Oslo 2016). The City of Stockholm's goal is to be fossil-fuel free by the year 2040 (City of Stockholm 2016).

In North America, ambitious goals have been set by the likes of Vancouver, who wants to abandon fossil fuels and has cleverly branded greenness into a competitive advantage (City of Vancouver 2015). However, some caution should be taken when comparing the climate goals of different cities, because there is variation in the definitions of carbon neutrality (Huuska et al. 2017). For example, Copenhagen is going to reduce its emissions by 50 per cent and allows compensation of the remaining 50 per cent (Huuska et al. 2017). In Helsinki, the corresponding ratio is 80 per cent emissions reductions and 20 per cent compensations (City of Helsinki 2018a).

During the last few years, many Finnish cities have stepped up their climate goals. Despite being strict, Helsinki’s new goal is not the most ambitious among the cities of Finland. Turku is aiming to be the first carbon neutral city in Finland, in 2029 (City of Turku 2018). The HINKU (Towards a carbon neutral municipality) network has been active for several years in Finland. The 39 HINKU municipalities are committed to reaching for an 80 per cent reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions before 2030, compared with the 2007 level (Finnish Environment Institute 2018). Mainly small and middle-sized municipalities have joined the network, together with three larger cities, Joensuu, Lappeenranta and Pori.

The climate goals of the large cities in Finland are, with the exception of Turku, aimed at the years 2030 and 2035. All these cities have the same definition of carbon neutrality as Helsinki.

● Turku 2029

● Tampere 2030

● Espoo 2030

● Vantaa 2030

● Lappeenranta 2030

● Vaasa 2035

● Helsinki 2035

The comparisons also serve to spur Helsinki’s climate goals. Setting goals is important, but in the mitigation of climate change, it is the actions that count.

It is often asked what the climate goals of the cities are based on and how a specific year has been chosen. The decisions concerning the climate goals are a political process, but in Helsinki, they have been preceded by rigorous background work. It showed that our goals are challenging, but that they are achievable if we truly want to.

Are Helsinki’s goals for the mitigation of climate change sufficient and fair in a global comparison? There is no unambiguous answer to this. A clue was given in the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra’s study, according to which Finland’s fair share would be to cut emissions by 60 per cent by 2030 and by 150 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 (Sitra 2016).

The fairness was considered, for example, based on what kind of historical responsibility Finland has in climate change and on our capability of reducing emissions (Sitra 2016). In addition to the carbon neutrality goal for 2035, Helsinki has an intermediate goal for 2030, which is in fact a 60 per cent reduction compared to the 1990 level (City of Helsinki 2017). Very soon after reaching carbon neutrality, Helsinki should be able to post negative emissions, or we should bind more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than we release in the air (Sitra 2016).

Expanding Helsinki carbon sinks by increasing the vegetation in green areas is difficult, because the City is growing and becoming increasingly dense. The City Plan provides for 140,000 new residents by 2035 (City of Helsinki 2018a). The building stock will increase by around 14 million floor square metres (City of Helsinki 2018a). The current carbon sinks must be maintained and the binding of carbon must be increased in urban green areas, such as green roofs and walls, waterbodies and the ground. We must also participate in the introduction of solutions that recover carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY counts Helsinki’s annual emissions to keep us up-to-date with the situation. Helsinki’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were around 2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 4.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per resident (HSY 2018). At the moment, a little more than half of Helsinki’s emissions come from heating of buildings, a quarter from traffic and around 15 per cent from consumer electricity (HSY 2018).

Helsinki’s total greenhouse gas emissions have successfully been reduced by 24 per cent from the 1990 level (HSY 2018). This is a good achievement considering that the population of Helsinki has grown by 150,000 during this time (Mäki & Vuori 2017). The greenhouse gas emissions of the average resident of Helsinki are actually 40 per cent lower than in 1990 (HSY 2018). Helsinki's favourable emissions development of the last few decades is due to the following reasons (City of Helsinki 2018).

Analysis period 1990–2005

● The use of natural gas as the main fuel in the production of district heating instead of coal

● The deployment of the A and B power plants in Vuosaari

● The improvement in energy efficiency when the joint production of electricity and heating increases

● The industry's structural change and the improved energy efficiency

● Recovery and utilisation of gases from the waste management

● The improvement in the energy efficiency of vehicles in road traffic

Analysis period 2005–2016

● Reduced emissions from Finland’s electricity production (nuclear power, joint production, renewable fuels, acquisition of low-emissions electricity from the Nordic countries)

● The Katri Vala heat pump facility and the deployment of district cooling

● The industry’s continuing structural change

● The improved energy efficiency of vehicles and the use of bio fuels

Even though the emissions of Helsinki have decreased from 1990, the favourable development does not proceed on its own. During the last couple of years, the total emissions have remained almost unchanged and the emissions from energy production have even grown, because more coal was used instead of natural gas in Helsinki (City of Helsinki 2018a). If the use of coal remains at the current level, the 30 per cent emissions reduction goal for the year 2020 set by the previous City Council is endangered. To reach it, Helsinki’s must reduce its total emissions by a further six per cent (City of Helsinki 2018a). Reaching the goals solely through reductions in other emissions sectors is almost impossible, because the emissions from energy production are so significant. According to our estimate, the City of Helsinki’s emissions in 2035 would be 52 per cent lower than in 1990, if the current trend continues and if the decisions already agreed upon are hung on to (City of Helsinki 2018a). Therefore, the pursued 80 per cent emissions reduction is missed by a country mile, if the pace of the emissions reductions is not intensified.

How the goals can be achieved

In order to ensure that the climate goals are not just words on paper, and to make sure that the responsibilities and resources are clear to all parties, we crafted at the beginning of the year the Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan (City of Helsinki 2018a). The action plan is a presentation by the experts of which party is responsible for each action, when they are realised, what they cost and what kind of impact they have.

Helsinki’s climate goals concern all emissions created within the borders of Helsinki, regardless of who causes them (City of Helsinki 2018a). When we crafted the Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan, we considered it important that the plan should be as realisable and concrete as possible. Less than 10 per cent of Helsinki’s emissions are caused directly by the City's actions: energy consumption of its own buildings, street lighting and public transport (City of Helsinki 2018a).

Helsinki carries a significant responsibility of how big the emissions of the city residents are. The city has a great possibility to make an impact, especially as the owner of an energy company. We can create prerequisites for carbon neutral everyday life – or we can complicate it considerably. In the action plan, we collected measures through which Helsinki can find the right path towards carbon neutrality. It is obviously not an all-encompassing list. During the next few years, the direction has to be revised continuously and new actions have to be agreed upon. Carbon neutral Helsinki is created through co-operation between the people of Helsinki, companies, institutes of higher education, research institutes, organisations and the City. We also need a consistent and ambitious energy and climate policy from the Government.  Furthering the circular economy is also beneficial to the mitigation of climate change.

The Helsinkian’s true carbon footprint is more than double the size of the emissions which are created within the borders of Helsinki and which consequently are included in Helsinki climate goals (City of Helsinki 2018a). My own carbon footprint includes not only the emissions that I cause in Helsinki, but also all the emissions that are caused by the production of my food, for example in another part of Finland, or the manufacture of my mobile in China or my vacation in Spain.

Many people in Helsinki have asked why we do not consider the entire carbon footprint in the emissions calculations, as the climate impact of food, for instance, is known to be considerable. This is because the City does not have precise information on what the people of Helsinki consume and what the climate impact of each product is. The goal must be set in a way that makes it measurable.

However, we have also wished to include actions that reduce the carbon footprint outside Helsinki, even though we are not able to precisely measure these emissions. We can guide people towards a climate-friendly lifestyle through education and upbringing, among other things. We can also make a considerable impact with our public procurement policy. Procurements make up more than 40 per cent of the City of Helsinki’s expenditure. In the entire City Group, their value is more than €2 billion annually (City of Helsinki 2018a). The City must further the introduction of sustainable, climate-friendly products and services, whether it is ICT equipment, food services or construction materials.

Drafting of the action plan

The Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 action plan could have been drafted as traditional official work. The action plan’s tight schedule, the extent of the topic and the vast amount of data forced the group nominated for the task to use more effective methods in the work on the plan. We also wanted to give all interested parties a chance to participate in the drafting of the action plan. In this way, we want to ensure that every perspective and all bits of information are included in the analyses and that everyone is committed to the actions, when we agree upon them together. We wrote the action plan from start to finish on a joint writing platform, which was accessible online. We arranged nine workshops, where we discussed, for example, how the City should encourage the residents to buy electric cars, whether the planning regulations can include goals for solar power, and how much the construction of a new tramline costs. All the results were registered in an open web document, where they were worked into actions. Almost 300 people participated in the work.

The drafting of the action plan is an example of our aim that the decision-making process should be as open and transparent as possible (Tuomisto et al. 2017). The data is collected into one place where it is available to anyone interested. The analysed topic is divided into smaller, easily digested pieces, knowledge crystals (Tuomisto et al. 2017). A knowledge crystal deals with, for example, congestion charges or recovery of heating from buildings. Anyone with knowledge of the topic can participate in the writing. In conflicting situations, the best argument wins, no matter which party has presented it. Open decision-making includes open preparation, which I think was realised quite well in the drafting of the action plan. I would like to see similar transparency in the next phase of the process, the political decision-making. The decisions should be motivated and they should reveal what facts or valuations they are based on.

Helsinki wants to be a pioneer in openness and participatory practices. We are developing a tool for the follow-up and updating of the action plan, where anyone can follow in real time how we are progressing with reaching the climate goal.  At the same time, we want to improve the cost estimates for the actions and help politicians recognise the benefits connected to them. For example, investing in emission-free public transport means better air quality, less noise and a more fluent everyday life for the people of Helsinki. Good solutions have a global market, too. Climate change is an immense global problem. Helsinki wants to take its own responsibility in solving it and be among the pioneers.

Esa Nikunen is Director General of Environment Services at the City of Helsinki.


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