When you hear the word 'capital city', do you think of crowds, noise and grey buildings? The Finns don’t. Their capital city Helsinki is a vibrant, green city with an ambitious climate plan. By 2035, the Finnish capital aims to be completely climate-neutral. And they know damn well how they're going to achieve that.
In September 2017, the city council decided to tighten the deadline for themselves. Initially, the plan was for Helsinki to become CO₂-neutral by 2050, but in one fell swoop, the city set the deadline fifteen years earlier. Sonja-Maria Ignatius, project planner at the city's Environment Department, explains why they took this bold decision. "Here in the North, people are very aware of climate change. Research shows that more than 80% of the population is 'worried' to 'very worried' about the climate. They demand a green policy. Driven by this public opinion, the city council made a comprehensive calculation in 2017 and thus established that achieving climate neutrality is feasible by 2035. A concrete step-by-step plan was drawn up to achieve this new objective.
A climate-neutral Helsinki is not a vague promise. The 'Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035' plan consists of 143 measures that will reduce the city's energy consumption. Local energy supplier Helen Oy is a key partner. In the future, the company will produce all the energy for the city in a completely CO₂-neutral manner.
For the residents, there is the 'Climate Roadmap', a clear leaflet explaining how everyone can and should do their bit. The action plan goes straight to-the-point: "Our generation is the first to experience climate change first-hand. On the other hand, we are also the last to be able to stop its uncontrollable consequences". This is followed by a series of tips. They range from 'take a five-minute shower every day (that will cost you €150 a year) instead of a twenty-minute shower (€600 a year)' to 'make the city your living room: work in public spaces and save on heating'.
"Pollution by heating is indeed a big problem in a cold country like Finland," says Sonja-Maria. "It is even the main source of greenhouse gases in the city. That is why the city council is strongly committed to the renovation of old buildings, heat recovery and geothermal energy. Strict rules apply to new buildings".
Of course, this bold policy also faces criticism from time to time. Sonja-Maria explains that in general the population is completely on board, but there are exceptions. "Measures that influence everyday life sometimes receive mixed reactions. Car use is a good example. Everyone wants a climate-friendly city, but that does not mean that we will all start cheering if we are told we can no longer drive to the centre". The city council is also aware of the fact that it demands a lot from local companies. "The business community has been closely involved in the climate plan from the beginning. Several business managers also helped us develop the plan. We will continue to consult them during its implementation and evaluation", Sonja-Maria confirms.
The Helsinki case proves that we really can change our global behaviour. "Our total CO₂ emissions have already decreased by 24% since 1990," says Sonja-Maria, "while the population in Helsinki has increased by 150,000 people. Per-capita emissions are now 42% lower than thirty years ago."
Finland is clearly a global leader in climate policy, but where do they get their inspiration? "There's a lot going on in many cities. Several cities are pioneers in different aspects of CO₂ neutrality, so we seek inspiration in those cities depending on the specific aspect we are keen to tackle. We can easily compare ourselves to other northern countries. Germany and the Netherlands, for example, have a similar climate and social context. But we are equally inspired by small municipalities in Finland itself. The municipality of Li, for example, won the EU RegioStars award for its climate efforts. Even a big city like Helsinki can learn something from this," concludes Sonja-Maria.