Finland to be carbon-neutral in 2035 – from challenge to opportunity

2020-01-30 Jyri Seppälä

According to the new Government Programme, Finland is to be carbon-neutral by 2035. This target has attracted a great deal of attention both in and outside Finland. The clearly stated goal has made Finland a pioneer in the combat against climate change.

Carbon neutrality is not an unambiguous concept. Different parties – including governments – define it in slightly different ways. Reading between the lines, Finland’s Government Programme appears to indicate that in a carbon-neutral Finland, emissions should be equal to carbon sinks. Emissions refer to greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels, industrial processes and biological processes changed by human actions. Carbon sinks, in turn, refer to actions that capture greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and increase the carbon stock. Carbon sinks encompass the processes that sequester carbon dioxide in land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). They also include technological means for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or emission source and storing it away from the carbon cycle.

The definition of Finnish carbon neutrality includes a strong message that the path chosen will lead to a carbon negative state, in which the remaining emissions are smaller than the sinks.

Municipalities at the forefront of climate action

In its Programme, the Government undertakes to support areas and municipalities in preparing their own plans to achieve carbon neutrality and in carrying out climate actions. This is important since municipalities and regions play a very concrete role in putting climate actions into practice.

Finnish areas and municipalities are already well placed in the strive towards a carbon-neutral Finland by 2035. By 19 June 2019, a total of 54 Finnish municipalities had joined the Carbon Neutral Municipalities (Hinku) network, committing to reduce their emissions by 80 per cent from the 2007 levels by 2030. The network is no longer a club of small pioneering municipalities, but has also come to involve larger cities. In addition, there are both small and large towns and municipalities operating outside the network that have set themselves ambitious emissions reduction targets. In fact, whole regions have declared their intention to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035–2040.

While the situation looks good, it would not hurt if the “white areas” on the map of Finland filled up with more and more areas and municipalities joining pioneering networks and officially supporting a carbon-neutral Finland by 2035. I would like to point out that the Hinku network is open to all Finnish municipalities, and that the ongoing Canemure project (an EU Life IP project) helps new regions also assume joint responsibility for planning climate actions in their own area.

In the strive towards carbon neutrality, it is important to quickly reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Municipalities have gained a great deal of experience in this, but the challenge now is to rapidly spread good practices throughout Finland. We must now move from the trial phase to the copying phase. It is by no means an impossible challenge, if we put our networks to good use and learn from one another.

Sequestering carbon in soil and forests

We still have a great deal to learn in strengthening carbon sinks in the LULUCF (land use, land use change and forestry) sector. To reduce emissions, not only can we increase the carbon stocks of forests and fields, but also adopt many other measures. This especially brings to mind peat fields and bog forests as well as efforts to put an end to deforestation. What makes the LULUCF sector more difficult to control is that we do not yet have an adequate analysis of the regional situation in Finland. However, the Natural Resources Institute Finland and the Finnish Environment Institute have undertaken to improve this situation in 2020, at the latest.

Finland has natural opportunities to maintain relatively large carbon sinks in the LULUCF sector, which puts it in an opportune position to achieve its carbon neutrality targets compared to many other countries. It is clear nonetheless that forest utilisation and the ensuing loss of carbon sinks as well as the pressure to cost-effectively achieve carbon neutrality through emissions reductions will continue to be topics of discussion in the future. One of the key questions is how to define the ratio of emissions and sinks in a state of carbon neutrality. Finland cannot independently decide how it reduces its emissions and maintains its carbon sinks. EU rules ensure that both areas are taken into account.

The target of Carbon Neutral Finland 2035 should not be treated as merely fulfilling our global responsibility. It is also important to be a good example. Why would less developed and developing countries adopt climate measures if countries like Finland do not show an example.

We can also approach the topic from a slightly selfish perspective. The global market for clean solutions continues to grow at an annual rate of six per cent. It is easier for us to get a share of this if we are known as a pioneer working towards carbon neutrality. The smaller the “white areas” on the map of Finland, the more likely it is that we are approaching our target and turning a challenge into an opportunity.

Professor Jyri Seppälä, Director
National Director of the Carbon Neutral Municipalities project
Finnish Environment Institute

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