10 june 2019

Finland stepping up to climate leadership—will the government deliver?

The new social-democrat led government in Finland has committed the country to carbon neutrality by 2035. Can, will it be done?

Sini Harkki, programme manager of Greenpeace in Finland, in Social Europe, June 10, 2019

Finland’s new government, based on a coalition of the Social Democratic Party, the Centre Party, the Greens, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party of Finland, has already started a new era in Finnish climate politics. The coalition addresses climate change across its entire government programme, which has a vision of an economically, socially and ecologically sustainable society at its core.

While Finland has traditionally been a timid actor in EU climate politics, placed somewhere in the middle, the government is now striving to lead the way. The programme sets as its inspirational goal to strive to be ‘the first fossil-free welfare society in the world’. This concept builds on the Nordic welfare-society tradition and—although still very loosely defined—could naturally focus on issues of ‘just transition’, education and renewing the economy on the path to carbon neutrality.

The more binding climate target of the programme is that of carbon neutrality by 2035. This will be embedded in the Climate Act and current emission-reduction paths will be updated accordingly.

The job is anything but done but the target is bold and the government deserves credit for that. This is a paradigm shift in Finnish climate politics—a move from doing a little bit better to finally trying to do enough.

Unprecedented demand

The new government has reacted to an unprecedented demand for climate action from across Finnish society. Since the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change launched last October, the issue has been on the public agenda as never before. Finland has seen two of its biggest environmental marches ever, there has been an active school strikers’ movement and many industry actors and trade unions have updated their climate policies to call for alignment with a 1.5C ceiling on global heating.

A poll commissioned before the general election in April confirmed that 70 per cent of Finns wanted efficient, bold action on climate change from the incoming government. All parties represented in the parliament, except for the far-right True Finns, have endorsed a statement to strive for climate policy in line with the 1.5C limit.

Yet the actions to comply with the ambitious schedule for carbon neutrality are anything but elaborated. The 2035 deadline will in practice require phasing out all fossil fuels during the 2030s. In energy production, this is well under way. Finland has already passed a law to phase out coal by 2029 and combinations of various technologies beyond burning—including utilising heat pumps and wind power—have been increasingly presented as a way to replace the capacity efficiently.

The greatest challenge is to minimise the use of biomass in replacing coal and to ensure that burning peat is phased out at the same time. And here comes the first stumbling-block.

The government decided to form a commission to ensure a just transition away from burning peat. This is necessary, as peat is a major employer in some regions of Finland. The commission will naturally advise on the phase-out but it is worrying that the programme fails to set a timescale, only citing a target to halve the use of peat by 2030. Burning peat produces 5 per cent of Finnish energy but causes 15 per cent of emissions. Stronger decisions to ensure a timely phase-out are vital to deliver the decarbonisation of energy.

Political battle

Another challenge is taxation and subsidies: the programme acknowledges that a transition to a fossil-free society entails major reform. The government plans to redesign energy taxation during its first 14 months—it should aim systematically to align it with decarbonisation.

This will no doubt be a major political battle, with losers and winners who hold a lot of power, spiced up with a bit of identity politics and concerns of ordinary car owners. It will be a litmus test for the whole climate policy of the government: will it stand strong, hold the line and come up with systematic measures to meet the 2035 target, or will the status quo hold?

Carbon neutrality being the goal, the other side of the equation comprises carbon sinks. Finnish forests are under pressure with the pulp industry experiencing a new peak in demand. Last year, natural sinks decreased by a whopping 30 per cent because of increased logging volumes, mainly for pulp and paper. If the trend continues, other sectors will need to hit close to zero by 2035 to achieve neutrality.

The equation is not made any easier by several pulp companies planning new mills. One of them, Metsä Group, announced a plan just before the election to build a new mill in Kemi, north Finland. The dent this mill would cause in Finnish carbon sinks could be as high as 8-10 million CO2-equivalent tonnes a year. By comparison, the emissions from the entire transport sector in Finland were 11 million tonnes in 2017. Other companies have investment plans as well.

While the consensus is broad that there will not be enough wood for all the investments to see daylight, this will surely be one of the most controversial issues the government will have to address. It is dividing especially the Greens and the Centre Party, the latter being a strong supporter of conventional agriculture and forestry policies.

In the programme, the government does not set any explicit limits to the growth of forest use. It does, however, commit to a general goal of growing carbon sinks. This would be achieved by increasing forest protection—for which the budget has been raised manyfold—and an array of other policies to nudge the use of private and state-owned forests in a more climate-friendly direction.

A lot of this will be up to the new minister of forestry and agriculture to set in motion. He comes from the Centre Party and will surely be pressed by the Green climate and environment minister on his challenging task.

Bumpy ride

All in all, we can expect a bumpy ride, not without challenges and controversy. But the backing for a robust climate policy could not be stronger. From the most powerful business associations to trade unions and students, the message has been united: we’re ready for what it takes.

The True Finns will attack the government from opposition. But their message of the potential adverse impacts of climate action on the economy is losing strength: the industry they claim to protect is more and more seeing the advantage of being a front runner in cutting emissions.

If the spirit of doing this together is maintained, Finland has every possibility to deliver on the climate vision. But the first few years are key in showing that there will be enough flesh on the bones to prove the target is more than aspirational—that it is set so as to be achieved.

Both the civil-society movement and the government intend this shift to have more than national impact. Finland will hold the presidency of the EU from July, at a crucial time for the upping of its climate targets to match what the Paris agreement requires.

The programme includes a shared vision to push the EU to climate targets in line with the 1.5C limit. The stated position of Finland has already been to support 55 per cent emission reductions by 2030 and the current government aims to maximise its impact during the presidency to do so.

For the EU to become the climate leader it should be, more countries willing to do their part are needed. The Nordics are stepping up and answering the call of the climate movement, especially that of children and youth. It is now time for the rest of the EU to join the race for policies that are finally striving to do enough—not just a little bit better

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