Finland might become a leader in sustainability much sooner than expected. However, it takes a fundamental attitude change and ambitious scientific research to get there.
Finland is getting restless. The country doesn’t want to wait until the end of this century to become completely carbon neutral as the Paris Agreement suggests. In early 2017, Finnish Minister of Agriculture and the Environment Kimmo Tiilikainen declared an ambitious goal to override that of the Paris Agreement: Finland will be carbon neutral by the year 2045.
Luke’s President and CEO Mari Walls and Executive Vice President Johanna Buchert think that although challenging, the goal is within reach.
“Finland is a forerunner in environmental and natural resource issues. It has a strong industrial foundation and a thriving forest-based bioeconomy”, Walls says.
“We have the will and the capabilities to make Finland carbon neutral. However, reaching this goal requires a fundamental change in both our economy and our mindsets.”
Towards renewable natural resources
Basically, Finland needs to move from a system based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable natural resources in only a few decades. Since a prominent chunk of our current business is still based on fossil fuel raw materials, this might not be an easy feat. Luckily, Finland has several assets that help achieve the goal at hand.
“Our population density is low, which means there’s a lot of land and water for agriculture and forestry. We need to use these assets to create more value both in terms of economy and sustainability”, Buchert says.
Finns have a long tradition in forest industry. We’ve used wood in construction for centuries. According to Buchert, Finland needs a bold design-driven approach to strengthen the way we build out of wood in the future.
“Wood should be a more prominent element in our infrastructure, not just in buildings but bridges and other construction as well. A very interesting topic in Luke’s research is to investigate the potential health benefits of living and working in wooden houses and environments”, Buchert says.
No research, no progress
Becoming carbon neutral is an ambitious aim that needs backup from ambitious researchers and new approaches from emerging businesses. Research can turn the dream of a carbon neutral country into reality.
“Solution oriented, interdisciplinary and open research is necessary. Researchers have to be able to communicate their findings widely and interact constructively with different experts in private and public organizations”, Walls lists.
“Research isn’t isolated from the rest of the society. It’s a major tool that improves the understanding of the ecosystem and its concepts. One of these key concepts is a holistic understanding of sustainability.”
This means that sustainability has to be understood as an entity that consists of economic, social and environmental factors.
“All these factors need to share the same objective. Research helps to maintain and reinforce the big picture.”
“Whenever we meet a new challenge, we rely on research. It’s what we use to solve problems and move forward.”
This refers especially to research on carbon and how it’s stored in the Finnish environment. How do our carbon reserves develop and where are they located? How can we store carbon in our soil?
“Soil and peat can either reserve or release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we know how to manage carbon, it isn’t just waste but also an asset”, Walls says.
Luke and its researchers are key operators in reaching the goal set by Minister Tiilikainen. The institute’s position in the field of Finnish research stems from a long history and a solid track-record of internationally relevant research on natural resources.
“Our key asset is a thorough understanding of the forest ecosystem and the risks it faces. Furthermore, our research on soil, swamps and agricultural ecosystems support decision making in sustainability questions”, Mari Walls explains.
In order to make Finland carbon neutral by 2045, researchers from different fields need to collaborate. And, as carbon emissions are a global phenomenon, international cooperation is required, too.
An endeavour of this size requires the input of, for example, educational and behavioral sciences just as much as that of environmental sciences. Knowing everything there is to know about carbon isn’t enough. People’s attitudes are a key factor in sustainability issues.
“Big changes don’t happen, unless people really understand why they should start making different choices than before. Education is a part of this process. We have a great school system in Finland, but these fundamental climate issues should play a more significant part in it from early on”, Walls says.
How to become carbon neutral – A to do list
- Replace current energy sources with renewable ones
Replace fossil fuels with biofuels and increase biomass production. Solar power, wind power and other renewable natural resources should be considered self-evident by now since they are at the core of the whole energy production system.
- Rethink traffic
The current traffic system is responsible for a large amount of emissions. That’s why we should rethink logistics and traffic infrastructures. Whether we’re talking about solar cells or electric cars, clean traffic solutions require big investments in novel infrastructures that might not even exist yet.
- Manage climate change risks
Climate change increases the risk of storms that wipe out whole forest. Storms and forest fires can lead to uncontrollable amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. Insects can do massive damages to the environment. In British Columbia, pine beetles have destroyed vast areas of forests as warm winters have increased beetle outbreaks. Interdisciplinary research is needed to manage these risks.
- Diversify forestry
If we use more side stream forest biomass, we might later have the possibility to use larger forest areas for recreational activities than we do now. In addition to wood, forests offer other valuable raw materials like berries and mushrooms. Diversifying forestry also means diversifying tree species. Research provides useful tools that help to maintain and increase the diversity of Finnish forests, raw materials and processed materials.
- Help corporations track sustainability
Corporations should have intelligent methods of tracking their carbon footprint and other sustainability factors. There’s a need for better sustainability indicators. Big institutional investors could utilise this information when investing in carbon neutral businesses. Businesses that score high in sustainability rankings would gain a competitive edge.