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Helsinki, the capital of decarbonization

The initiatives taken by the Finnish capital to become a fully ecological city.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
29 July 2020
4 min read
by Maria Pia Rossignaud
29 July 2020
4 min read

In the recent months, we have heard increasingly urgent calls that we have reached a “point of no return” when it comes to the fight against climate change. Decarbonising our energy network is a matter of top priority. Whilst there are some who continue to postpone this all-important change, there are others who have decided to start immediately. The city of Helsinki belongs to the latter category. It has launched an international competition and an ambitious programme to try to a trailblazer in the transition to a green city that is more sustainable and more liveable.

Much of the credit for these theoretical and practical innovations goes to Jan Vapaavuori, the major of the Finnish capital, who has already made headlines in the first part of his term of office for reaching some big targets. The construction of the new Oodi central library, a unique building that has given the city a new first-class cultural centre and which has seen cultural expenditure become the second largest spend in the municipal budget, was due to his determination to get the job done. Having recognised that "cities have a key role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy", Vapaavuori and his team have launched an international competition called the Helsinki Energy Challenge. The aim of this worthy initiative is to bring together every innovative proposal to develop sustainable urban heating solutions, for a city that still gets more than half of its energy needs from coal. And to incentivise companies, research groups, foundations, universities and other bodies to submit proposals, a 1 million euro prize is to be awarded to the most innovative and workable project.

The Ooodi Library in Helsinki

A Nordic city as a model

As Vapaavuori himself said: "Solving the urban heating challenge is crucial to reach global climate goals. To achieve this target, innovators from around the world are invited to use Helsinki as a test bed to develop not just fossil-free, but truly sustainable solutions.” He added: “This could be made possible by through paradigm shift, even in the immediate future." For the reasons mentioned above, it is interesting to summarise the points made by the committee that devised the competition and made the rules. Starting from a systemic analysis, it was possible to create a framework that applies to many other contexts (with the appropriate distinctions). Firstly, it should be noted that 56% of Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions come from heating buildings. In Helskinki alone, half of the power for the 200 district heating networks currently comes from fossil fuels and peat, and this alone accounts for 15% of the greenhouse gases produced by the energy sector. 

Finland is therefore faced with the challenge of having to reduce its CO2 emissions by 35 million tonnes by 2035 (as set out in the new EU framework regulations), with half of this reduction attributed to the energy sector. Fortunately, Finland’s government supports the Helsinki administration and, in view of the country’s commitments, has passed a law to ban the use of coal by May 2029 and peat by 2050. This is an ambitious decision considering that 8% of total energy consumption is generated from the former and 5% from the latter. While all social stakeholders, including the state, energy companies and taxpayers, have recognised the need for early intervention, the market also lends itself to a certain kind of experimentation.

A system which welcomes new initiatives

The Finnish heating sector has been deregulated for several years now, making it easier for start-ups and new ideas to enter the system. This should not be underestimated in the Helsinki Energy Challenge, which does not rule out the possibility of a complete overhaul of the city’s heating infrastructure and networks. In addition, as Laura Uuttu-Deschryvere, director of the project, points out, "with close to 650,000 inhabitants and about 80 square miles of land area, our city is the right size to conduct experiments of this kind. But we’re not big enough for efficient implementation of potentially groundbreaking solutions,” she added. For one thing, the Finnish capital is, of course, a Nordic city where it is very cold in winter. That observation might seem obvious, but it’s not irrelevant when you think that a solution that works in a Scandinavian city could work anywhere and “have a game-changing ripple effect, benefiting not just Helsinki and Finland as a whole, but other cities too,” concludes Uuttu-Deschryvere.