Kuva: Saana Säilynoja

Published May 20, 2014

Finland may be a small nation, but it can achieve great things

An expert panel on sustainable development summarised the key findings of its first discussion and presented the resulting summary at a meeting of the Finnish National Commission on Sustainable Development held on 22 April 2014.

The members of the expert panel on sustainable development are:
Eeva Furman, Eva Heiskanen, Heikki Hiilamo, Janne Hukkinen, Jaakko Kiander, Juho Saari.

Adapting to climate change as a social mission embracing the whole of society

In global comparisons, Finland has an exceptionally well-functioning society

Finnish society functions well – we may be a small nation, but we can achieve great things. Finland, if anywhere, is a country in which sustainable development can be carried forward in a manner that sets an example to other societies. Our history shows that, as a people, we can achieve a consensus and commit to making decisions in which we believe. We should spurn the misconception that small players like Finland cannot make a difference. On the contrary, we need to understand that we are just the right size for taking decisions and following them through in practice. We can set a good example for countries that have a greater global impact. A pioneering approach of this kind offers us the chance to play a major role.

We must cling on to what works well in our society, and its capacity for change. If we mean to engage in sustainable development, adapt to climate change and maintain our welfare society, we must learn to act responsibly in the face of ecological, social and economic threats. For Finland, the knock-on effects of climate change that affect other parts of the world could have greater impact than the direct effects.

Finland can succeed, but what kind of discussion are we having on these issues?

We live in a time when nations are struggling to survive and adapt in the midst of a global transition. Finland has excellent potential for succeeding in this struggle. Our prospects are good in all areas of development. We still have the best possible social, economic and ecological basis for making the necessary changes, but we need to act now. We could serve as a laboratory for investigating how to implement sustainable development and cope with change.

Our priority should be to create an atmosphere characterised by faith in the future and positive thinking. When communicating on sustainable development, we need to use plain language and concrete examples from people’s everyday lives. It can suddenly occur to someone that “I should do things differently” when staring at an electricity bill or waiting to see a doctor. If the “Society’s Commitment to Sustainability” initiative gains widespread traction, the result will be a movement that seeks a more sustainable environment and that is free of the impenetrable jargon of international treaties. In addition to the commitment’s eight objectives, we need to seek new opportunities in the connections and interactions that result from honouring the commitment.

Other key elements include the tone of the discussion we engage in and the kinds of everyday lives we build during the current transition. People have very little faith in our prospects for achieving our sustainable development objectives, or in their own abilities to affect the issue. Strengthening people’s faith and ensuring that our aims are fulfilled are therefore critical. People’s experiences of sustainable development will feel real only when the issue becomes as palpable to them as their own state of health.

Better management of structural transition is a prerequisite for success

The pressure to change just keeps mounting. We need to start from somewhere and get our transition under way. We also need to see this as a positive issue. The key to all this is better transition management. We need roadmaps in plain language, taking us “there and back again”, and a policy package to get the ball rolling. In place of isolated action plans, we need a whole that is greater than its parts. We need to set our sights again on our long-term challenges and begin tackling them.

The way ahead could involve sustainable economic growth of a kind that reduces inequality and strengthens ecological sustainability, while creating long-term economic stability. Many changes will be needed in order to implement the necessary social reforms. Technological expertise and well-functioning infrastructures could provide us with a way out of our predicament and help us to kick-start the transition. Finland’s expertise in cleantech and resource efficiency could form the basis for developing solutions that help save the planet. We could boldly serve as a laboratory for testing such solutions. It is time to end the hand-wringing and to take action. We also need to get the general public behind our long-term energy and climate policy objectives.

Discussions by the expert panel on sustainable development

We need a better understanding of the implications of climate change in terms of social and economic sustainability
An extensive discussion is already being held on the technological and environmental aspects of climate change. However, public discussions and surveys tend to overlook the impacts on economic policy and society. We have paid too little attention to the extent to which adapting to climate change could either exacerbate, or even reduce, inequality.

The fight against climate change, the achievement of carbon neutrality and becoming a technological pioneer should be regarded as opportunities for creating economic added value and increasing equality. Climate change may be the key driver of global change. If climate policy boils down to a series of wrangles over international climate agreements, the creation and adoption of crucial social innovations may be hindered. We cannot afford to await a global consensus and a decisive agreement that is binding under international law.

Communication based on solutions and positive thinking
The public debate on climate change takes its cue from the way in which experts discuss the matter, and the implied impact on people’s lives. Research shows that people are particularly interested in the means and likely costs involved in solving these huge challenges. People tend to focus on how we might have an affect on climate change, rather than the issue of how rapidly climate change is advancing.

Keep it fair and open
Adapting to climate change will cost money. The longer we delay, the greater the cost will be. We must not attempt to hide the costs of climate change. People will ask: “So what is my share of these costs, and is it fair? If I pay twice as much as I think reasonable, and someone else pays nothing, will I call for an end to the whole process?” Fairness is important.

Connecting to everyday life is the key
All communication should emphasise the fact that it simply makes sense to adopt a carbon-neutral and resource-wise approach in our daily lives, regardless of whether climate change is being discussed. In our day-to-day lives, there is no need to fixate on this major threat looming over what is still a distant horizon. Instead, we should identify the key everyday issues that form part of the greater whole and contribute to the achievement of our national vision. Humour can also be an excellent tool when communicating on resource efficiency. Who will write a history of climate change that motivates citizens to do something about the issue?

Nudging has its use
More extensive use should be made of the nudging methods (often known as the nudge theory) identified in behavioural science. Cases of the successful use of nudging include the UK’s government-endorsed Mindspace project, which explores the behavioural changes that people tend to make voluntarily. Whether we like it or not, we, and our way of life, are continuously subject to a barrage of influences. Advertising constantly nudges us towards behaviour that is inconsistent with the idea of sustainability. This seems to have no effect on the perceived legitimacy of advertising.

Scientific credibility
Extensive international research is being conducted on climate change. However, feeding scientific findings into the everyday discussion of climate change is not easy. The media cannot always distinguish between peer-reviewed scientific knowledge and mere opinion. We also need to provide the public with success stories based on issues that are comparable to climate change. Such stories might include the public action taken to halt ozone depletion and acid rain, or to encourage people to quit smoking.

Partnerships for Finland
The Green Growth Partnership between Denmark and South Korea is a good example of collaboration in the search for solutions and the creation of a national vision. Finland could also seek partnerships in its efforts to adapt to climate change. Co-development partners and projects are an option. The European Sustainable Development Network (ESDN) provides an opportunity to establish such partnerships.

Strategic and broad-based research on the social impact and management of northern climate change
The northern hemisphere is experiencing the greatest temperature rises due to climate change. We need a more comprehensive body of scientific information on climate change, on the costs of adaptation, on how to manage those costs in a manner that promotes employment and well-being, and on the social impact of climate change.

Germany’s energy transition and the related social impact

The expert panel on sustainable development commissioned a study of the social impact of Germany’s energy transition. With the aim of initiating a discussion of the issue, the brief report “A democratic energy transition? – a discussion paper on the social impact of Germany’s Energiewende” was drawn up by Mikko Rissanen of DIALOG BASIS (Germany).

Summary of the discussion paper

The objective of the discussion paper is to analyse the impact of Germany’s energy transition (Energiewende) on consumers. The transition’s impact can be divided into two main strands. On the one hand, the energy transition is having economic effects: increasing energy production from renewable sources has created jobs and influenced the financial situation of many municipalities and cities in Germany. Consumers can also feel the effects of the energy transition and the payment of subsidies for the renewable energy industry in the form of higher electricity bills. On the other hand, the energy transition requires extensive infrastructure projects and construction of power plants and electric grids. To ordinary citizens, this takes the form of changes to their local environments, which has intensified the discussion on the opportunities individuals have to participate in decision-making and to have a say.

Even a brief examination reveals that we cannot be clear on whether or not the energy transition has led to greater or less equality among the German population. But it is beyond dispute that many local authorities and ordinary citizens are benefiting financially from the energy transition. At the same time, municipalities dependent on nuclear power and fossil fuel-based power generation are experiencing difficulties. As residential areas and living environments within Germany change, many residents feel that they have lost out. Based on the discussions held so far, we can provide a summary of the key factors that would play an important role in the implementation of a democratic energy transition – in Germany or in Finland.

  • The energy transition can be a significant source of jobs and income especially in areas with negative population growth and economic development. In gaining local acceptance for construction projects, it is important that any income generated remains within the area and that locals benefit from the energy transition.
  • In terms of gaining public support for the energy transition, the achievement of a balanced sharing of the costs between people in different income categories, and between citizens and the business sector, is crucial.
  • The energy transition has had visible effects within local authority areas. Providing residents with genuine opportunities to have a say can improve the quality of planning and expedite the completion of construction projects, providing that problematic issues can be jointly resolved. At a time when resources are scarce in many areas, it would be useful to provide central support through municipal or regional interaction.
  • Environmental organisations have been particularly eager to criticise the energy transition for focusing too much on the “electricity transition” and for its slow progress in achieving emission reductions (Dahlbender, 2014). Sufficient investment in energy efficiency could also reduce the need for renewable energy production and might mute criticism focused on the threats to the environment and nature posed by the excessive construction of wind power and electricity grids.

Download the discussion paper here.

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