Carbon neutrality has been on the agenda of urban decision makers for more than a decade. Yet, only recently has it started to emerge as a realistic strategic goal for several towns and cities. Helsinki is one of those forerunners. It is aiming to become carbon neutral by 2035 and its new deadline for that goal has just been pushed back by 15 years from 2050.
The “Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 Action Plan” sets to achieve its aim through cutting emissions by 80% and creating 20% emission reductions elsewhere. Such an ambitious goal is not a simple matter and local authorities know this well. The first Helsinki Sustainability Action Plan dates back to 2002 and the city’s current sustainability policies are deeply intertwined, moving all facets of society towards sustainable trajectories. Thus far the city has reached a 25% reduction goal since 1990 (per capita emissions decreased by 40%), but current progress needs to be doubled in the following years to reach the target of 700 kilotons per year, also considering a projected 17% growth in population by 2035.
Among the key players making the transition happen is a city-owned energy company Helen, which plans to move from 10% to 70% of renewable energy supply, including increasing the share of hydro-power, wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as introducing heat recovery solutions. The company plans to drastically decrease the use of coal, while it looks like natural gas is going to stay in the palette.
Helen’s President and CEO Pekka Manninen emphasizes the need to reduce coal use, yet notes that “the primary objective in terms of the climate is to reduce emissions instead of focusing on individual fuels”. Meanwhile, Helen and Gasum, a major natural gas importer and distributor, have both implemented projects with big ambitions for biogas development, a solution that may, at least partly, replace natural gas.
The city doesn’t stop on shifting the energy sources. Increasing the share of electric vehicles and other sustainable transport modes, improving energy efficiency, introducing climate-smart infrastructure, better building standards, responsible procurement policies and circular economy solutions are all in the plan, which together comprises 143 actions.
An especially ambitious goal has been set for reducing CO2 emissions from transport: 69% from 2005 to 2035, which is even higher than the national goal of 50% throughout the same period. “Helsinki can achieve its goal in transportation, which is much stricter than the national goal, owing to the increasing density in our urban structure. Helsinki has excellent opportunities to promote public transportation, walking, and cycling” says Esa Nikunen, Director General of Helsinki Environment Services.
The document itself was written together with the citizens through open access online commenting and numerous live workshops, which provides not only expert opinions but also an actionable vision, approved and shared by the public. The plan is a bold and clear-eyed agenda for coming years. Yet long-term policy plans and active participation of civil society will have to be in place to make it a reality.