Here's hoping, Helsinki

Helsinki harbour

The Ecologist
I was told Finland wants to 'drive sustainable development globally'. I went to Helsinki to test these claims - here is what I found. 

My trip to Helsinki showed me that prioritising the environment and making sustainable choices does not come at a cost to the rest of society.

Plucky Finland claims to be the greenest country in the world. The small nordic country, with a population of just five and a half million people, also wants to be the front runner in sustainable forestry and wood-based innovations. It's UK embassy even told me the nation was in a position to drive sustainable development globally. 

Indeed. Finland is set to be the next country to become carbon neutral, second only to Uruguay and is striving to reach this target by 2035. It aims to achieve this by extensive collaboration between the public and private sectors, especially in its large forestry industry.

It's "bio-circular economy" policies show that its government believes prioritising the environment doesn't only cease to have a detrimental impact on the economy but lets it thrive. This is in stark contrast to Britain, which risks becoming the "sick man of Europe" again with warnings about sewerage, dumping and failing environmental policies. 

Frosty

But was really struck by the claims being made by Finland. I will be studying in Sweden next year, and have a fascination for Scandinavia. But I didn't want to take these claims at face value. The Ecologist has been fighting greenwash for decades, and I wanted to see evidence first hand before repeating Finland's bold claims.

So when I was told the Finnish embassy would fly me out to Helsinki and host me while I tested these claims, my immediate answer was, "sure". My editor gave me just 24 hours to find my passport, get a Covid test, pack my bags, kiss my parents good bye and head for the airport. This was the first time I had stayed abroad on my own, so I was excited - and nervous. 

The boss sent me the jam packed programme from the Finnish embassy just ahead of my flight. I manically researched forestry and sustainability in Finland. I felt like a teenager again, cramming last minute revision in the night before an exam. 

I made my way through London Heathrow layered in all my warm clothes, as you do when you're trying to save luggage space, ready to be greeted by the frosty temperatures. We had asked whether we could travel to Finland by train instead of plane, to save carbon, but because of Covid restrictions at the many borders this proved impossible. 

Fired

The complimentary bilberry juice on the plane and the most unique Burger King I have ever visited were some of the surprising highlights of my journey. The restaurant located in Helsinki train station featured a massive wall fresco designed by Eero Järnefelt, in a granite station building, designed by architect Eliel Saarinen in the early 20th century.

I am the editorial assistant at The Ecologist and this was my first media trip and so the already paid for hotel accommodation was exciting to me. After a quick power nap in my king sized bed I packed my bag for my first ever sauna experience.

My trip to Helsinki showed me that prioritising the environment and making sustainable choices does not come at a cost to the rest of society.

The group of invited journalists and I, led by the Finnish embassy, were introduced to each other at the Loyly sauna. Loyly is located on the Helsinki water stretch, which means you have the option to swim in the Baltic sea. 

We were briefed about our upcoming schedule meeting a family in the forest, environmental businesses and political leaders. I assumed these meetings would be more formal than this, as we rotated around from the wood-fired sauna, the sea and to the smoke-fired sauna. And repeated.

Elves

The smoke fired sauna was hotter than the wood fired, and while I was trying to withstand the heat I was told by the group a Finnish Christmas tale. It tells the story of elves who allegedly protect the Finnish saunas.

The children are told that in order to protect the saunas they have to behave, which sometimes includes bringing the sauna elves gifts. Whereas if they misbehave, they are told the elves will burn down the sauna. I can’t imagine a better welcome into Finnish culture than to have my first sauna experience made from sustainably produced wood.

The following day was a picturesque visit to the forest, where we are given a detailed explanation of how Finnish trees end up in paper mills. We ventured to Hämeenkoski in Päijät-Häme Region and met a family in the forest who live in a house made from Helsinki timber and manufacture their trees. 

We were served with a vegan pumpkin and squash soup alfresco before Laura Hämäläinen and Mika Hämäläinen took us around their forest explaining their management strategy, including showing us a transformer style tractor, called a harvesting machine, with a massive claw which grabs the trunk of the tree the way you’d grab a carrot ready to be chopped for a casserole.

Mills

Markus Nissinen, an MTK Environmental Specialist, for forest conservation measures, explained that the felling of 80 percent of the trees is required to allow a process called thinning. The other 20 percent of productive forest is left out of harvesting. Thinning the forest allows for more space, light and therefore better conditions for the trees which means better timber is produced, he told us.

After the discussion we went on a tour of Koskisen, a sustainable sawmill, and learned exactly how timber is made into plywood. 

It was interesting to see how these saw mills have been made sustainable today, especially considering the history of pollution of paper pulp into Finnish rivers and lakes after the opening of the first mills in the 1880s.

Globally, Koskisen export 91 percent of the plywood. And the UK is its biggest consumer. Jukka Pahta, the CEO of Koskisen, showed in a presentation how one cubic metre of saw timber produces 35kg of CO2. This compares to over 900kgs produced in the production of concrete.

The Federation of the Finnish Woodworking industries states: “The carbon handprint of sawn timber is 573kg CO2e, representing the amount of carbon sequestered by sawn timber, which acts as a carbon sink”.

Businesses

The next morning I met Petro Lahtinen, the chief executive of a sustainable furniture brand called Woodio, where all products are made using woodchips and produced through high-force engineering.

Woodio is on its way to creating products from 100 percent wood. At the moment the glue used to combine the wood chips is not produced from wood. However UPM is biomedically producing a glue from cellulose which may be used as a substitute.

Finland offers products and brands that can be outsourced across countries, with lesser harm to the environment. During my time in Finland I visited sustainable businesses which all have the stated aim of positively impacting the environment. But what most impressed me was their “fossil phase out” plan.

One of Finland’s sustainability goals includes becoming carbon neutral by 2035, and from then on to become carbon negative - which means the entire country absorbing more carbon dioxide than it is emitting.

A large frustration to come out of Cop26 was global leaders’ inabilities to commit to banning the use of fossil fuels. But from 2029 the use of coal for energy use will be banned in Finland.

The operation of the Hanasaari Coal plant in Helsinki will stop in 2023, and this will have substantial positive effects for the climate and reduce significantly the city’s, and country’s, carbon footprint.

Political

That afternoon we enjoyed more of the Finnish culture that I had first experienced at the sauna. We also met Jari Leppä, the minister of forestry and agriculture. It came as no surprise to discover he has had a hobby in acting and theatre for decades. 

His charismatic entrance was a refreshing change from the mundane political figures I am used to watching on TV in the UK. I have never met such a senior public figure before - but his friendly character settled my nerves.

He was passionate about forests being a “solution not a problem”. He strongly advocated the importance of the forest in terms of well-being and responsibility. This did made me wonder whether Finland are incredibly unique in their sustainability efforts.

Following the meeting with Mr Leppä, we jumped on a tram to meet the next minister. Krista Mikkonen, the Minister of Environment, gave a more formal presentation. She explained that every country has its own individual challenges, and emphasises the importance of the "carbon handprint".

Most people will be familiar with the term, carbon footprint. This can refer to the amount of carbon each of us produces as we walk through our lives. The carbon handprint is a new measure for businesses to show how they positively impact the environment.

Businesses are beginning to understand more about the climate crisis, and want to show they are addressing the concerns of their customers. The hope is that this new environmental indicator will be a trusted method of assessing the values of the company and stopping the problem of greenwashing.

The presentations from business and politicians were genuinely compelling. This led me to back to the bigger question: can Finland really be a driving force for global change, a country which influences other governments through diplomacy - and branding and business practices?

My view, in the end, is that the political leaders in Finland really do prioritise the environment in a way that too many countries simply fail to do. It is in a fortunate position, as it is able to use its vast forests and agricultural lands for environmentally beneficial uses. But it does go further than that. 

Taxes

Sanna Marin, the Finnish Prime Minister since 2019, when elected was the world’s youngest political leader. She prioritised the environment and protecting the country's generous welfare state during her campaign. I was told Finns don’t mind paying higher taxes to pay for all this.

I was lucky enough to extend my stay in Finland, and see the city away from the press core and the embassy staff. The rest of my trip consisted of experiencing the culture in Helsinki, going on a bike tour, taking part in mushroom picking and visiting art galleries. I was surprised to discover the public library had computer games rooms, 3D printers and sewing machines.

From this short trip, it was clear to me that people in Finland don't mind paying those higher taxes because so much is clearly given back. The investment in public services made the cities seem safer, and more relaxed. 

From the perspective of a woman who lives in London, visiting Helsinki was a really refreshing experience. From being told that walking alone in a dark forest was not a threat to your safety, to being able to leave your coats unattended, not being checked for a tram or bus ticket and not having to lock the door to my off grid cabin. The level of trust was palpable.

My trip to Helsinki showed me that prioritising the environment and making sustainable choices does not come at a cost to the rest of society. In Finland, world leading environmental policy has not had such detrimental impacts as high unemployment or cuts in services elsewhere. Indeed, it clearly can improve the health - and wealth - of the country.

This author

Ruby Harbour is the editorial assistant at The Ecologist. 

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