The Sustainable Development Discussion Forum sought ways to accelerate climate work

The international discussion event at City Hall sought ways to support cities in coping with global crises, offering hope and new research knowledge instead of pessimism. The message was clear: decision-makers do not have time to dither.
Panelists at the Sustainable Cities Discussion Forum on June 13 2024.
Program director Erkki Perälä Demos from Helsinki, Janne Hukkinen, Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Helsinki, and Hanna Wesslin, Climate Director of the City of Helsinki, participated in the panel discussion of the Sustainable Cities Discussion Forum. The discussion was moderated by Denise Wall. Photo: Ilkka Ranta-aho

Collaboration, research data, knowledge of human nature and imagination – those are what we need when solving the climate crisis and other significant sustainability issues.

Collaboration, imagination and psychology were also highlighted by Janne Hukkinen, Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Helsinki, who was the keynote speaker at the discussion event held at City Hall. The event was part of the Sustainable Cities Discussion Forum discussion series.

According to Hukkinen, he is an optimistic realist, despite the fact that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has conveyed alarming and urgent information about global warming. Over the past 15 years, climate change has accelerated. Scientists’ scenarios show a four-degree rise in earth’s temperature, while the goal has been to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees.

Instead of fomenting pessimism, we need ways to convince decision-makers that action needs to be taken now. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will become to remedy the situation.

The success of sustainable solutions is largely about what cities and their communities do.

A major question is how to increase understanding and launch effective action when results are only visible in the longer term – and, at the same time, how to adapt to the changes.

Hukkinen pointed out that information must be provided in a way that reaches the emotional level and leaves room for imagination. Researchers must be able to propose alternative solutions.

Janne Hukkinen.
Janne Hukkinen. Photo: Ilkka Ranta-aho

Policy Operations Room supports operations

Hukkinen gave an example of collaboration: at the Policy Operations Room (POR), decision-makers try to make decisions and act like they would in a real crisis. At the same time, researchers receive information about decisions. In Helsinki, such a POR exercise was carried out for the first time in 2019. 

In order to support decision-making and understand the scenario, a video was created, displaying the streets of the centre of Helsinki filled with water after a flood, and the water rising higher against the buildings. The scenario was not that far-fetched because a flood took over Copenhagen in 2011.

Hukkinen said that he had received important feedback on the video. The water is blue in the video, but in reality it would be brown as sewage water would mix with the water rising in the streets during a huge flood.

The video was a good illustration of how threatening images can spur action. During the POR exercise in Helsinki, the sewage network emerged as one of the issues to be solved. It is possible to search for a solution based on how thoroughly we prepare for a threat.

Hukkinen emphasised how important it is to get experts and decision-makers to discuss scenarios on equal grounds and discuss alternative futures together.

“It’s OK to steal Helsinki’s ideas”

As Mayor Juhana Vartiainen and the City of Helsinki’s Climate Director Hanna Wesslin pointed out at the event, the city has tightened its climate targets. In 2019, Helsinki was also the first city in Europe and the second in the world to report on the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Helsinki’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased at a record pace last year, with the exception of traffic. Thanks to the closure of the Hanasaari coal-fired power plant, district heating emissions in Helsinki decreased by a record 35% from the previous year. Emissions from electricity consumption also decreased by 23%. In construction, the city is introducing carbon footprint control.  

Juhana Vartiainen.
Juhana Vartiainen. Photo: Ilkka Ranta-aho

When opening the discussion event, Juhana Vartiainen explained how Helsinki puts emphasis on renovation and the development of the existing built environment in its urban planning. The railway network is expanding, and housing production includes a wide variety of dwellings.

“We invite everyone to explore our ideas, and it’s even OK to steal them. We are happy to share them,” Vartiainen said to his cheerful audience.

Helsinki participates in the NetZeroCities project

Erkki Perälä from the Demos Helsinki think tank told the panel discussion at the event that the city’s decision-makers understand how necessary collaboration is. Collaboration is needed beyond cities at the national and EU level. For example, comprehensive legislation is needed to reduce traffic emissions.

Perälä is currently working as a team lead for the NetZeroCities project. The project supports Europe in achieving its climate neutrality goals. Helsinki is one of the cities involved and has launched a pilot aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the district heating system.

For decision-makers, the situation is not easy as the issues to be resolved are complex and affect different groups in different ways. One good example is traffic, whose emissions must be controlled. How and to whom should road areas be planned and made available so that the solutions would also be socially sustainable and fair?

Large new infrastructure projects take time and cost and cannot be created without emissions. At the same time, we must be able to adapt to and prepare for climate change.

Sustainability researchers gathering in Helsinki

The Sustainable Cities discussion event was organised by the City of Helsinki on 13 June in collaboration with the Sustainability Research and Innovation 2024 Congress.

The Sustainable Cities events monitor how the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed eight years ago are being met. Nearly 200 countries agreed to these targets at the time. In addition to ecological sustainability, the 2030 Agenda includes social, cultural and economic sustainability goals. A year ago, the discussion at City Hall focused on the urgency of climate work, and the previous discussion addressed decent work. This time, the topic was sustainable cities and communities.

Sustainability Research and Innovation is the world’s largest science event to promote research and innovation for sustainable development. It was organised by the University of Helsinki and Aalto University together with the Sustainability Science Days (SSD) science event last week. Taking place for the first time in Europe, the event brought together sustainability experts and researchers from more than a 100 countries.

Author: Kirsi Riipinen
Photos: Ilkka Ranta-aho