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Programme directors: Science meets municipal elections – promoting a systemic change towards sustainability

11 May 2021

Strategic research aims at building an active dialogue with society and policymakers. Elections are an opportunity to bring attention to the kinds of important issues that the scientific community is also committed to tackling. The Strategic Research Council (SRC) set out to increase mutual understanding about the key themes of the 2021 municipal elections by hosting four discussion sessions under the title “Science meets municipal elections” between 24 and 31 March 2021. The discussions saw scientists and politicians debating the big issues affecting the development of Finnish local authorities. The first two sessions focused on the systemic change towards sustainability that is taking place in small and medium-sized local authorities and the energy systems of large local authorities.

Local inventive solutions in a key role in smaller local authorities’ approach to creating a systemic change towards sustainability

The first discussion session was moderated by Reetta Räty, and it focused on ways to create a systemic change towards sustainability in small and medium-sized local authorities. Minna Halme (FINIX project) and Silja Keränen (Green League, Kajaani) kicked off the session with a debate on recycling and circular economy. The discussion focused on the role of small, local inventive solutions. Schemes designed to promote the recycling of local authorities’ movable property, such as furniture, and to lengthen the useful life of digital devices could unlock a range of circular economy benefits.

Minna Kaljonen (JUST FOOD project) and Tiina Perho (National Coalition Party, Loimaa) moved the discussion on to the role of local authorities in promoting a transition to a sustainable food system. Finland’s national school meals system is a fountain of wellbeing – a diamond that just needs a little well intentioned polishing. One way to do this is to educate children and young people about food and nutrition. Incentivising local production and consumption is also important.

Lasse Peltonen (CORE project) and Teijo Liedes (Left Alliance, Ii) brainstormed ways to get the public involved in the transition towards sustainability. Promoting sustainability is a long-term project. Environmentally conscious decision-makers play a key role. Local authorities need to create opportunities for a dialogue relating to the transition towards sustainability and encourage local residents to get involved in solution-orientated activities.

Paavo Järvensivu (WISE project) and Timo Kaunisto (Centre Party, Hämeenlinna) debated the management of municipal sustainability actions. All decisions and actions ultimately need to be based on long-term sustainability goals. Too much importance is attached to growth strategies and the economy at the moment and not enough to ecological parameters. In order to promote sustainability, concrete examples of new solutions (such as increasing the use of biogas) need to be provided. From the perspective of the public, it is important for the impact of these kinds of actions to be “felt in the purse” or reflected in outlooks for the future.

The agility of smaller local authorities was a horizontal theme in the debates of the first session. Smaller local authorities are in a great position to experiment with new solutions on a small scale. For this they need the scientific community to provide them with enough data to turn theory into practice.

Scale is a stumbling block for energy systems and land use solutions in large cities

Hanna Säntti moderated a discussion into the issue of scale in the development of energy systems and land use solutions in large cities. Seppo Junnila (SmartLand project) argued that a denser urban structure does nothing to rein in climate change without a commitment to a carbon-neutral land use policy and construction techniques. Mia Haglund (Left Alliance, Helsinki) saw benefits in using existing infrastructure to promote denser development in the vicinity of railway stations. However, strict parameters need to be agreed for smart energy solutions, and a shift from experimentation to full-scale implementation needs to be effected.

A debate between Jani Lukkarinen (SET project) and Tiina Rytky (Social Democratic Party of Finland, Helsinki) focused on the promotion of new heating solutions and investments in the energy performance of buildings. Both agreed that emissions from district heating systems can be reduced by increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and by introducing technologies such as geothermal heat pumps. However, the transition requires thoroughly thought-out solutions and cost-effective subsidies, as well as practical implementation guides.

Joni Markkula (EL-TRAN project) and Markku Hamilo (Finns Party, Helsinki) both saw the electrification of transport as an inevitable development. Markkula emphasised the role of municipal policies and investments in promoting the use of electric cars, while Hamilo took the position that the winning technology should be left to the market to decide.

Armi Temmes (SET project) and Tiina Elo (Green League, Espoo) explored ways to make local authorities carbon neutral. The debaters agreed that it is essential for local authorities to set concrete emission reduction targets and to track progress as well as to authorise investments in building heating systems and the electrification of transport. Efficient public transport is needed to discourage private car use. Local authorities also have an important role to play in getting local residents involved and providing advice on, for example, home investments to promote carbon-neutral choices and pave the way towards carbon neutrality.

The scalability of solutions for large cities was recognised as a particular challenge. A wide variety of solutions are needed due to the sprawling nature of cities. There are limits to urban density, and geothermal heat pumps are not a feasible option in all neighbourhoods. Electric transport infrastructure also needs to fit in with different urban conditions. This makes tracking the energy and land use policies of cities a demanding task. What is needed is not just verified data but also efficient ways to educate the public about the direction of development and the solutions put in place.

The second part of the “Science meets municipal elections” blog will be published in mid-May.

The authors are directors of SRC programmes:

Mikael Hildén, A Climate-Neutral and Resource-Scarce Finland (PIHI)
Heli Koski, Disruptive Technologies and Changing Institutions (TECH)
Kaisa Korhonen-Kurki, Changing Society and Active Citizenship (CITIZEN) and Adaptation and Resilience for Sustainable Growth (ADAPT)
Helena Kahiluoto, Towards a Sustainable, Healthy and Climate-Neutral Food System (FOOD) and The Changing Role of Public Authority and the Potential for Steering Society (STEER)
Asta Salmi, Innovative Materials and Services to Promote Resource Wisdom and Sustainable Development (IMPRES)

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