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How did Finland top the world ‘green’ league?

The global environmental performance index (EPI) is a product of research carried out by the US universities Yale and Columbia, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. For the past 15 years, it has ranked countries in order of overall ‘green’ accomplishment or intent, and is broadly regarded as the most credible such

Wind-Power-Green-Energy-Woman-Bike-Helmut-650Xenvironmental index in the world.

To compile the annual EPI world league table, data scientists aggregate the performance of individual nations in two main research areas; namely the protection of human environmental health, and the vitality of natural ecosystems. Under these umbrella categories, marks out of 100 are allotted for each of nine specific metrics, including biodiversity and habitat, fisheries, water and sanitation, air quality, agriculture, and health impacts. Scores are based on data gathered from observation of more than 20 key ‘indicators’, with such factors as access to safe drinking water, air pollution, household air quality, fish stocks, forestry replenishment, nitrogen balance and wastewater treatment taken into consideration.

The results of 2016’s EPI study placed Finland at the very top of the world rankings with an aggregated score of 90.68/100, narrowly edging out Iceland and Sweden for the title. European neighbours Denmark and Slovenia completed the top five, while the UK placed 12th, Australia 13th, and Canada and the USA came in at a relatively unspectacular 25th and 26th respectively. Plunging further down the list, Russia ranked 32nd, the UAE 92nd, and China 109th.

Of course, no country can realistically claim there isn’t still plenty of room for improvement – but even so, what exactly is Finland already doing that the rest of us aren’t?

First and foremost, the Finns have shown an admirable long-term commitment to achieving a carbon-neutral society since the turn of the millennium. As part of a broader dedication to “not exceeding nature’s carrying capacity” by 2050, the country’s government has legally bound itself in recent years to a goal of drawing 38% of all its consumed energy from renewable sources by 2020. Moreover, this is a target it’s already well on track to achieve: as things stand today, almost two-thirds of Finnish domestic electricity supply is drawn from renewable or nuclear sources.

Innovative steps towards cutting emissions have also contributed to Finland’s growing eco credentials, beginning in earnest back in 2008 with its Carbon Neutral Municipalities project. This ambitious programme challenged five Finnish localities to cut their total emissions by a massive 80% by 2030, thus staying well ahead of Finland’s national and EU targets.

In its first seven years, this programme – implemented through collaboration between local authorities, businesses, researchers and citizens – has featured various initiatives including extended waste-to-energy conversion schemes, extensive improvements and subsidies to public transport networks, greenhouse cultivation, biodiesel production, fish farming, and switching local heating systems to run on fossil-free biofuels such as woodchip pellets. Crucially, generous public funding has helped to kick-start the development of numerous solutions, inventories and monitoring systems, as well as delivering wide-ranging publicity campaigns to help drum up support from citizens.

Effective and environmentally sensitive waste management has been another huge success story in Finland over the past decade. In 2015, the percentage of waste going to landfill had been slashed to around one-sixth of 2005’s gross tonnage; nearly 90% of all municipal waste is now being reused, either through material recovery or generating renewable energy by incineration. Last year’s EPI study noted that, partly as a direct result of its excellent waste management programmes, Finland also performed very strongly in categories like water and sanitation, biodiversity and habitat, and overall health impacts.

It did still rank significantly less well in terms of both agriculture (87th) and forestry (106th, despite being one of Europe’s most densely forested nations). However, in these areas the EPI study also observed that Finland has “actionable goals and measurable indicators of sustainable development” in place for the immediate future. In particular, its valuable natural forestry resources are now being much more sensitively managed than they were for many decades previously, and the overall annual growth rate now finally exceeds the total timber harvest.

Finland is, in many respects, in something of a unique position when it comes to developing effective eco strategies. With the exception of those aforementioned trees, the nation has always had relatively limited wealth in terms of other natural resources – as such, there’s long been an embedded culture (both societal and industrial) of finding ways to do more with less. This is particularly apparent in its reputation for innovative ‘clean’ technologies, which have generally been driven not by demand for flashy consumer products, but by the need to develop energy efficient solutions for enabling sustainable business growth.

Most of all, though, it’s that powerful combination of clear, coherent government commitment and sufficient investment of public funds that has really pushed its programmes forward. This has in turn enabled significant educational and publicity outreach to bolster popular support for eco policy, and the net result has been a remarkable uptick in public support for the drive. Indeed, back in 2001, credible studies found that ‘Finns actively support environmental policy when it concerns industry, businesses and landowners, but when the policy instruments interfere with people’s own lives, support decreases radically.’ In 2015, prevailing Finnish mood showed a stark contrast: despite the nation’s already excellent performance in so many key areas, the fact that targets were being met ahead of time (and that there remained obvious scope for improvement in certain categories) led two-thirds of the population to classified themselves as being ‘increasingly concerned’ about climate change, and their government’s current set of policies to be ‘insufficiently ambitious’.

It looks as though those of us who don’t live in Iceland, Sweden, Denmark or Slovenia sure have some catching up to do – and we could definitely do a lot worse than taking some cues from our Scandinavian friends. In the meantime, Finland, we salute you: onneksi olkoon (congratulations)!

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