Climate action: time to scale up

The Finnish presidency of the Council of the EU will place the fight against climate change high on its agenda. One of the challenges will be to unite the 28 Member States around this fight and focus on the opportunities that a more sustainable Europe can provide for economic, social and environmental progress. 

To underline the importance of this topic, the EESC organised a seminar on Concrete measures to combat climate change in the new EU term 2019-2024, held on 6 June in Helsinki as part of an extraordinary meeting of its bureau.

EESC president Luca Jahier stressed in his opening remarks that the EU elections had demonstrated that concern about climate change was a top concern for many voters.

There is an urgency to take action on climate change, since we are already feeling its impact. The transition towards a sustainable economy is also an opportunity. To succeed in this transition we need to maintain the competitiveness of our enterprises and encourage R&D. We must include all sectors and civil society, and maintain a permanent citizens' dialogue to avoid anybody being left behind, said Mr Jahier. 

In her contribution, Liisi Klobut, deputy head of unit for international and EU affairs at the Ministry for the Environment, set out the Finnish presidency's three priorities for a sustainable Europe:

  • The fight against climate change
  • The transition towards a circular economy
  • Halting the loss of biodiversity. 

Finland is aware that the question of how to achieve the 2050 goals is dividing Member States and that there is still a lot of persuading to do. The Finnish presidency is prepared to lead the discussion and take it to several sectoral councils, she said.

Another priority of Finland's presidency is to make progress on the Long-Term Strategies (LTS) on reducing emissions, with a view to achieving an agreement in the European Council. Then we should also start to enhance the EU Emission Trading System, proposed Ms Klobut.

The keynote speaker of the thematic debate on Climate investment - drivers and enablers was Niklas von Weymarn, CEO at Metsä Spring, the venture arm of the Metsä Group, a Finnish company working in the forest-based bio-economy, which employs 9 000 people with a yearly turnover of EUR 5.7 billion.

Between 2015 and 2018, the group invested EUR 2 billion in new factories, and it aims to:

  • increase the amount of CO2 storage in forests and products;
  • stop using fossil fuels;
  • stop using fossil raw materials.

Mr von Weymarn stressed that it was crucial for industries to have legal certainty. He is in favour of a market economy where regulation leaves room for developing win-win solutions serving both the environment and the economy.

The debate on the Circular economy as a lever for innovative climate solutions was introduced by Oras Tynkkynen, senior advisor at the Finnish innovation fund Sitra.

Most materials are only used once in Europe, Mr Tynkkynen said, drawing attention to how much was wasted:

  • Cars are standing still around 92-98% of the time
  • Offices are empty 60% of the time
  • 1/3 of food still ends up in the rubbish bin, 
  • Around 80% of the nitrogen and 25-75% of the phosphorus in food are wasted.

In order to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy, we need to both scale up existing solutions and research new ones. Look at the Greta effect and how it has reinvigorated the climate debate. We would need a similar push from public opinion for the circular economy, said Mr Tynkkynen.

Policy can be the driver of innovation, e.g. by implementing the right pricing mechanism or the necessary regulation. The biggest impediment, however, is the lack of political action, stressed Mr Tynkkynen.

Regarding consumer protection in the circular economy, Mr Tynkkynen proposed the introduction of a product passport indicating the product makeup, so that it can be easily recycled or reused. We also need the right amount of regulation in order to protect consumers. Introducing standards is an important task for the incoming Commission. We need to get the framework right, Mr Tynkkynen concluded.

Pia Björkbacka, adviser on international affairs at the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), was the inspirational speaker of the thematic session on A just transition to a climate-neutral economy.

The EU has to show strong leadership. It has to invest and reform its agriculture and forest industry. Its climate and energy policy must be beefed up and its midterm energy strategy updated. Fairly priced energy must be available to everyone.

Uncertainty about jobs is difficult for citizens. Workers and their families should not be left alone to face this change. The future of workers dependent on industry has to be safeguarded. Therefore, a fair transition must not only be part of the climate strategy, but also of other legislation from the Commission and of the Social Pillar, stressed Ms Björkbacka.

Wrapping up the seminar, EESC member Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala said that the EU must be the frontrunner when it comes to climate action and show leadership in engaging other global leaders. If nobody is following you, you're not leading but merely walking.

The message to take away from the seminar is that we must scale up and act, and that civil society needs to be actively involved in shaping policy.

In Finland, we do not have a famous climate activist like Greta, but we have people like Niklas, Pia and Oras who work day in, day out to improve our environment. We believe in the power of incremental daily actions by all members of society. And we also believe in dialogue and cooperation between all the stakeholders of our society, concluded Ms Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala.