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View from Brussels: Finland’s ideas to save the world

Finland took over the rotating presidency of the EU this month and wants to use its stint to inject a hearty dose of sustainability into how things are done in Brussels and beyond. There’s a number of projects coming out of the country that could be game-changers.

For the next six months, Finland will coordinate the work of the EU Council, the institution where the 28 member countries meet to make decisions and sign off on new laws. It could be a busy period for the Finns, what with new job appointments and Brexit on the agenda.

There is also the not-insignificant task of brokering an agreement on a landmark climate plan that is supposed to make Europe’s economy compliant with the Paris Agreement. The likes of Poland and Hungary will need some serious cajoling.

So the Finns are leading by example in order to set the right tone. During its presidency, meetings will be held in one place, rather than around the country, in order to cut the carbon footprint and make things more efficient.

They’re also scrapping plastic bottles of water, dispensing with the usual goodie bags for visiting dignitaries and spending its budget on offsetting the flights of officials that have to come to Helsinki for various meetings.

Finnish projects not tied to the presidency also give the rest of us food for thought, in areas like transport, clothing and energy storage.

In the city of Lahti, 60 miles from the capital, the local authorities are about to trial a personal emissions trading scheme for residents that want to do something about their climate guilt.

Based around an innovative app developed by a number of Finland’s universities, the Lahti system will allocate a carbon budget to participants based on where they live, what they do and how many children they have.

That budget will renew every week and the app will automatically log how the user gets around, deducting units from the budget for every car journey and, to a lesser extent, every public transport trip made.

Conscientious Lahti residents stand to gain something more than just a sense of satisfaction, too. The authorities have teamed up with a number of local service providers, from gyms to coffee houses, to offer rewards via an online marketplace.

 

Users can spend their leftover budget on yoga classes, free cappuccinos or even bus rides.

Researchers at Helsinki’s Aalto University have also turned their efforts towards improving energy storage by reducing the amount of precious materials needed for batteries. Work is ongoing, but they hope to present significant results soon.

Other Aalto experts also want to make fashion more sustainable and have developed a way of spinning textile fibres from wood pulp.

Unsurprisingly in a country famed for its bioeconomy, Aalto researchers wanted to perfect a process that cuts down on water and pesticide use, which is the major drawback of cotton production, and address microplastic concerns, which are linked to synthetic fibres.

The process and solutions developed at Aalto are currently being scaled up in order to convince industrial players that wood-based clothing can compete with more established options.

Garments made using the ‘Ioncell’ material, which its developers claim is stronger than, but as soft as cotton, have been sported around the necks and shoulders of Finland’s president, as well as Emmanuel Macron.

The researchers are now working on how to reduce the energy consumption of the process and to keep the intellectual property rights out of the hands of market players that would only try to bury the idea.

So Finland is thinking big by focusing on seemingly small issues. Add the above projects to other enterprises that want to eliminate plastic waste and heat our homes using renewable energy and you get a very vibrant, sustainable picture.

It will be fascinating to look back in six months time to see whether the Finns have the same influence over their EU counterparts.

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