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Finland puts sustainability top of the agenda

Living sustainably and in harmony with the environment is one of the core Finnish values.

Markus Sommers / Business Finland

With its green mindset and world-class research environment, Finland is generating sustainable solutions for various industries and fields of life.

Sustainability is so much more than a buzzword here in Finland. The country aims to transform itself into a “socially, economically and ecologically sustainable society by 2030”, and its long-term commitment to sustainable development is bearing fruit.

According to a voluntary agenda review published recently by the Prime Minister’s Office, the country has achieved or is close to achieving many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

With much still to be done and improved, all efforts count.

Leading the charge

On a global scale, Finland is one of the leaders in the transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources, which is well in line with its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2035. Finland was ranked third in this year’s Energy Transition Index by the World Economic Forum, which compared the energy sectors of 115 countries in terms of their readiness to adopt clean energy to meet climate targets.

Finnish business is on board too, doing its part in tackling the climate crisis by adopting green thinking and sustainable resource management practices. This year, six Finnish heavyweights made it to the Corporate Knights’ Global 100 list of the world’s most sustainable corporations. They are Neste, placed in the top three in the listing, Outotec, UPM-Kymmene, KONE, Metso and Kesko.

Renewable diesel produced by Neste (left) results in up to 90 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil diesel (right). Image: Neste

At the same time, inspiring planet-friendly solutions are emerging and being put in practice around the country, with the City of Lahti, the recipient of the European Green Capital Award 2021, at the forefront of urban sustainability. Lahti’s app-based trading scheme for personal traffic emissions, innovative solutions for waste management and water conservation efforts are some of the reasons why it was listed among the five most forward-thinking European cities earlier this year.

More exciting solutions can be found in the city of Tampere. Not only did Tampere Hall switch to renewable energy in November last year to become Finland’s first carbon neutral culture and congress centre, but it is also striving to compensate for any emissions caused by events with its own carbon sink, a newly planted forest area in neighbouring Lempäälä.

Finnish universities are also well placed to grapple with global challenges and contribute to social, environmental and economic wellbeing, according to the annual Impact Ranking by Times Higher Education. Actions taken by Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, the University of Turku, Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT, the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Oulu and the University of Jyväskylä to realise the UN’s SDGs were highlighted in the latest index.

In recent years, the contributions of universities and scientific research to the country’s sustainability have been on the rise. Here are some fresh research projects that are making a difference.

Green building

Buildings are a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions both during construction and throughout their life cycles. That’s why modernising the building and construction industry is a crucial step towards Finland’s climate goals.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Tampere University have recently joined forces in bringing together all industry players to quantify and control the carbon dioxide emissions of buildings. The initiative is part of a project called Build4Clima, which aims at establishing a carbon-neutral construction ecosystem.

“Our goal is a carbon-neutral and healthy building. In the best-case scenario, over the course of its lifetime, a building may even be able to trap more carbon than it emits,” stated Pekka Tuominen, senior scientist at VTT.

Another sustainable idea that was first developed with the commercial and residential construction sector in mind later proved the most efficient and commercially viable in greenhouse farming, while still holding high potential for the future transition to green building.

This spring, Pasi Herranen and his colleagues from Aalto University revealed a windowless plywood greenhouse that consumes 50 per cent less energy and a whopping 99 per cent less water than conventional alternatives. The secret lies in specially designed 36-centimetre-thick wall modules and the use of LED lights. On top of producing food, the invention can generate electricity and excess heat as a side product.

“There’s even enough excess heat to be distributed to others through the district heating grid,” noted Herranen.

Plastic-free future

The innovative material developed by VTT looks like and can be used similarly to plastic but is 100 per-cent environmentally friendly and recyclable. Image: VTT

Finnish research is also paying special attention to finding solutions to the global plastic waste crisis. Hence, the development of viable sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics, especially those used in packaging, is one of the priorities.

In April this year, VTT announced the development of a plastic-like material made from two completely renewable raw substances – cellulose and fatty acids – in co-operation with Arla Foods, Paulig and Wipak. The material is suitable for many purposes and can be used in food packaging similarly to plastic due to its thermoformable properties.

Also developed by VTT is a pioneering method of catching microplastics that are threatening the oceans and marine life. The nanocellulose-based method allows to detect and capture microplastics even before they enter waterways. The next step is to develop inexpensive filtration solutions capable of trapping the particles at source.

“The solutions could be utilised, for example, in laundry, where microplastic particles are released from fleece clothing and other synthetic fibres. Similarly, we could develop filtration methods for any industry where there is a risk of microplastics being generated and released into waterways,” envisioned Tekla Tammelin, research professor at VTT.

Metal recovery

Recently, VTT has also provided solutions to one more challenge that Europe is facing right now: sourcing critical and economically significant metals, such as cobalt, nickel and zinc. At the moment, the continent is largely dependent on imports.

The EU project coordinated by VTT has demonstrated that critical metals can be recovered profitably from low-grade ores and metal refining waste. In addition, a web-based calculator was produced in the project to help all stakeholders to explore options for utilising raw-material streams at local waste and energy prices.

“The potential of low-grade ores, wastes and side streams is now easier to discern as we know the kind of metal concentrations they have and which methods are suitable for recovering those metals,” told Päivi Kinnunen, the project coordinator at VTT.

By: Zhanna Koiviola