Sustainable change is about people and narratives

No matter if you are transforming a former industrial city into a European Green Capital, designing national climate policy to achieve carbon-neutrality, or working on social sustainability in rural communities, one thing is clear: Climate policies must be about the people. This was the red thread of the debate at Nordregio Forum 2021 about the socially just green transition.

World’s first carbon-neutral symphony orchestra

The narrative. Several times during Pekka Timonen’s presentation of Lahti’s transformation from a polluting industrial city to one of the Nordic countries’ greenest, the mayor mentioned the importance of telling a compelling story.

“In fact, the story is the most important thing,” Timonen asserts. “Lahti’s journey to becoming the European Green Capital and a global leader in sustainable city development is a long story. It’s a story about a long-term commitment to very ambitious environmental targets, but it’s also a story of creating a better city for the people.”

Timonen’s presentation started with a perfect example of this, a video showing Lahti’s Environmental Director, Elina Ojala, still wearing her jacket, walking straight into the once heavily polluted Lake Vesijärvi. She dives into the water and goes for a swim while telling the tale of the lake’s restoration. From being a place where the city dumped its wastewater and industrial waste, the lake is now a popular destination for the city’s inhabitants.

“The city and the community already cleaned the lake, which makes it the perfect example of the results we can achieve together,” says Timonen. Lahti also boasts the world’s first carbon-neutral symphony orchestra and professional hockey team – which has helped convey the message. ”A sustainable city must be a better city for all. It’s not about facts and figures; it’s about how people feel about their city and the opportunities it provides.”

The green transition – a chance to lead

Chair of the Swedish Climate Policy Council Johan Kuylenstierna went through some of the Nordic countries’ characteristics and their ability to assume leadership of a socially sustainable green transition. Also, here, the narrative about the Nordics comes into play. While renowned for their sustainability approach, the countries still have relatively high emissions per capita, especially when consumption emissions are included.

“We certainly have a high level of emissions, but we also have some of the world’s most ambitious decoupling strategies,” says Kuylenstierna, also pointing to the diversity of the Nordic industry as an advantage. “We have heavy industry, forestry, agriculture, high-tech industries, services, and even the oil and gas industry. In many ways, this diversity reflects the rest of the world. On top of that, Nordic countries are top performers of innovation and entrepreneurship, which will be fundamental for developing the new economy.”

“Therefore, Nordic countries possess a lot of abilities and opportunities to take on a leadership role,” Kuylenstierna concludes. “However, this also implies that we must address some of the fundamental challenges associated with developing effective policies.”

Among the main issues highlighted at the event were spatial planning and land-use conflicts, for instance, related to new solar or wind power installations and the issue of consumption-based emissions.

“We are a globalised economy, and whatever we do here has implications in other parts of the world,” says Kuylenstierna. “One thing that we cannot accept in terms of effective policies is if we export our emissions to other parts of the world.”

Acceptance from society is key

Concerning the green transition in the Region, the key question will be how the countries can manage the conflicts that will arise when transferring from one economy to another.

“It will not be an easy transition, and it will not just be about technology,” Kuylenstierna says and refers to his work at the Swedish Climate Policy Council. “Our role is to evaluate Swedish policies related to the climate targets. Interestingly, our work is not just about the technologies and the decisions related to the transition. It’s becoming more and more about the acceptance of society and the socio-economic dimensions of the transition.”

Anna Karlsdóttir, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio, says that some of the decisions made in the Nordic Region in recent months have made this debate more relevant than ever. One example is Greenland’s decision to stop issuing new oil and gas exploration licences and ban uranium mining.

”I want to highlight this courageous decision by the Greenland Government,” says Karlsdóttir. She is the project manager of Nordregio’s project A just green transition in rural areas: local benefits from value creation. The project will be analysing the effects of the shift on rural areas, looking into the possibilities for job creation and innovation, local value creation, and the wellbeing and attractiveness of rural communities.

“The decision will have spatial implications for the rural areas of southern Greenland because it means that business development will be directed in a different direction. On the positive side, however, we already see a reorientation in innovative activities and entrepreneurship, which will benefit these areas. In our work, it’s important that we look into how we can rural-proof this green transition.”

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