Urban sustainability in Finland 2030 – reality or illusion?

27 maalis 2017

More than half the world’s population lives in cities or towns, in areas that can be defined as urban. By 2030 it is estimated that 6 out of 10 people will be urban dwellers (UN, 2017). The world’s cities occupy just 3 per cent of the land area, but account up to 80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions (UN, 2017). Climate change, based on carbon emissions, is by far the most pressing global environmental problem that we face today.

As carbon emissions emitted by urban areas are one of the root causes of climate change, urban sustainability have become a priority in countries across the globe. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs, a key component of the new global sustainability 2030 Agenda, comprising 17 overarching goals and 169 targets of sustainable development to be achieved by 2030, guides the world in its ambitions to achieve urban sustainability. The SDGs accentuate the vital role cities have on a global scale. The importance of local governments (and local policies) is emphasized in particular by SDG Nr 11, ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.

The report on the implementation of Agenda 2030 in Finland accentuates that the preconditions for making Finnish cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, are excellent (Agenda 2030 in Finland, 2016). While Finland may have excellent preconditions to meet global urban sustainability 2030 targets, there are also goals still to work with – such as reducing the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities and implementing integrated policies and plans towards resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

The contextual setting for urban sustainability in Finland can in general be described as challenging. Implementation of local work for sustainability is only to a limited degree binding for cities in Finland, the state has left the work to cities, at best steering this development with (positive) economic support and non-binding law. Up till now, the local work for sustainability in Finland has been reliant on ad-hoc based activity, often driven by a group of pro-active cities. Pro-active cities engage voluntarily in local sustainability thru participation in e.g. project activity, which provide a just-in-time collaborative platform on which to enable sustainability activities and promote policy development. For example, only about 15 per cent of Finnish cities work with local climate change goals, 12 larger cities within the European policy tool Covenant of Mayors and additional 35 smaller local governments within the national HINKU-network. As all major cities are working with local climate change goals, a majority of the citizens are included in this work.

Finland is a forerunner in relation to sustainability activities, and is one of the first countries to adopt a National Strategy for Sustainable Development. Finland is praised for its broad-based multi-stakeholder participation process that aspires to engage the society in sustainability efforts. This is illustrated by the 2050 Commitment, where authorities, individuals, NGOs, associations, businesses are asked to commit to sustainability. Yet, when it comes to urban sustainability, Finland relies on the voluntary engagement of a few cities. The work on urban sustainability is not regular, involving the broad field of cities. There is a general scarcity of suitable local indicators in Finland, and a lack of use of the available indicators. A systematic monitoring of the sustainability progress is a necessity as to urban sustainability is to become a reality and not stay as an illusion.

Sam Grönholm is a PhD candidate and project researcher at Åbo Akademi University, Department of Political Science.


Agenda 2030 in Finland: Key questions and indicators of sustainable development:


Covenant of Mayors: http://www.covenantofmayors.eu/index_en.html

HINKU Network: http://www.hinku-foorumi.fi/fi-FI

UN data: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/cities/

2050 Commitment: https://commitment2050.fi/