A professor of environmental and resource economics at the University of Helsinki, Markku Ollikainen, has chaired the Finnish Climate Change Panel since 2014. Over the years, the panel has produced several reports and analyses on climate change mitigation and climate adaptation, with the objective of planning and building a sustainable future.

Can you describe the ‘big picture’ climate change scenario in just one sentence? 

“The world is warming, leading to dramatic changes in ecosystems, weather, and sea levels, which makes it difficult to live in many areas and just plain miserable in others, which in turn leads to great financial costs for many countries. This is our future, if we do not stop the warming.”

The Paris Agreement reached a consensus to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. A second IPCC report urged countries to be even bolder. Why the change?

“I remember this well because I participated in the Paris Climate Agreement negotiations in 2015. Already then, the delegations from small island states and some African countries were saying that we cannot allow a two-degree temperature increase because it would have catastrophic results. They insisted the IPCC carry out on a follow-up analysis to compare the impact of a global temperature increase of two degrees with that of 1.5 degrees. The 1.5 degree report contained truly shocking results. 

It established that the damages from climate change are many times higher if we allow just that half-degree difference: Coral reefs would be doomed, Arctic ice cover will melt more rapidly, and we would see a severe loss of biodiversity, as many more species would go extinct.” 

Have these alarming predictions been enough to hasten climate change mitigation efforts? 

“There is still strong opposition, even in countries that are signatories to the agreement. But among those countries that take the threat seriously, the 1.5 target has definitely speeded up planning. I would say that about one-third of countries do not take climate change seriously, so the key question for us now is how to break this resistance and motivate them to make the necessary changes.” 

What will convince countries that are resisting the measures?

“The truth is that clean solutions are not only a win for the climate, they are also a win for the economy. The EU, for example, should capitalize on this rationale. If we can show how new alternatives in reality economically outperform fossil fuels, we will be on our way to solving the problem.

Market rules apply even in countries that are against climate policy. Once they find that cleaner methods are easier and cheaper, they will adapt them, no matter what leaders may say.”

What was your first impression when you heard Mayor Jan Vapaavuori announce that the City of Helsinki was launching the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a competition that would award one million euros to whoever could devise a coal-free and biomass-free heating solution for Finland’s capital?

“I was very, very happy! I think it is an excellent idea. It’s a very encouraging concept as well, as it reinforces the point that we really need something radically new to replace coal. The Finnish Climate Change Panel has been saying for years that we need to move beyond burning, and then, an important political decision maker took up our cause. It was a wonderful surprise.”

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Why do you feel biomass is not an acceptable substitute for coal and peat?

“Using wood energy is not a clean or sustainable solution. We don’t have enough wood residue biomass in Finland to heat our big cities, so we would have to start cutting down trees to meet demand. This would reduce our carbon sink. We have to remember that wood is a finite resource and the forest industry makes the best use for it in the production of highly value-added products. There are many more reasons to avoid the burning of biomass, but in Finland, this is one of the most important.” 

What are the benefits of arranging this kind of open challenge on a global scale?

“I would imagine that a multidisciplinary competition like this will give us a whole range of solutions to choose from. Many different kinds of researchers and companies will be able to work together in teams to come up with innovations.”

Are you looking forward to being a part of the Helsinki Energy Challenge jury? 

“Oh yes. I’m very keen to see what the competition participants will produce. My work requires that I have a general sense of what is on the horizon, because so much of climate policy is related to new solutions. Working with the other members of the jury will also be rewarding, as there are both scientists and social scientists like me, so we will be approaching the subject from a well-rounded perspective.”

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Do you foresee that other cities might follow Helsinki’s lead and arrange similar competitions? 

“The Helsinki Energy Challenge is a very good example, so I certainly hope so. We need to find local solutions to global problems, in an innovative way, so I could imagine this will be the case. Cities like Copenhagen and Paris have launched some great initiatives when it comes to waste management and the like, so they might be quite open to this type of global challenge.

The competition itself is also a bargain: A successful idea will earn back the one million euros in no time, and the prize itself will encourage innovators and scientists, which will also create a general boosting effect. For this reason alone, I really hope that other cities would follow in Helsinki’s footsteps.”

What do you see as the potential impact of the Helsinki Energy Challenge?

“Some forty million tonnes of coal and peat are currently being burned in Finland, and we must eliminate it all if we wish to become carbon-neutral. If Helsinki were to find a solution, it would be a big win for the planet. 

In terms of overall impact, if Helsinki were to find good solutions, it could also transfer them to cities in other countries such as Germany and Poland that have much bigger problems with coal. 
If some of the competition entries provide good solutions for improving demand elasticity or energy efficiency, these ideas would also be helpful across the globe, particularly, for example, in the UK. These are the likely ways the Helsinki Energy Challenge will go on to have a worldwide impact.”

Text: Pamela Kaskinen

Visit the website www.energychallenge.hel.fi to learn more about the Helsinki Energy Challenge.