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The Finnish city aiming for carbon neutrality in just four years

RIGHT ROUTE: Downtown Lahti - Credit: Lauri Rotko

Lahti is leading the way in carbon reduction. So what lessons does it have for other cities?

As Finland’s ninth-largest city, with a population slightly smaller than Gloucester’s, Lahti is not used to being a capital. But this year is different.

The city – around 100km (60 miles) north of the country’s actual capital, Helsinki – is the European Green Capital for 2021, an accolade awarded by the European Union in recognition of its achievements in urban sustainability.

And at the heart of Lahti’s environmental vision is a startlingly ambitious target: to become carbon neutral in only four years time. For comparison, Finland’s national target is 2035, and the EU’s (like the UK’s) is 2050.

Yet with a range of measures, from ultra-modern bio-heating units to nannies teaching children the names of flowers, the city is confident it will achieve its aim and serve as an example to other communities across the continent.

Once a major engineering and manufacturing hub, Lahti’s economy suffered a severe dip in the 1990s, when unemployment soared. Although the economy has recovered since, the city is not among Finland’s most prosperous.

Mayor Pekka Timonen said that this meant Lahti could serve as a template for other places transitioning from industrial cities to modern, green communities. “If Lahti can go through this transformation, others can too.” He also pointed that most Europeans live in medium-sized cities like his own, which has a population of around 120,000.

With the green capital award (which was given to Bristol in 2015) comes 350,000 euros and a role as a green ambassador. So what climate-friendly ideas can Lahti teach other European communities? Here are five…

Welcome volunteers of all ages

Ten years ago, Helena Juutilainen, a grandmother of four and an eager environmentalist, got an idea: She wanted to volunteer as an environment nanny.

Juutilainen offered her services as a volunteer to the city of Lahti. “The city welcomed the idea without hesitation,” she said.

Since then, Juutilainen and a group of similar-minded senior men and women, have regularly visited Lahti’s nurseries to explore the nearby nature and teach the youngest citizens how to take good care of it.

“Pensioners have a lot of life experience to offer,” said Juutilainen, adding that the volunteers have different areas of expertise and interest that they share with the children in their own way. Some build hideouts in the woods, others recycle with the kids, and some have even taken them ice fishing.

Let local heroes show the way

To reach their goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral ice hockey team, Lahti Pelicans chill their ice rink with energy from renewable sources. The team has also stopped all air travel.

“The big idea here is to state an example,” the club’s head of communications Jesse Pykkö said. “We are in a position where we can have a great impact on ice hockey fans, other players and society in general.”

Another of the city’s high-profile cultural institutions, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, has worked towards becoming carbon neutral for six years already. In 2018 the orchestra was awarded the international Classical:NEXT innovation prize for its efforts, which include less printing of music and more planting of trees.

“If an orchestra somewhere in Finland can do this, anybody can,” the orchestra’s general manager Teemu Kirjonen said.

Reward citizens for climate-friendly actions

As the first personal carbon trading app in the world, Lahti’s CitiCAP app has attracted a lot of interest from other Finnish cities as well as from abroad.

The app tracks where you go and automatically detects whether you covered the distance on foot or by bike, car, bus or other modes of transportation. At the end of each week, you get to know whether or not you kept within your personal CO2 emission budget.

“If you manage to stay under budget, you are rewarded virtual euros that you can use for tickets to the swimming hall or the bus or to buy a puncture repair kit for your bicycle,” project manager Anna Huttunen from the city of Lahti explained.

The EU-funded pilot project lasted from June to December last year, with about 350 active users out of a total of 2,500 registered users, and the results were so good that Huttunen hoped to further develop the app in the future.

“The first version only considered transportation. It would be interesting to also measure the carbon footprint of other aspects of life, such as food,” she said.

Make money from production sidestreams

Sustainable thinking can also be good for businesses, as members of the region’s Päijät-Häme grain cluster have experienced.

More than 3,000 people are employed within the cluster at farms, mills and malting facilities and in the production and retail of foodstuffs such as bread and beer. In close cooperation with local researchers, the member companies seek out the newest green innovations and circular economy solutions.

“Together we can develop synergies and engage in projects that each company would not be able to do on its own,” said Jarkko Arrajoki, chairman of the grain cluster, and managing director of Fazer Mills Finland.

The grain cluster companies have invested more than hundreds of millions of euros in new facilities in the area.

Fazer, one of Finland’s largest food industry companies, is now expanding its oat mill in Lahti, and later this spring a new factory will start production of the sweetener xylitol from oat hulls, a side product from a neighbouring mill. It will be powered by a bio heating facility that is also located in the factory area and is fuelled mainly by oat hull mass, a side product from the xylitol production.

Give access to clean water and fresh air

Lake Vesijärvi is of great recreational value for the citizens of Lahti. The lake is also filled with high-quality food fish. Half a century ago, however, nobody wanted to swim, fish, or even sail in the filthy water.

“If you would take a walk around the harbour in the 1970s, you would see a lake filled with not only blue-green algae but also floating faeces and condoms and other garbage,” Heikki Mäkinen, programme director at the Lake Vesijärvi Foundation, said.

It was clear to everyone that something had to be done. After minimising the pollution from wastewater, industry and fields, the next important step was biomanipulation of the ecosystem by increasing the fishery of small fish and stocking predatory fish. Less small fish means more zooplankton that will then eat more of the algae, and thus restore the food chain and ecosystem.

The restoration of the 100 km2 Lake Vesijärvi has since been used as a model for more than a thousand similar projects in Finland and abroad. The visible transformation of the citizens’ immediate environment was crucial in sparking the awareness and decade-long green activism in Lahti, Mäkinen said.

Lahti also invests in clean air: Thanks to a new bio-heating plant that produces 100% renewable energy, the municipal energy provider Lahti Energia could put a total stop to coal-fired energy in 2019.

The switch is one of the cornerstones in Lahti’s aspiration to be carbon neutral by 2025. It cuts the city’s carbon emissions by 600,000 tonnes a year, corresponding to a reduction of over 70%, said production director Esa Tepponen.

“Our main principle is to always use the best available technology, focusing on energy efficiency and environmental friendliness,” Tepponen noted.

“Sure, we could have found a cheaper solution by burning fossil fuels like natural gas, but this is an environmental investment and well worth it.”

Finland’s Windy City

Lahti has long been known as the ‘Chicago of Finland’, since both are built on lake shores and emerged as ‘slaughterhouse cities’, providing industry to serve large rural hinterlands. In the past, both have also suffered from reputations for criminality – ill-deserved, say locals, but another sign that this city with such green ambitions has a grittier side.

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