Confronting Climate Change in Small European states: Experiences from Finland and Ireland

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Antto Vihma / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Antto Vihma / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Diarmuid Torney / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Diarmuid Torney / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Mikael Hildén / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Mikael Hildén / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä

Fri 26.8.2016 at 9:00-10:30
The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruunuvuorenkatu 4, 2nd Floor, Helsinki

The landmark Paris Agreement sets a global goal of achieving a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and sinks by the second half of this century. This will require deep decarbonisation across economic sectors over the coming decades. Small European states face particular challenges and opportunities. They may see themselves as being irrelevant to global greenhouse gas emissions and more susceptible to a ‘race to the bottom’ on environmental policy due to being more open to international competition. On the other hand, their small populations may be better equipped to sustain collective action on climate change, and they may be well placed for competitive advantages in new technologies and industries. Both Finland and Ireland have recently introduced climate change laws and are moving ahead with developing national strategies for mitigation and adaptation. What are the common and distinct climate policy challenges the two countries are facing? What do these experiences look like in the broader context of the EU response to climate change?


Dr Diarmuid Torney, Lecturer, Dublin City University

Prof Mikael Hildén, Director, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE)


DrAntto Vihma, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Summary of the seminar

Dr Antto Vihma opened the seminar. He pointed out that in the public discussion, small states are sometimes seen as somewhat irrelevant. However, it is interesting to think about their role which is more ambiguous than that of great powers. China and the US are about to ratify the Paris agreement, but in Europe there are concerns about a race to the bottom between smaller states, although they also have the capacity to act as front-runners on some policy fields.

Dr Diarmuid Torney explained that the focus of his current research, carried out in collaboration with academics from European small states, was on the responses of small states to the challenge of climate change. He remarked that the climate issue presents small states with both opportunities and challenges. The opportunities have to do with the smaller administration of smaller states, their more consensual political system, smaller population, and small open economies. On the other hand, the challenges are related to the perception that the actions of smaller states are but a "drop in the ocean”, that the small open economies can lead to a "race to the bottom”, and that these states have less economic diversity and therefore are sometimes more reliant on GHG-heavy industries. How does this balance play out in different national contexts? Dr Torney now turned in his presentation to the challenge facing Ireland.

For an industrialised country, agriculture represents an unusually high share (33.1%) of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, although quite a modest share of the Irish economy is accounted for by agriculture. Not only are Ireland’s projected emissions not meeting the annual EU targets, but they are actually going in the wrong direction. Moreover, the share of agriculture and transport of non-ETS sector emissions is growing. By 2020, they are projected to account for over three quarters of the emissions that must be reduced under the EU’s effort sharing decision. However, all the other sectors are making progress in decreasing emissions, Dr Torney noted.

Dr Torney then discussed the Irish policy response, concentrating on the fields of energy, transport and agriculture. In electricity generation, Ireland is doing relatively well and is headed in the right direction with regard to the target on the deployment of renewables. These are mainly wind power, which however faces some local opposition. Transport is more problematic for Ireland with its dispersed urban populations, low penetration of public transport, and with the recovering economy, increasing transport emissions. As for the agricultural sector, there are plans to further expand it, yet abatement potential is limited in this field. For example in milk production, a 50% increase is planned in the next years. Like Finland, Ireland adopted a climate change act in 2015. It involves a five-year planning process for mitigation and adaptation, and the establishment of a Climate Change Advisory Council. The Irish Minister for Climate Change and sectoral ministers have an obligation to report to the parliament annually. Yet, the Irish climate act includes no specific longer-term targets for GHG reduction.

In conclusion, Dr Torney summarised the outlook for climate politics in Ireland. In the Irish debate, the narrative is strong about the marginal contribution of a small state like Ireland. There exists a near-consensus in the country on policy-making, but is it in the wrong direction? Another challenge is the focus on local issues in the Irish political system, with individual politicians accountable to local communities. Agriculture and transport present big challenges. However, the new climate change act establishes an overarching planning and reporting system, which might help to rationalise the Irish policy.

Next, Professor Mikael Hildén discussed the climate mitigation challenges for Finland. Finland’s emissions are relatively low, but the levels are higher when examined as emissions per capita and per GDP. This is a challenge for all of Europe. However, in the global perspective there has been a remarkable decarbonisation of the world economy since 1990. What’s more, this has happened with little or poor policies in many countries, which gives reason for optimism.

In Finland, energy consumption has decreased below the level of baseline assumptions. The base scenario for the next climate strategy may also be too pessimistic. However, targets will become more and more challenging, with conflicting goals for bioeconomy, a circular economy and a low carbon economy. It has been projected that biobased energy will in the future account for 90% of renewables, Professor Hildén explained.

Finland has a lot of forest that can be used for bioenergy. However, if we approach the maximum sustainable levels of cutting, this means a reduction of our carbon sinks. Professor Hildén argued that we need both an innovative forest sector developing high-end bioproducts and a reduction in energy demand e.g. through stronger grid connections. This will provide benefits for the economy while maintaining the carbon sinks.

The task ahead is not just to produce carbon neutrality in Finland. To have an impact globally, we should make a business case out of this through innovation, Professor Hildén asserted. This requires a high level of ambition. The real challenge is to encourage businesses to contribute to the radical energy transition needed.

The discussion that followed the presentations revolved around questions such as land use and carbon sinks in Ireland, cleantech innovations, the role of individual consumer choices (regarding e.g. food), the difference between the image of countries or companies versus their actual achievements in dealing with climate change, and the electrification of vehicles.