Pekka Timonen will be one of the speakers of the Budapest Climate Summit, to be held on 7-8 October 2021.
Today, more than two-thirds of Europeans live in towns and cities. Urban areas concentrate most of the environmental challenges facing our society but also bring together commitment and innovation to resolve them. The European Green Capital Award has been conceived to promote and reward these efforts.
CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Lahti about the journey that led the city towards becoming the first Green Capital in the history of Finland.
The European Green Capital designation is awarded by the European Commission following a stringent international competition to recognise the remarkable efforts of environmentally-friendly cities. The winners to date are role models and inspire other cities to make their urban spaces sustainable and ultimately more enjoyable places to live in.
The Finnish city of Lahti is the 12th European Green Capital. The city has a long history of transformation, evolving from an industrial past to the innovative city of today, a true pioneer in environmental sustainability. Its inspiring story rightfully puts it on the map of Europe’s greenest cities.
“The story of Lahti is closely linked to the economic development of Europe,” starts Mr Timonen noting that the wake-up call was a polluted lake as rapid growth, industrialisation and urbanisation through the 1960s and 1970s took a toll on Lake Vesijärvi, which became one of the worst polluted lakes in Finland by 1975. In 1987, companies, scientists and citizens united to restore the lake’s water quality. As Mr Timonen points out, decades of work for the conservation and restoration of the lake have brought important environmental expertise to the city.
“Long-term and ambitious environmental goals are a part of the transformation of a city,” he says adding that this has not always been easy. Since the mid-1990s, Lahti has suffered unemployment and changes in the industry, but despite hard times, the city continued to invest in green.
Mr Timonen underlines that over the past ten years, City Councillors have adopted an ambitious CO2 mitigation strategy and Lahti have invested heavily in renewable energy. “We invest about 20 million euros annually towards various environmental solutions, such as water protection and climate change mitigation through energy efficiency,” he says.
“Strong, long-term climate action, involving active citizen participation, green business strategies and investments in the circular economyhave made Lahti a city with a sustainable future.“
Lahti has set ambitious climate goals and intends to become carbon-neutral by 2025 – ten years before the target set by the Finnish Government Programme and 25 years before the EU. As Mr Timonen explains the first city climate program with emission targets was introduced already in 2009. Now, they drew up an extensive list of measures that cover all sectors of the city to adapt to and combat climate change.
“The most effective action was in 2019 when Lahti abandoned coal burning and the new bioenergy plant replaced the old coal-fired power plant,” says the Mayor adding that today the city’s district heating system is emission-free.
The next step is to reduce traffic emissions. Public transportation already operates with electric and biogas buses but the development of pedestrian and bicycle path networks are also among the city leadership’s priorities.
Lahti is also the first city in the world that implemented a personal carbon trading system for local residents with the so-called CitiCAP project, which allowed real-time tracking and visualisation of one’s mobility carbon footprint using a mobile application. As Mr Timonen explains users of the application received their personal carbon budget for mobility and the application automatically identified the mode of transportation of its user and visualised emissions.
Circular economy is also at the core of Lahti’s Green Capital 2021 project as the city plans to become fully waste-free by 2050. As Mr Timonen underlines, Lahti published the first regional roadmap for circular economy in Finland in 2017, which set goals and defined measures for promoting the regional circular economy of Päijät-Häme province.
“We currently utilise more than 99 per cent of household waste. One third is used to make recycled materials and the other two-thirds are used to produce energy.“
Sustainable business is a significant driver of growth and Lahti is one of Finland’s largest centres of circular economy and cleantech business, employing nearly 5,000 people.
“The Kujala waste management centre is a concrete example of an innovative environment built together with local people, businesses and public sector waste management companies,” says Mr Timonen adding that the companies benefit from this cooperation and each other’s side stream products, knowledge and expertise.
Another exciting example of circular economy innovation is that Fazer, one of Finland’s most well-known food industry brands, is building a new factory in Lahti to produce artificial sweetener, xylitol, from oat hulls, which used to go to waste before but now it has become a valuable raw material.
Building a green city is still a complex task, that requires close cooperation with all stakeholders, companies, communities and citizens. As Mr Timonen puts it: a sustainable city must be a better city and involving the residents of Lahti plays an important role in the building of the green city.
“In Lahti, we give everyone the chance to participate in environmental work. We have designed several unique approaches to increase the voice of the people in the planning and development of Lahti.“
The city leadership came up with creative solutions to involve people from different backgrounds and encourage dialogue. Thus, Lahti is not only the home of the world’s first carbon-neutral professional ice hockey team Lahti Pelicans but also the first carbon-neutral symphony orchestra.
A participative approach is incorporated in all levels of city life with the citizens of Lahti invited to join the city leadership in coming up with new ideas for the Green Capital year 2021.
Asked about his advice to other European cities, who want to step on the path of sustainable development Mr Timonen say that Lahti is a very average European city but their example is something that all cities must do.
“The most important thing is to start doing concrete actions, the earlier you start the further you get,” he concludes.