• Cities globally need to look at innovative solutions to decarbonise their heating systems.
  • Bioenergy has more limitations than people may realise.
  • Helsinki aims to be carbon neutral by 2035 and over half of its carbon dioxide emissions comes from its heating.

Some 56% of Helsinki’s carbon dioxide emissions comes from its heating. Even if the city managed to cut its heat consumption by one fifth using energy efficiency measures, it would still have a massive challenge on its hands.

As a city, it is heavily reliant on fossil fuels; 53% of Helsinki districts' heat is produced by coal.

To address this massive challenge, as Mayor I could encourage us to follow in the footsteps of many other Nordic cities and replace the use of coal-fired production with biomass-fired production. But this would not be a truly sustainable path.

Biomass not the answer

Biomass is only theoretically free from carbon dioxide emissions, as its emissions are equivalent to those of coal when measured from chimneys. In addition, the extensive use of biomass can have negative consequences on biodiversity.

At the same time, a transition towards a bioeconomy means that instead of burning biomass, we could develop it into products of higher added value. In any case, on a global scale biomass will not solve the climate problem due to its restricted availability.

In order to reach our carbon-neutrality goals, radical new solutions are needed not only in Helsinki, but in cities around the world. This is why we launched Helsinki Energy Challenge.

Two thirds of the world’s energy is consumed in cities, which also account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions.

—Jan Vapaavuori

This global, million-euro challenge seeks to answer: How can we decarbonise heating in Helsinki, using as little biomass as possible?

Climate change hasn't gone anywhere

We mustn't see COVID-19 as having cancelled climate change. Our priority must be to stick to global climate goals, and if anything to be even more ambitious in our actions. Instead of agreements or statements we need systemic changes and actions with real impact.

City mayors around the world are overcoming major challenges, but this crisis also offers an opportunity to forward some of our key climate-related targets. With two thirds of the world’s energy being consumed in cities, which also account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions, we certainly need to.

By failing to decarbonise our heating system, we are jeopardising our carbon-neutrality goal.

—Jan Vapaavuori

According to the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 40% globally before 2030, if we are to avoid a catastrophic climate change scenario. For a truly sustainable scenario, we need to reduce the emissions to zero.

To achieve the necessary emission reductions, decarbonising urban heating is essential. World leaders have agreed to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for everyone by 2030 (SDG 7). With urbanisation levels creeping up, solving the heating challenge in cities will be a key part of reaching that goal.

In Helsinki, every action is a climate action

Helsinki is one of the world's leading cities in the transition towards a sustainable future. In 2018, Helsinki’s emissions were 28% lower than in 1990, even though the number of residents had increased by 150,000. When measured per resident, the emissions were approximately 45% lower.

Our goal is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% compared to the level we had in 1990. The remaining 20% will be compensated for by implementing emissions reductions outside the city; for example, increasing the number of carbon sinks.

Helsinki's emission calculation observes the emissions generated inside the city limits.

We foster a holistic view of climate action: every action in Helsinki is climate action. But what does this mean in practice?

Helsinki has a comprehensive plan to ensure that action to reduce emissions is carried out in a holistic and systematic manner and on a large-enough scale. The Carbon Neutral Helsinki Action Plan lists 147 potential climate actions, while the openly accessible Climate Watch service monitors progress made.

The key goals within Helsinki’s Carbon Neutral 2035 plan.

This progress is significant, but not enough. By failing to decarbonise our heating system, we are jeopardising our carbon-neutrality goal.

Innovation required to recreate urban heating

The Helsinki Energy Challenge invites innovators from all around the world to use Helsinki as a testbed for 100% sustainable solutions for urban heating, even if it means significant changes to our existing system.

The idea of a city as a testbed is fundamental to my strategy, as Mayor, of making Helsinki the most functional city in the world. We are in uncharted territory which comes with its risks, but the urgency of climate action justifies bold decision-making.

Helsinki is an ideal testbed for creating urban heating solutions of the future for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • A cold climate and varying outdoor conditions means that if a solution works in Helsinki, it will work almost anywhere.
  • As a city, Helsinki is just the right size for both quick tests and actionable, scalable results.
  • The Finnish energy sector operates based on market conditions and the heating market is not heavily regulated. Therefore, all solutions can compete on equal terms.

We recognise that the Helsinki Energy Challenge might also bring forward new ideas and innovations that are not necessarily suitable for Helsinki’s case but might work for other cities. This is one of the reasons why we are committed to sharing learnings with other cities globally.

Mayors around the world are putting the green economy and infrastructure at the helm of their recovery masterplans. The crisis also offers us an opportunity to look at the sustainable development goals more broadly and especially at the local level, as we build back – hopefully – better.