in Finland

We are living in the ruins of a fossil-fuelled economy. To phase out fossil fuel use, the material structures and social practices of production, transport and housing must be reconstructed. This necessary transition is analogous to the post-war reconstruction, during which the physical infrastructure was rebuilt and foundations of the welfare society were laid. The government has a central role in forming the collective vision and in coordinating and financing the work ahead.


Rapid and wide-ranging measures are necessary for successfully navigating climate change and other ecological crises. We are in the midst of a historic transformation. The prevailing assumptions about societal development and the key parameters of change have been based on recent history. However, those presuppositions are now becoming obsolete.

BIOS Research Unit recognises that societies must undergo an ecological reconstruction – starting now and continuing until 2050. Here, we describe what this means for Finland.

The first section introduces the problem – the situation in which we find ourselves. We outline the systemic relationships between natural and human systems on which the transformation is based. We also describe the prevailing view of potential responses: the intellectual, social and material resources which the Finnish society is currently using to meet the environmental crises.

The second part outlines the solution. We present our view of ecological reconstruction. The goal is to improve the capabilities needed in public discussions and decision-making to face the environmental crisis more coherently. If you wish to, you can skip straight to the second section.

Starting points

The foundations of societies are undermined by climate change, other environmental crises and the unsustainable use of natural resources. Despite undergoing a prolonged period of technological progress, we are dependent on the environment. The welfare of individuals and societies is based on the well-being of natural systems. Thus, merely reacting to the most urgent symptoms of crises is not enough. A comprehensive view of the character of problems and the available countermeasures is necessary.

The structure and functions of natural systems, and the boundaries that they set for societies, are analysed in the natural sciences, whereas the tools that societies have at hand for redirecting and sustaining themselves are described in the social sciences. The arts and humanities help us understand the values and goals on which individuals and groups base their lives, and they highlight the resources of meaningful coexistence. All of these perspectives are needed for a realistic vision of the future that can inform the everyday functioning of a society.

The following is our take on the overall objective that can guide the Finnish society, given the boundaries revealed by the natural sciences and capacities for social and cultural transformations discussed in the social sciences and humanities. We call our vision ecological reconstruction.

The main goal is that in the near future (i.e. from now until 2050), the worst effects of climate change and other environmental crises will be avoided while democratic structures, citizens’ well-being and cultural life will all be enriched. Further, life in Finland will be good and meaningful without causing the unsustainable use of natural resources either within or outside the country. This transition shall be based on the following goals and views:

  • In accordance with the Paris Agreement and recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming will be halted to below 1.5° C or as close as possible. Every decimal point of warming is significant for all living beings and all societies.
  • As recommended by the Finnish Climate Change Panel, Finland will be carbon neutral around 2030 and carbon negative immediately after that. This schedule is faster than the global aim of carbon neutrality by 2050, first, because of the principle of historical responsibility and, second, because Finland has the capabilities and resources to implement the necessary changes.
  • The 1.5°C degree future is not achievable by technological means only – a thorough transformation of ways of life, economy and infrastructure is also necessary. While evaluating the possible measures and technologies, we decided to rely only on existing technologies that can be implemented and scaled rapidly, and for which there is robust scientific evidence. Thus, technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), which are often present in climate models, or visionary ideas of geoengineering do not play a strong role in our framework.
  • The use of natural resources must be reduced to a level that is globally sustainable (roughly one third of the current average per capita consumption in Finland). More satisfactory and meaningful lives are possible even with lower material consumption. It is possible to organise the reduced use of natural resources in ways that increase equality and democracy. All Finns must be guaranteed a sufficient level of material well-being.
  • A transition that uses market mechanisms and collective political coordination is ultimately not dependent on money but on material resources, capabilities and organisation.


IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Global Warming of 1.5°C

Suomen ilmastopaneeli (The Finnish Climate Change Panel)
Suositukset Suomelle (in Finnish)

UN International Resource Panel
Assessing Global Resource Use

IPBES: The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

Interplay between society and nature

During the past few decades, public discussion in Finland has been dominated by the view that the boundary conditions of human activity are primarily economic. The economy has been seen through a market economy lens, and the public sector has been viewed as dependent on the private sector. Therefore, economics have dictated political realities while facts about natural resources and ecological limits have had a minor role. However, this view is backwards. The market economy exists only as a part of the wider society and the wider society only as a part of the biosphere.

Economy as a part of the larger whole

Economy, in the wide sense of the term, can be understood as encompassing all activities that humans perform to acquire the material and immaterial goods and services that they want. Currently, the term is most often used more narrowly to refer to a system where the demand for, and supply of, goods and services is arranged via markets that are based on monetary transfers. When used in this sense, the term neglects a large amount of crucial economic activity, such as child rearing, care for the sick, household tasks, gardening, self-subsistence activities and other things that happen outside of markets.

For instance, a ‘home’ contains both narrow, market-based economic elements (e.g. an apartment or house with a price or electricity paid through the utility bill) and elements outside of the market (e.g. care provided by family members and co-habitants) and elements that can be either of these (e.g. cleaning or taking care of clothing).

Markets are embedded in larger wholes. The boundaries and characteristics of markets are determined, for instance, by natural resources and phenomena (e.g. availability of energy, raw materials, geography, climate), social structures (e.g. existence of states and international institutions, forms of state, rule of law or its absence, relationships of power, forms of property) and customs and practices (e.g. religion, level of self-sufficiency, political views and ideologies).

Take the market for timber in Finland as an example. At first glance, it may seem that timber is bought and sold freely on the market, determined simply by the preferences of buyers and sellers. When the seller and buyer agree on the price, wood changes hands and that is all that can be said about the market.

However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear that a host of ‘external’ elements define the nature of the market. First, there are the natural factors: climate, storms, pests, nutrients and so on have a decisive influence on the very existence of wood. Second, demand for wood and buyers of wood exist only under specific socio-economic circumstances: are wood products needed, and is there enough energy to manufacture wood products? Historically, the ownership of forests has been a contentious issue in Finland: who can use forests and for what purposes? Currently, the disagreement between the government and the native Sami peoples on forest ownership and use remains unresolved. In addition to these fundamental issues are elements that are directly concerned with shaping the market, such as legislation, taxation, subsidies, education on forest management and so on. Finland is a paradigm example of a state that has continuously and actively shaped the market for timber to the point of repeatedly devolving its sovereign currency in order to give the market a boost. After the Second World War, economic, legislative, educational and organisational efforts supported the prevalent model of forestry based on clear-cutting.

Viewed historically, the notion that the economy can be narrowed down to the markets is relatively recent and aberrant. Up to the early 20th century, the classics of political economy saw the economy as an integral part of the shared metabolism of society and nature. In particular, the view that tight budgetary controls should limit the implementation of necessary social changes is new in Finland and many other Western countries.

The technological and social progress of the past couple of centuries has created the illusion that societies can be independent of nature. This has also created barriers between the sciences. Some fields of research, such as branches of economics, have been able to omit the effects of natural resources and boundaries from their analyses. However, as the use of natural resources has been growing constantly, dependence on nature has only deepened, even if, momentarily, the connections between nature and society have seemed distant. In fact, the urgent ecological crises that are occurring provide a concrete example of the increased dependency.

The natural sciences tell us that in order to safeguard favourable conditions for human existence, societies must prevent the worst existential crises and adapt to environmental changes, which will continue even in the more optimistic scenarios. In addition to climate change, the escalating environmental crises include loss of biodiversity, ocean degradation, scarcity of water, loss of arable land and unsustainable use of natural resources.

Full prevention is impossible: these processes are already underway and will continue to have negative effects. Nonetheless, catastrophic runaway feedback loops and tipping points in natural systems must be avoided, as they present an existential threat to all societies and countless living species.

The boundaries that natural systems establish for human activity can be roughly divided in two. On one hand, the use of natural resources is limited by the rate of replenishment of renewable resources, and the integrity of the natural systems that uphold them, and the size of stocks of non-renewable resources and auxiliary materials (e.g. energy and clean water) needed to obtain them (sources). On the other hand, the capacity of natural systems to handle the waste, residue and disruption caused by economic activity is limited (sinks).

A good example of the problem of sources is the use of fresh water. Currently, in many areas, fresh water is being used at a rate that is outpacing the replenishment rate, causing problems for both societies and ecosystems, especially when different uses of water compete. Increasingly, the world’s poorest populations are suffering from water scarcity.

The most widely recognised problem of sinks is climate change. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) consist of dead organic matter that has been transformed through millions of years of pressure and variable heat in the earth’s crust. Burning this organic material causes emissions including carbon dioxide. Fossil matter has been burned in ever increasing amounts: more than half of all fossil fuel burning in history has happened during the past 30 years. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, are also emitted through other human activities, such as drainage of wetlands, burning of biomass and agriculture.

The increase in greenhouse gases expands the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere. As natural sinks, such as vegetation, soil biomass, ocean water and ocean life, cannot absorb all emitted carbon, the increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cause a rise in average temperatures. In addition, the absorption of carbon dioxide in ocean water causes acidification, making the functioning of this sink a problem in itself.

From a different perspective, the problem of fossil fuels is that their sources are too vast. Fossil fuels are so abundant that not all recoverable resources can be used. Another problem is that the best and most easily available fossil fuel deposits have already been depleted; thus, extraction takes more effort, including increased use of water and energy, and causes more environmental degradation (e.g. fracking).

The boundaries set by natural systems can also be viewed from the perspective of the size and quality of consumption, both in terms of energy and matter.

Most of the physical work (transport and modification of matter) in the global economy is performed by non-human energy – mainly by burning fossil fuels. The use of fossil energy has enabled industrialisation, industrial farming, massive mineral extraction, global logistics and information technology (IT) infrastructure. By the same token, the structures and functions of economies and embedded relations of power and interests have been shaped by the use of fossil fuels.

Currently, roughly 80 per cent of global energy is sourced from fossil fuels. To mitigate climate change, the use of fossil fuels must be phased out quickly. Consequently, it is probable that the amount of energy available to societies will diminish in the coming decades. This is because the use of natural resources, such as fossil fuels, and the resulting emissions decline as new infrastructure is being built: the focus of production shifts from private consumption to public investment.

The Finnish economy, like the economies of all industrial countries, exploits too many natural resources. The consumption of natural resources causes problems during extraction (agriculture, mining, logging, fishing, etc.) and end use (production, transport, maintenance, etc.) – not to mention the problems of after-use waste. Due to international trade, there is a global connection in the use of natural resources. Therefore, the effects of Finnish consumption are felt both inside and outside its geographical borders.

On the current trajectory, global use of natural resources is set to grow, even though it is already unsustainable and causing irreparable damage across the globe. Extended product lives, recycling and reuse can make the use of natural resources more efficient and diminish the need for first-use materials. However, a 100 per cent wasteless ‘circular economy’ is not possible. The use of natural resources must diminish and the multiple effects of natural resource use must be more readily acknowledged.


Barnosky A. D. et al. (2012). Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere. Nature.

Barnosky, Anthony and Elizabeth Hadly. (2015). End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth? William Collins.

Lähde, Ville. (2013). Niukkuuden maailmassa. niin & näin.

Steffen, W. et al. (2018). Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. PNAS.

Current horizon for solutions


Decoupling means cutting the connection between economic growth and environmental impacts and/or resource use. Two forms of decoupling – relative (weak) and absolute (strong) – are distinguished in the literature. Relative decoupling refers to a decline in ecological/resource intensity per unit of economic output. In relative decoupling, environmental impacts and/or resource use decline relative to economic output, while both could still be rising. Absolute decoupling refers to a decline in impacts and/or resource use in absolute terms while the economy grows (or remains stable).

The appeal of decoupling arises from the fact that the current environmental impact and resource use of many national economies are unsustainable. In addition, the global sum of environmental impact and resource use is unsustainable. At the same time, mainstream economic policies see economic growth as a necessity. Consequently, if the economy is to grow or even stay at the current level, it must be absolutely decoupled from its environmental impact and fitted inside planetary boundaries of resource use. For instance, the OECD defined decoupling as one of its main targets in 2001.

Another important motivation is that decoupling would make purely market-based solutions to environmental unsustainability possible. Depending on one’s view on the markets, some political intervention in the form of legislation or taxation may be seen as a complement, but at the extreme, decoupling can be used as an argument against government intervention.

During the past century, due to technological advancements, economic growth in industrial countries has been achieved with smaller growth of environmental impact and use of natural resources. In other words, economic growth has been relatively decoupled both from environmental impact and resource use in certain OECD countries.

However, the picture changes fundamentally when trade and outsourcing are considered. Outsourcing has transferred industrial production from Europe and North America to Asia and other continents. When countries outsource the use of natural resources, the environmental impacts also occur outside their borders.

The most robust evidence concerns carbon dioxide emissions from certain OECD countries. Here, there is evidence of absolute decoupling – in other words, emissions have gone down despite economic growth. Unfortunately, the decoupling of a specific environmental impact does not mean that the economy would be decoupling more generally. For example, the global economy has been absolutely decoupled from the use of ozone-depleting CFC gases, but this has not implied less resource use or a reduction in other types of environmental impacts.

Indeed, the absolute decoupling of economic growth from resource use has not been observed in the research. In other words, economic growth has always meant some amount of growth in resource use, possibly beyond the national borders of the analysed country. This is noteworthy because absolute resource use decoupling is the only sufficient global goal. The current global level of resource use is unsustainable, and the Finnish per capita use is exceptionally high. There is no physical possibility that most countries in the world would use the resources that Finland does.

The primary target from the sustainability perspective is resizing the economy to fit the material boundaries. In Finland, this means reducing material use by roughly 70–80 per cent. This is a difficult target even without the added complication of striving for decoupling and economic growth. If the economy grows while material use decreases, so be it, but economic growth measured in terms of GDP is secondary.


BIOS (2019). Onnistunut irtikytkentä Suomessa? Alue ja ympäristö.

Parrique, T. et al. (2019). Decoupling Debunked. EEB.

Hickel, J. and Kallis, G. (2019). Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy.

Different societies have very different capabilities for facing climate change and other environmental crises, both in terms of reducing their emissions and adapting to increasing change. Fortunately, such material, technological, institutional and cultural capabilities can be bolstered. Natural events (e.g. collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, ocean level rise by 1.25 m) do not in themselves demonstrate what happens to societies. The causal chain from natural processes and ecological boundaries to social effects is mediated by the society itself. The effects of natural factors are realised in and through social structures, which are, in turn, transformed by natural processes.

We are encountering not only climate change but also political and social change – or indeed ‘everything’ change. The change will not be limited to political and economic systems. Climate change is also reverberating through, and already having an effect on, the cultural, mental, experiential and spiritual spheres. This change can be felt in popular culture, art and fashion as well as in everyday life.

However, politics and the economy have a special place with regard to rapid and wide-reaching measures. Politics is always in flux, but some characteristics of the current political landscape are readily recognisable. In recent decades, politics in Finland and several other Western countries has been defined by an emphasis on private competition and market pressures, combined with the above-mentioned underlying assumption of independence from nature. Meanwhile, public institutions directing the political landscape and upholding the welfare state have been dismantled and vilified.

All of these features influence the ways in which Finland can confront environmental crises. First of all, these features have made it hard to connect the dots between different crises and to realise their comprehensive nature. The tendency has been to conceive of climate change as one problem among many. The perception has been that Finland is facing problems, such as low GDP growth, low level of employment, unbalanced industrial structure, ageing, inter-generational poverty, low levels of participation – and also climate change. In political and economic analyses, society’s dependence on nature has been addressed as a separate and isolated question. However, lowering emissions and related tasks are directly connected with, for instance, the organisation of production and the amounts and kinds of labour.

The proposal and implementation of political initiatives with wide and long-ranging political consequences have proved to be difficult. The root cause is the emphasis on private competition and market solutions and the disregard for collective coordination. How can economic activity be reoriented if the received wisdom suggests that politicians must be sensitive first and foremost to how the markets evolve of their own accord?

Over the past few decades, politics has also become increasingly concerned with cultural identities as issues of equality and class have been receding from view. Polarisation along the lines of identity has made it much harder to do politics in a reasoned way that brings together disparate interests. Identity politics divides the citizenry into groups that are supposedly represented by different political parties, and politics is seen as antagonism between these groups and parties. The contents of issues and policies, then, become secondary to the coherence of constructed group identities and political positions. In particular, the populism of the far right has utilised this kind of identity politics by constructing an antagonism between the ‘forgotten people’ and the ‘elites’ and ‘immigrants’ who threaten its interests.

Identity politics also affects the use and acceptability of scientific knowledge. For instance, when effective climate action is opposed on the basis that it sits ill with certain lifestyles and identities (such as private car ownership and meat heavy diet), often, the result is neglect or even hostility towards the results of scientific research on the environment. The insistence on unchanging and monolithic identities implies cherry-picking of scientific knowledge, even in the case of the most thoroughly vetted science.

In practice, Finnish politics is constrained by strict budgetary limits and the pursuit of GDP growth. Projections of government revenue and spending in terms of euros constitute the dominant guiding information. The goal is to strike a balance between revenue and spending. In addition, there is an expectation that economic growth and environmental impact will be decoupled, even though empirical evidence on the success of decoupling is thin (for more, see the sidebar ‘Decoupling’).

Consequently, there are only two possibilities for responding to environmental challenges: on one hand, market-based technological development is expected to provide solutions; on the other hand, the international community and the EU are expected to develop a common regulation that incentivises the market towards products and services with lower emissions.

In sum, Finnish politics is not guided by realistic notions of the material metabolism and social goals of the economy, let alone a vision of steering the economy within the boundaries of natural systems. On the contrary, the guiding information is formed by quantitative data in terms of euros. Finnish society is wealthy, social cohesion and trust are relatively high and the population is small and well educated. Thus, Finnish society has good – maybe one of the best in the world – prerequisites for implementing rapid and wide-reaching social change, where environmental pressures dramatically decrease while the quality of life increases. However, at the political level, the preconditions leave significant room for improvement. To fill the political gap, we propose the idea of ecological reconstruction.


In the previous section, we described the transformation caused by climate change and other environmental crises and outlined the socio-political landscape in which Finland is encountering this transformation. In this section, we present our view of the overarching socio-economic transformation that is needed to prevent the worst consequences of environmental problems and for successfully adapting to the changes that will take place no matter what. We start by outlining the core idea and continue by discussing the main areas of reconstruction, its political tools and main sources of financing.

Ecological reconstruction

The whole metabolism of society must be reorganised so that resource use and emissions occur at sustainable levels. This task is enormous and must start immediately. Massive investments in infrastructure, a lot of human labour, profound behavioural changes and, most of all, coordination between several sectors of society are needed to comprehensively decrease harmful emissions, waste and resource use.

Historically, transformations on a similar scale have taken place mainly during times of severe crisis, such as war. Accordingly, research and public discussion on climate mitigation have proposed a shift towards a war economy or comparable mobilisation of economic resources. However, war mobilisation is a problematic metaphor because it includes a command economy and the partial or total suspension of democratic norms.

Contrary to this, the current transformation necessitates renewed and enlarged democratic practices at all levels – from local to global. In Finland, as well as in certain other countries, post-war reconstruction was undertaken democratically – albeit, at times, in the midst of considerable political turmoil. The timescale and size of reconstruction correspond to the required transformation. The public sector has a crucial role in formulating and communicating common, shared goals and in coordinating, planning and financing the necessary actions. However, reconstruction cannot be a strictly top-down effort. This is because, in addition to extensive changes in the structures of production, ecological reconstruction also means thorough and lasting changes in the behaviour, values and expectations of individuals and communities. The public sector’s task is to bring together economic actors – businesses, unions and citizens – and delineate the scale and necessity of the transformation as well as lead the actors towards a coherent goal.

Fundamental economic goods, like food, housing and transport, are currently the result of large and complex chains of production and logistics. The satisfaction of basic human needs depends on actions that are both ecological (e.g. cultivation of grain) and social (e.g. being an agricultural entrepreneur). Therefore, both the ecological-material and socio-economic sides of these actions must be considered in the reconstruction. The response to environmental crises cannot be separated from the solutions to social problems (inequality, unemployment, lack of democracy), or vice versa.

In addition to rebuilding industrial and public infrastructure, the post-war reconstruction laid the foundations for institutions of the welfare state, thus increasing equality and justice. Currently, too, it is crucial to address economic and social inequalities and ensure that the benefits of reconstruction and costs of continuing environmental change and degradation are divided justly.

Times of reconstruction, historically and today, also imply a cultural and mental change. After the Second World War, reconstruction was decisively aimed at fostering democratic institutions, a well-educated citizenry and equal welfare. Due to urbanisation and various struggles for socio-cultural freedom, whole new ways of life and thought were born. At the same time, a distinctive and internationally connected cultural life was formed. During recent decades, these cultural values have been partly replaced by economic competition and unsustainable consumerism. We have rebranded ourselves as consumers and our society as a consumer society. In contrast, ecological reconstruction emphasises creativity, skillfulness, education and a vibrant cultural life.

There is also a clear difference between post-war reconstruction and ecological reconstruction. Whereas post-war reconstruction was based on increased use of materials and energy, ecological reconstruction demands that society be weaned off fossil fuels while material consumption decreases. After the war, much of the infrastructure was in ruins. Today, the fossil-based infrastructure is metaphorically in ruins, as its use must be discontinued. The current reconstruction focuses on building and developing structures of sustainable production and consumption – hence the name ‘ecological reconstruction’.

The carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) already emitted will continue to warm the atmosphere and cause environmental problems in the coming decades. Even the best of solutions cannot halt climate change completely. A key element of ecological reconstruction is improving resilience – that is, the ability to withstand and rebound from crises. Resilience is enhanced through realistic perspectives on future possibilities, livelihoods and jobs independent of fossil fuels, versatile skill sets, reasonable levels of self-sufficiency (communally, locally and nationally), rich social capital and capacities for satisfying basic needs with moderate resource use.

Reconstruction sites

The areas in need of reconstruction can be identified by analysing the material, social and cultural factors on which welfare within planetary boundaries are dependent. Materially, natural systems favourable to human life are necessary, both locally and globally. Socially, what is needed are communities and societies capable of taking care of babies, children, adults and the elderly, both sick and healthy. Culturally, a more or less shared understanding of a meaningful life is crucial.

After recognising these dependencies, the next step is to take care of and nurture the necessary elements: ecological systems, communities and cultures. These elements are not abstract but concrete: water, food, warmth, parents and other educators, friends, neighbours, language and thought all need constant care and upkeep in order to guarantee the continuity of individual and social well-being.

The current foundations of socio-economic systems – production and consumption, infrastructure, healthcare institutions, cultural practices, values and desires – are based on the use of fossil fuels and were structured in the context of decade-after-decade growth in GDP and resource use. When these foundations are rebuilt in Finland, a few key areas emerge. These we call the areas of reconstruction.

The goal of reconstruction is that the net emissions of greenhouse gases decline as fast as possible, reaching zero around 2030–2035. Subsequently, carbon sinks will be bigger than carbon sources. At the same time, Finnish use of natural resources (both domestic and imported) will decrease to a globally sustainable level – roughly one third of the average per capita level in 2019. In addition to emissions reductions and decreased resource use, reconstruction has to take into account and adapt to the effects of ongoing climate change.

Electricity and heating

The production of energy is not a value in itself. Rather, energy is needed to promote well-being. As energy production is very resource intensive and causes numerous environmental impacts, the priority is to lower the energy intensity in all sectors and direct the planning and technological development of energy systems so that a maximum amount of well-being is generated by each produced energy unit. At the moment, energy production causes roughly 75 per cent of Finnish climate emissions. Industry uses 45 per cent of energy, heating 25 per cent and transport 17 per cent.

Energy efficiency can be increased by electrifying transport, heating and industry wherever applicable. The energy efficiency of an electric motor can be up to 90 per cent, whereas an average internal combustion engine works with an efficiency of about 20 per cent. Moreover, the energy efficiencies of electricity production and transmission are high. If the electrification of the energy sector, and the efficiency gains through eliminating wasted energy, succeed to the greatest extent possible, the usable energy available to society – that is, exergy – may stay close to current levels even if less energy is produced.

Energy production must shift from fossil sources to non-burning technologies. The most important sources are wind and solar, hydro and nuclear power.

These non-burning energy production technologies have existed for decades. Currently, their development focuses on reducing unit costs, for example, through bigger offshore wind farms. In addition, methods for producing wind power from lighter winds and photovoltaic electricity even during cloudy weather are being investigated.

Completely new forms of energy production, such as fusion power, still need significant work and cannot be expected to mature in the next decade. It is possible to build more nuclear fission power, but the construction of fission plants and development of new types of fission reactors have proven to be slow. Wind and solar power offer the greatest potential, and both are proving to be the most cost effective forms of energy production in many areas.

The main problem in energy production is energy storage. The production of wind and solar power varies according to the weather and seasons. Current nuclear power has limited capacity for rapid adjustments. Hydro power can be used in balancing the production from wind, solar and nuclear, but major new hydro power projects are not possible, at least not in rivers.

On one hand, the transition to low-emission energy production necessitates major investments that inevitably raise energy prices. On the other hand, increased energy efficiency may reduce energy use considerably. By using efficient transport and housing, it is possible to maintain a lower energy bill even if the unit price of energy goes up. In any case, according to the principles of just transition, the increased burden that higher energy prices will have on vulnerable groups must be compensated from the public purse.


Heating of buildings causes about 25 per cent of Finnish emissions. In the Helsinki area, it is nearly 60 per cent. In small cities and areas of dispersed settlement, it is already cost effective to transition to the use of heat pumps with geothermal, ambient air and lakes and rivers as the sources of heat. Oil heating and direct electric heating must be abandoned quickly. Further, in larger cities, the combination of wind power and heat pumps is an effective and nearly emissionless source of heating.

Unfortunately, current low-emission technologies and heat sources cannot guarantee 100 per cent heating service during prolonged periods of sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures. Therefore, cities with district heating require a combination of heating technologies.

The first step is minimising the need for heating, for instance, through better energy efficiency in buildings and limiting room temperature to that recommended by health professionals. The need for heating can also be minimised by so-called smart energy solutions that anticipate and regulate temperatures according to use. The possibility of lowering temperature in some spacious buildings during sub-zero periods should also be investigated in order to reduce peak loads.

In addition, low-emission heating technologies, such as heat pumps connected to various heat sources, require further development. In the long run, small and modular fission plants may also become available.


BIOS (2019). To Continue to Burn Something? Technological, Economic and Political Path Dependencies in District Heating in Helsinki, Finland. Energy Research & Social Science.


Transport produces roughly 20 per cent of all climate emissions. Road transport is responsible for about 75 per cent of these emissions, and private cars produce about 50 per cent of all transport emissions. The most effective ways of cutting emissions are decreasing transport by private cars and electrification. Needless traffic can also be avoided through digital services and remote work.

The least emissions are produced by rail transport. Zoning and city planning can be used to increase the use of rail. Furthermore, attitudes play a significant role. From a health and safety perspective, commuting daily by train, bus and walking makes sense.

Extremely long commutes that are possible only by a private car consume a considerable number of working hours. Thus, commute by private cars does not benefit the society and seldom the driver, either. The drawbacks, however, are obvious.

In cities, a large portion of the land area serves private cars. Freeing this land for more productive use would be beneficial. In areas of dispersed settlement, private cars are often the only option. Development of the transport system should minimise car use in cities and compensate the costs of private cars in areas where there really is no alternative.

Abandoning public transport to the mercy of market competition does not advance or even enable an increase in public transport in areas of dispersed settlement or between smaller cities and population centres. Increasing the role of public transport needs coordinated public support.

1. Energy, transport and construction

The task of diminishing greenhouse gas emissions close to zero is perhaps easiest in electricity production. Zero emission electricity can be achieved by using existing hydroelectric and nuclear plants (including the yet to be opened Olkiluoto 3) and by extensively building new onshore and offshore wind power facilities. Heat can be produced by heat pumps with various heat sources, but district heating may need other heating technologies during winter months. As much as possible, the use of forest bioenergy must be avoided in both electricity and heat production since, compared to fossil fuels, wood burning produces more carbon dioxide in the relevant timespan, causes biodiversity loss via logging and competes with more beneficial uses of forests and wood. All burning, whether the biomass is ancient or new, increases atmospheric carbon levels.

Heavy trucks and private cars are the most difficult sectors in terms of transport. The energy efficiency of traffic and transport must be increased, first of all, by electrifying public transport, road and rail and, secondly, by reducing the need for heavy transport and private car use. Careful planning of city and block patterns and construction of year-round fairways suitable for public transport and bicycles and pedestrians are crucial.

Building houses and other infrastructure generates abundant emissions and utilises substantial resources. Thus, the need for new buildings must be carefully examined: as a rule, existing building stock should first be used, concentrating on maintenance and possible repurposing. If something new is built, the materials have to be low-emission. In practice, that means building with wood. The emissions from concrete and steel building have decreased, but not nearly enough to allow for the continuation of current levels of construction. The recycling of construction materials must be included in the planning phase.

Adaptation to climate change is important in construction, including the maintenance and repurposing of old stock. More frequent flooding, increased levels of humidity and rain, more extreme weather events (e.g. stronger storms, longer periods of cold and hot weather, longer periods of drought and wet conditions) are to be expected, and affect the integrity and usability of buildings.

Transition of the food system

The Finnish food system – including food production, processing, transport, marketing and consumption – will inevitably change due to three factors.

First, the environmental impact of the food system must be diminished. Primarily, this has an effect on primary production, where most of the impact is caused, although decreasing food waste and the corresponding problem of ‘unnecessary production’ in Finland is mainly a task for trade and end consumption. Second, production must be made more resilient in the face of environmental changes. As the precise nature of the changes is hard to predict, a flexible orientation is called for. Third, as the global food system is transformed, the changes will be reflected in Finland in various ways. The division of labour in the current system will change and Finland will be unable to rely on the global food system to the extent that is has done thus far.

In reducing the environmental impact, the key elements are a decrease in the portion of animal production, eliminating the role of fossil fuels as much as possible from materials necessary for production (fodder, fertilisers, fuels, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals), decrease in nutrient leakage, revitalisation of soil nutrient circulation, increase in carbon storage in soils and cutting food waste so that unnecessary production can be decreased.

In Finnish agriculture, peatlands cleared only for the purpose of manuring stand out as a considerable yet easily eliminated source of greenhouse gases. This problem can be addressed quickly.

Adaptation to environmental changes relies on measures such as diversifying the repertoire of cultivars, cooperation between producers and the scientific community in identifying new vectors of disease and pests and developing new methods of cultivation.

Diminishing environmental impacts and adapting to environmental changes are not separate tasks: the food system must be developed with both challenges in mind. Adaptation cannot happen through increased energy and resource inputs. Here, the agroecological perspective, which emphasises knowledge of local conditions instead of universal rules, is key.

Agriculture contains examples of the positive synergies highlighted by the IPCC and other organisations: there are measures that simultaneously help in reaching several of the sustainable development goals, such as environmental, economic and social goals. Important research and expertise on these methods exist in Finland, and Finland should forcefully advance the implementation and dissemination of the results.

The transition implies a full overhaul of agricultural subsidies. The current model is based on subsidies for production and must be replaced by a model that is based on environmental considerations, such as results in decreasing environmental impact and increasing resilience and adaptation. Finland has to support this kind of change in the EU’s agricultural policies, as those policies set the overall conditions for national action.

The transition also demands that producers have the capacities and willingness to engage in learning, piloting and cooperation with, for instance, researchers. This, in turn, means that agriculture must provide a decent livelihood for producers. A great social challenge is increasing the economic rewards for producers while directing production towards sustainability. Economically viable local production does not help much if it is still strongly reliant on animal production and monocropping.

The transition in production also entails a transition in consumption: less demand for animal products and increased use of plant products, more varied products and concentrating on seasonally available ones. As the habits of individual consumers change slowly, key roles in the early phase will be played by public purchases of food, pioneering entrepreneurs, availability of new ready-made and processed products and meals and information campaigns. Advancing the use of local sustainable fish stocks deserves a special mention because, currently, the majority of fish consumed in Finland causes proportionally too much environmental damage.

Changes in the global food system also mean that Finland cannot continue to rely on the current global division of labour. Finland is relatively self-sufficient in food (70–75 per cent), but relies heavily on imports of the materials and energy needed for production. The goal is not full self-sufficiency, as international trade has enriching cultural effects and fairer trade can also help development in poorer countries. Some international trade in food is also ecologically rational – but such rationality should not be confused with the kind of efficiency that is determined by labour prices and differences in production costs due to lax environmental regulations. For instance, a lower level of energy use is not a sufficient reason for imports if the energy used is produced with more pollution or if the production, on the whole, causes loss of biodiversity, loss of arable land or water scarcity.

Climate change and other environmental and natural resource problems are damaging the prospects for food production in many areas of the world. Many current export countries will have to concentrate more on feeding their own populations. This will affect how much Finland can rely on imports. The global market will not offer as much surplus food as before. Raising the level of self-sufficiency and more varied national production will have significant effects on regional and local development. Instead of a poorer and emptying countryside, the future may bring regional and local revitalisation, as more varied and economically viable agriculture requires more human labour. Alongside urbanisation, there will be a rejuvenated countryside, which will also lay the foundation for a new relationship between cities and the countryside – including a more equal and respectful cultural encounter between the two.

A sustainable national food system presupposes a sustainable global food system. Therefore, international leadership by Finland is called for, for example, in the institutions of the EU and the UN. Connecting environmental issues with questions of food security and prevention of hunger and poverty are also essential for rich countries, since the stability of food systems in poorer countries directly affects, for example, urbanisation, population growth and migration.

2. Food and agriculture

The Finnish food system faces three simultaneous challenges: decreasing the environmental impact of production and consumption, readjusting production to climate change and adapting to changes in the global food system.

There are three main pathways to decreasing the environmental impact. The first is a decrease in animal production. This does not mean an end to animal production: animal production on a smaller scale is easier to integrate with plant agriculture in a way that turns production residues (e.g. manure) into useful resources (e.g. raw material for biogas). Second, the use of fossil-dependent materials (e.g. fertilisers, chemicals, fodder) must be minimised. Here, the improvement of nutrient cycles and supporting soil fertility are key elements. The third main measure is the elimination of food wastage both in trade and end consumption.

The best way to increase resilience is to shift from current practices of cultivating only a few species into a more varied cultivation and husbandry. More varied national production and consumption will also help to decrease the negative impacts that Finnish food consumption has outside of Finland. The research and development of, and support for, suitable agroecological methods require coordinated public efforts. This kind of production also requires more human labour than the current model, thus creating support for a sustainable revitalisation of the countryside.

Since the circumstances of food production will inevitably deteriorate in many areas of the world, including some key production areas, the Finnish food system cannot continue to rely on surpluses in the international market. Nonetheless, the goal is not full self-sufficiency but an increase in sufficiency also with regard to the materials needed for production. Finland must work actively within the EU and UN in favour of an agricultural policy that is more ecologically sustainable, more just and, crucially, that supports the food producers in the poorest areas of the world.

Use of forests

Forests have a decisive role in Finland both regarding the economy and climate change and biodiversity. The overall transition cannot succeed without a successful transition in forest use.

A tolerable compromise must be found between the various economic, social and cultural interests within ecological boundaries. As national policies have for decades had a decisive role in how forests are managed, the guiding principle of ecological reconstruction – a transition coordinated and largely financed by the government – is especially suited to the case of forests.

Given the considerable expertise in Finland, the economic utilisation of forests should be developed towards long-lasting products. Finland has excellent possibilities for forest management and forest industry practices that increase the uptake and storage of carbon much better than the current profile of forest use. Labour intensive tasks in forestry that aim for carbon sequestration and storage, such as reforestation and forest restoration, also offer new job opportunities.

Although forest growth has improved, the levels of annual harvesting cannot be increased. If the decisive role of forests as carbon sinks and storages and loci of biodiversity is undermined, the other sectors of the national economy will have the impossible task of picking up the slack. If the carbon sink of the forests decreases, emission cuts in other sectors must be increased. If the decrease is radical, the other sectors will be unable to cope with the increase.

Current annual harvest levels are close to the (optimistically) estimated maximum replacement level. In terms of biodiversity, the current levels are clearly unsustainable. The 2018 assessment of threatened species estimated that 76 per cent of forest biotopes are threatened and 21 per cent are vulnerable. The unsustainable use of forests is the main reason why Finland has not achieved its goals as a signatory to the Convention of Biodiversity.

As the Finnish Climate Change Panel concluded in a recent study, projections of forest growth and the development of carbon sinks and storage have to be based on the use of more than one scenario, model or modelling tool. All models consistently show that the loss to the carbon sink is greater than the harvested amount. As the role of carbon sinks will grow both nationally and internationally, it is not possible to shrink the sinks without creating inordinate burdens on other sectors of the society.

However, carbon sinks are of major importance in binding emissions. According to the above-mentioned study by the Finnish Climate Change Panel, if the level of harvest was halved to approximately 40 million m3 from the current roughly 80 million m3, during the years 2021–2050, forests would accumulate as much carbon as the rest of the sectors would emit if they maintained current emission levels. However, there is no need to go to this extreme, as the other sectors are capable of quick and significant emission cuts.

The forest industry can be divided roughly in three: the mechanical industry (saw mills), chemical wood industry (pulp, paper, liner, etc.) and bioenergy. Out of these, the chemical sector is by far the biggest, both in terms of the amounts of wood that it uses and the monetary value created. As harvesting levels cannot substantially increase, the portion used by the chemical sector must decrease in favour of the mechanical sector. At the same time, the proportion of longer-lasting products must increase. The economic effect of these changes may very well be positive, especially from the perspective of the forest owner.

Bioenergy use has to be based on the residues from mechanical and chemical industry to be utilised near the place where the residues are formed, so that transport and warehousing do not eat away the benefit gained by replacing fossil fuels with biomass. Refining liquid fuels from wood has very low net energy (the energy in the fuel is only slightly higher than the energy used in its production), which means that liquid wood–based fuels should be used only in cases where electrification is impossible and they are to some extent necessary (heavy working equipment, aeroplanes).

The chemical sector already uses most of the residue arising from its own activities. Most of the energy that the chemical sector utilises is derived from burning the black liquor that results from pulp production. The lignin within black liquor is a main ingredient of biomaterials that are intended to replace plastic. This means that substantial new residues for energy use are not to be expected. The production of new biomaterials may diminish the residues that have no other use than burning for energy. Consequently, large cities have to find alternatives besides biomass burning for their district heating systems, as imported biomass also has its economic, ecological and energetic limits.

3. Forests and other land use

To lighten the burden on the atmosphere, emissions must be stopped and natural carbon sinks increased. In addition to carbon from fossil fuels, human activity has released carbon from logging, land clearing and tilling, drainage and agriculture. The use of forests and other land areas has also reduced the carbon sinks.

In many European countries, land and forests are a net source of emissions. However, in Finland, land and forests still function as a net carbon sink, absorbing more carbon than is released through land use, change in land use and forestry. As the most forested country in Europe, Finland has a key role in upholding and increasing carbon sinks and in defining the role of forest sinks in common policy.

There are multiple effective, readily implementable actions: avoiding clearing forests for other use (e.g. roads and residential areas), reforesting fields and grasslands not used in food production, using carbon-sequestering methods of cultivation, stopping the clearing of peatland fields for manure disposal and supporting manure use as feedstock for biogas generation.

Forest sinks and the reforestation of peatlands are clearly the most cost-efficient ways for Finland to decrease its net emissions.

In 2018, the annual level of logging in Finland rose to 78 million m3, leading to a considerable loss of carbon sinks. When the logging levels are viewed from the perspective of climate change, it is important to remember that trees planted in the place of felled ones will reach their fastest rate of growth only after 20–30 years. However, the next 20–30 years are exactly the years during which net emissions have to be brought first to zero and then turned negative. Thus, the logging level should not increase but decrease.

Wood has also been used as raw material for biofuels, replacing fossil fuels. If the raw material comes from trees that would otherwise stay standing or, when fully grown, would be used in longer-lasting products (e.g. furniture or buildings), then the energy use generates no climate benefit. The climate impact of trees felled for energy use is 1.2 to 2 times greater than the continued use of fossil fuels within a period of 30 to 50 years.

Throughout the world, efforts have been made to replace fossil fuels with biofuels. Using waste wood and other waste biomass as well as otherwise unusable logging and process residue is beneficial for the climate. However, the creation of waste and residue should be minimised in the first place. Moreover, waste and residue often have more valuable uses than burning for energy. In Finland, as well as elsewhere, the potential for increasing the use of bioenergy is capped by the limited availability of waste and residue and the negative climate impacts of burning forest biomass.

In sum, the hierarchy of forest use is simple. The highest priority is carbon sequestration and storage, as well as maintaining biodiversity. The second best use is long-lasting products, such as wooden buildings. The third is the chemical wood industry, such as pulp and paper mills. Wood use for energy is only fourth – only wood that, for some reason, cannot be used in higher value products and services can be used for generating bioenergy.

4. Care

Healthcare and medicine progressed by long leaps during the period of high economic growth. They are often seen as its most valuable achievements. Nevertheless, it is clear that ever bigger SUVs, daily meat consumption and plastic toys are not directly and positively linked to the health of the population. It is possible that good prioritising and organisation can maintain or even increase the well-being of the population while climate emissions and the use of natural resources are reduced.

Research has identified many synergies between healthier and less environmentally destructive lifestyles: plant-based diets, informal/incidental exercise and lower levels of air pollution are good examples. Moreover, direct contact with the soil – ‘hands in the dirt’ – whether in terms of rural life, urban agriculture or forest hiking, improves beneficial microflora and, thus, health. In turn, this prevents illness and decreases the demand for health services, making it an important part of reconstruction-era population health.

Furthermore, mental health is under stress in this time of climate change and other environmental crises. Uncertain and darkening views of the future, changing and even disappearing natural environments, demands for changes in lifestyles and careers all exert pressure on mental well-being in many ways. Psychology is only just beginning to recognise and understand phenomena like climate anxiety. Both healthcare professionals and informal communities of support have to learn how to handle these experiences that are gaining in prominence and intensity.

Feminist research has long highlighted the importance of the unpaid and ‘invisible’ work of reproduction, caregiving and emotional support, which typically goes unreported in official labour statistics. The fact that this care for individuals, communities and natural systems has no direct representation in national accounting does not make it any less consequential or valuable.

It is possible that ecological reconstruction will release so much labour from jobs that currently overburden natural systems that care and education taking place outside of wage work will get more time and space. In addition, increasing automation may free labour from routine tasks. This would mean that many fundamental tasks of care can take place in communities instead of in professional services.

The preparation for, and adaptation to, the effects of climate change are largely collective efforts. For instance, during prolonged heat waves, it is important to know one’s neighbours and have skills for preventing accidents and first response. Communities should receive professional and wide-ranging training in these matters.

5. Culture

Cultural change

Climate change and environmental crises have various effects on human experience, culture and worldviews. Individuals need to re-evaluate their values and habits, and adjust their identities, beliefs and perspectives according to the societal and environmental changes taking place. Communicating emerging experiences, feelings and meanings is crucial even if there is no readily available discourse (such as it exists, e.g., within the natural sciences) for sharing these new sentiments and ideas. Environmental research and discussions describe cultural change as a process where people become aware of the environmental impacts and boundaries of their actions, beliefs and habits and start to seek out and create more sustainable alternatives as future foundations.

One example of cultural change is the increasing phenomenon of climate anxiety. The Youth Barometer published in March 2019 showed that young people are increasingly worried about climate change. In Sitra’s Future Barometer 2019, Finnish citizens portrayed familiarity with the facts of climate change and overconsumption of natural resources and experienced these as the most threatening aspects of the future.

Climate anxiety is being expressed increasingly in public discourse and on social media. A large portion of the population has also taken part in the Sitoumus 2050 (Commitment 2050) project, initiated by the working group for sustainable development at the Prime Minister’s Office. Most of the pledges by individuals concern reducing their carbon footprint.

In popular culture, anxiety and worry over climate change, destruction of the environment, loss of biodiversity and resource scarcity are often channelled into a pessimistic view of the future. In television series and movies, visions of environments destroyed by humans and narratives of survival are becoming increasingly grim.

Simultaneously, the entertainment industry is portraying technological utopias and promises of symbiosis between technological and human evolution. The representations of the future in popular culture are deeply contradictory and display the incommensurability between different routine projections and visions of the future.

Cultural change also includes consumer choices. Plant-based diets are becoming popular and more and more people are trying to avoid air travel. Choices are increasingly influenced by the environmental and climate effects of goods and services as well as by the social sustainability of their production. It is also important to note the connection between consumption and identity, and thus between consumption and the polarisation of identities: many Finns feel, for instance, that private cars and eating meat are inalienable aspects of individual freedom and rights.

The construction of a carbon neutral society demands manifold adaptations and negotiations at many levels. However, these adaptations and negotiations need their space and time. Environmental awareness and anxiety about the future are aspects of cultural change. However, cultural change can also be actively endorsed. The tools include political work, education, communication, art and other cultural work.

The necessity of cultural change can be demonstrated by thinking about the size of the transition. If the goals and foundations of one’s life are based on material consumption, and one is faced with the fact that material consumption needs to decrease by 70–80 per cent, it is clear that this fact sounds depressing, if not impossible. However, the goal is not that after ecological reconstruction one would live like before (with the same goals, values, desires and fears), only with fewer things and choices.

Rather, the goal is to live differently, such that the amount of consumption of material resources does not determine feelings of satisfaction, happiness and meaningfulness. It is possible to live ‘more’, but not in the sense of using more material resources. Creating this different life demands a cultural change, which in its most general sense implies changes in all areas of life.

The importance of this cultural change for facing the environmental crises can be illustrated by the following train of thought. Energy production causes over half of all emissions. Energy is used to satisfy human needs and wants. Only a small fraction of the produced energy goes towards satisfying basic needs. Most of it goes to satisfying consumer societies and their consumerist citizens. Consumerism is not the satisfaction of basic needs but a culturally determined habit and identity, where buying, using and discarding goods has a value in itself. A lower level of energy production causes fewer emissions and facilitates transitioning towards low-emission technologies. Currently, the growth of energy production makes substantial emission cuts practically impossible. Consequently, a crucial tool for cutting emissions is to reduce energy consumption and production. In the dominant technological and economic framework, the task of cutting emissions in the energy sector has been handed to engineers and researchers. They should make the impossible possible: to find a way of producing ever more energy while eliminating emissions. Facing this impasse, it is good to ask, ‘What is energy for?’

If the answer is that more and more energy is needed to uphold cultural ideals of (over)consumption, then the obvious next question is, ‘Is it rational to ask the engineers for help in achieving unsustainable ideals or would it be better to direct attention to cultural change towards ideals of a good life within planetary boundaries?’

Societies, technologies and ways of using energy and natural resources have developed historically, and are fundamentally socially and culturally contingent. Therefore, a change in the fundamental logic of how society operates or how technology is used requires work aimed at renewing cultural beliefs and habits. Culture is often taken for granted as something immutable or as something that changes very slowly. Questioning fundamental cultural values, such as consumerism and economic growth, can feel threatening. However, history shows that culture is not a thing but a process. Prevalent cultural values have, at times, disappeared and been replaced by other values, sometimes even very fast, in a matter of a few years or even months.

In the end, achieving climate goals may be much more effective and flexible through cultural change towards ideals based on sustainable livelihoods than through desperate research and development into engineering solutions for fulfilling ever higher levels of consumption on a finite planet.

Basically, it can be said that contemporary culture is characterised by the pursuit of quantity and comfort. The flip-side of this pursuit are experiences of having too little time and loss of meaning. Nothing is enough, and contacts remain shallow. We are running fast, but where to? This is where ecological reconstruction has a lot to offer. Quantity and ease are products of fossil energy – it is possible to invigorate social and cultural life while using less matter and energy.

Our habits regarding everyday objects offer a good example. Many things could be used tens of times longer than they are today – in some cases almost indefinitely. Houses, boats, chairs and pans can, with proper care, maintenance and repair, last for centuries. Even coats and computers can last much longer than the current models do. This would mean a lot less material use. It would also mean that things would not be so easily replaceable and interchangeable – so insignificant. Extended life cycles for everyday objects demand that the user be skilful and able to dedicate time and effort to their use and care. This also demands considerable changes in production: a plastic outer-shell jacket, Apple ear pods or a chipboard shelf are impossible to repair. They are basically waste from the start. The cultural dimensions of objects are by no means limited to their ‘consumption’.

The practices and capabilities of human interaction offer another example. Culture, widely taken, is the sphere where shared meanings are forged and communities are knit together. Cultural resources determine what kinds of worlds we are able to build when material boundaries change and how we experience those changes. Do we have approaches for living with the emotions caused by drastic changes in natural environments? Do we have adequate skills to negotiate a shared future? Can competition and haste give way to communality?

A major goal for ecological reconstruction is to create ways and forums where the cultural aspects of environmental crises can be addressed. In addition to the sciences, the arts are pivotal. Throughout the ages, the arts have experimented with and refined our relationships with natural phenomena, materiality, coexistence and future prospects. They have developed new stories and new ways of telling stories, revealed hidden structures and imagined new alternatives. Arts have opened ways of dealing with joys and sorrows. When the consumerist culture wanes, when its impulses weaken, maybe we will meet more often in the sphere of the arts?


The schedule is pressing and there is much to do. The foundations of our society are under threat. That is why a shared vision and public coordination are needed. Individually, without coordination and a common goal, different actors (businesses, NGOs, public servants, etc.) and parts of society (education, healthcare, arts, etc.) as well as different industrial sectors (forestry, IT, heavy industry, etc.) – not to mention individual citizens – cannot undertake the transformation at the necessary scale and pace.

Only publicly elected government has the capacities and legitimacy to steer a comprehensive societal transition. However, the state with its multiple organs is not a stationary whole but a historically developing one. Generals are always fighting the last war’. Likewise, the state and the government are results of solutions to past problems and challenges. In the face of current challenges, they also need renewal and new capacities and functions. We have to find ways to make ecological boundary conditions the guiding principles for all public, private and economic activities.

Further, the costs of the transition must be divided justly. The crucial observation is that almost all groups have good reasons for committing to the shared goal despite some painful losses and hard labour. The acknowledgement of ecological boundaries is a precondition for all peaceful, rule-based, democratic and sustainable societies: from now on no group or nation can be an ecological free-rider and gain more than a short moment of competitive advantage.

When ecological boundaries, social justice, public capabilities and market mechanisms are taken into account, the following tools for ecological reconstruction are most fruitful.

The first set of tools includes emissions trading and carbon tariffs, which are already widely supported in political discussions. Their development takes place internationally, mainly in the EU. Emissions trading and carbon tariffs are basically restrictive measures: they punish unwanted activities. The rest of the tools generally fall within national sovereignty. However, especially through financing, they are connected to international cooperation. The financial connections and political possibilities are discussed in the next section. Unlike emissions trading and carbon tariffs that limit the fossil economy, the rest of the tools are for building a new economy and society.

1. Emissions trading and carbon tariffs

The idea behind emissions trading is to internalise previously externalised costs of emissions into market prices. Currently, in the EU-wide emissions trading system, a political decision is made about the amount of emission rights to be sold, implying the maximum aggregate amount of emissions that the market can cause. The price of these emission rights is then set on the basis of how much market actors are willing to pay for them.

Carbon tariffs, in turn, are intended to curb the competitive advantage that market actors outside the emissions trading area could possibly gain by not being included in the emissions trading system. The tariffs would be levied on imported goods and services according to their climate effects. The EU emissions trading system has been in use since 2005, but the carbon tariffs are still in the planning phase.

Several factors have weakened the emissions trading system’s effectiveness. For instance, construction, agriculture, transport and waste management are outside the system, even though they produce roughly half of the EU’s emissions. Industry has also been given too many free emission rights. The reasoning has been that in the absence of carbon tariffs, free emission rights protect the competitiveness of EU industries. In general, emission rights have been excessively plentiful, implying a low price and low effectiveness in curbing emissions.

On the plus side, emissions trading supports economic flexibility by harnessing demand-and-supply pricing. In principle, emissions are reduced without any political deliberation or decision-making over technological pathways or the precise areas of economic activity to be scaled down. At the same time, this is one of its weaknesses: emissions trading contains no coordination over how the existing social and political systems (e.g. complex energy and transport systems with their intertwined path dependencies) could be radically overhauled in a reasonably orderly way. In addition, emissions trading as such does not facilitate simultaneous attention to unsustainable use of natural resources and loss of biodiversity.

From the perspective of ecological reconstruction, it is vital to note that emissions trading does not generate investments – it simply punishes high-emission economic activity. A wider and tighter emissions trading system in the EU must be aimed for to ensure that emissions caused by industry decline. In addition, carbon tariffs on the EU border are a good idea. However, the rapid renewal of all infrastructure and practices currently relying on fossil fuels, and the task of addressing the other environmental crises, more or less connected with climate change, demand many more tools besides carbon trading.

2. Public investments

Ecological reconstruction requires massive investments in infrastructure and elsewhere. In the EU and the US, the aggregate level of investments has been exceptionally low for a long time despite uniquely low interest rates. In Finland, the level of investment has been one of the lowest in the EU. Uncertainty about the future of the global economy has been identified often as a key reason for such low investment: investors have difficulties in identifying profitable investments. Investments into low-carbon infrastructure are particularly challenging because they typically imply long commitments, high up-front costs and high technological risks.

Monetary policy requires additional measures. Emissions trading also fails here: it can shift the profitability between different investments, but as such it does not generate new investments. This means that active fiscal policy, especially including long-term public investments, is called for. Public investments create demand and direct production. Combined with an active innovation policy (see section 3), public investments also provide a platform for piloting and developing new solutions.

Among potential public investments are subsidies for environmentally beneficial projects that currently have overly long payback periods to make sense for private investors. Subsidies for companies can push markets forward in cases where the technological path is known, but companies still regard the needed investments as a bit too early or risky.

Examples of investment targets are charging infrastructure for public and private electric vehicles, subsidies for infra-scale heat pumps, educating farmers and providing them with tools for carbon-sequestering practices and diversifying production.

3. Mission-oriented innovation policy

Even in the case of basic infrastructure, reconstruction is not only about routine planning and implementation – it requires creativity. Furthermore, creativity must be directed properly to ensure that the necessary changes in a wide range of interdependent socio-technical systems can be realised in a relatively short period of time.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato and her colleagues have emphasised the need for a mission-oriented innovation policy. The key idea arises from the observation that, historically, the government had a decisive role when a network of different actors would produce breakthrough innovations. The government has helped by setting the bar high enough by coordinating the efforts of different actors and by guaranteeing long-term financing. Examples of these kinds of cases include the moon flight and the internet. A similar case in Finland is the success of Nokia and the telecommunication cluster.

The success of ecological reconstruction depends on different actors working together in a common direction. In recent decades, ideas like network management and open innovation have been popular. These ideas are characterised by cooperation between the public sector, universities and various representatives of the private sector. Current discussions around deep-tech arising from Silicon Valley also share this feature: the goal is to combine deep (university research-based) technological knowledge and business expertise in rapid up-scaling to solve not only problems in software development but also in the material world.

The make-or-break points of preventing and adapting to environmental crises must be identified across economic sectors. Actors within and across different sectors must share a common goal, and knowledge must be disseminated openly. The economic risks of investing in innovation should not be allowed to form a bottleneck. As a shift towards such mission-oriented innovation cannot be initiated by the market, the government has to assume leadership.

Examples of innovation policy missions are the renewal of the Helsinki metropolitan area energy system to minimise technologies based on burning; technologies and practices for expanding, monitoring, managing and trading forest-based carbon sinks and storage; technologies and practices of carbon-sequestering agriculture; construction of large-scale wooden buildings; electrification of transport, including energy storage; humane care for the elderly; and eco-social educational policies that support both practical skills (crafts, maintenance, care) and cognitive capacities.

4. Job guarantee

For a long time, discussions around jobs and employment have been content-free. That is, policies have sought to raise the level of employment, and there has been little-to-no debate on the job content – what kind of work is worth doing. Another topic missing from the discussion is direct employment by the public sector.

Political economic studies have widely discussed the idea of job guarantee. The starting point is the observation that unemployment is not needed to restrain inflation. Within job guarantee, the public sector offers jobs to all willing employees with salaries that, in practice, become the minimum wage. The jobs do not require long training but have decent conditions and are directed toward improving the society. The government finances the guarantee, but the jobs may be organised more locally – for instance, at the municipal level.

Originally, job guarantee was presented as an automatic macroeconomic balancing mechanism to offset economic cycles. In times of low demand, the guarantee increases public spending to maintain full employment. The job guarantee fits very well with ecological reconstruction. There are both jobs that need to be done and people who are unemployed against their will. Examples of reconstruction jobs include reforestation of peatlands in the countryside and energy and waste services in cities. In addition, many infrastructure projects involve jobs that do not require previous qualifications.

A job guarantee offers citizens a sense of economic security and reinforces the idea that it is not necessary to take any job regardless of its content. The job guarantee ensures that there are always jobs available that provide a livelihood and contribute towards building a sustainable society.

5. Sectoral transition policies

Transitioning away from the unsustainable use of natural resources and fossil-fuel based production infrastructure means that some areas of production will disappear and the practices in many others will change profoundly.

In Finland, for instance, the energy use of peat must be stopped. This means that the current job profiles of hundreds of workers in the state-owned Vapo will become obsolete. A sectoral transition policy includes retraining for workers and services for forming new career paths. These new jobs can include, for instance, reforestation of peatlands and construction of wind power.

Big disruptions are also in store for shipyards building luxury cruisers and for the construction industry building shopping malls out of concrete, glass and steel. The workers in these sectors have skills that are readily applicable in ecological reconstruction, but the current market conditions do not direct their labour towards the correct goals. The new jobs must be organised so that the workers’ motivation is maintained or increased.

One model for sectoral transition policies can be found in Spain, where the minister for ecological transition, in close cooperation with the labour unions, directs a programme of shutting down the last coal mines. Similar policies are currently being planned in several other countries.

Education and training

Relationships with nature and care for the environment start developing in the early years as parts of the skills, capabilities, ways of thinking and acting that children acquire in their environment. The identity and worldview of a child are influenced by the prevalent culture with all its possibly contradictory values and notions. It is possible to acquire both a strong connection to nature and a sensitivity to environmental issues and ideals of economic success through continuous growth or both a view of nature as a self-repairing whole and as an inexhaustible source of materials.

Environmental education is an essential part of the cultural change included in ecological reconstruction because it raises awareness of biodiversity, planetary boundaries of human life, the processes of nature that uphold all life and the socio-cultural values that shape our interaction with nature and non-human life. Environmental education for children, adolescents and adults alike communicates models of ecologically sustainable life, gives grounds for evaluating ecologically sound values and offers tools for independently forming an ecologically informed view of the world. In Finland, environmental education is among the activities of many NGOs and is also included in the contents of exhibitions in natural parks and museums of natural history.

An important part of environmental education is given within the legally mandated programmes of early and basic education. Sustainable lifestyles are mentioned in the National Agency for Education’s national core curriculum for early childhood education and care (2016) and local plans for early education (2017). The national core curriculum for basic education (renewed in 2016, in use stepwise in 2016–2019) highlights forming wide capabilities, which means not only mastering diverse new subjects and skills but also the capacity to connect them.

One of the learning goals mentioned in the plans is building a sustainable future and the skills of participation and democratic action needed therein. This goal is tied to the subject area of environmental studies, which combines information from multiple sciences and utilises various learning environments. It is also connected with the annual multi-subject learning modules included in the national study plan. The modules are implemented in different ways in different schools and provide an opportunity to delve deeper into environmental questions with help from multiple subjects. According to the ministry’s directive, sustainable life must also characterise the schools’ mode of operation – that is, everyday practices.

In the future, more extensive environmental education must be provided to individuals and groups during different stages of life and be tailored to different aspects of life. The contents must contain more education on the topics of democratic political action at different levels. In addition to emphasising nature protection and conservation, environmental education must increase citizens’ resilience in the face of the changes brought about by climate change, new technologies and new infrastructure.

Education can be thought of not only as a top-down effort of information and guidance but also as informal negotiations and discussions between citizens concerning the values and meanings of nature and of a good life within planetary boundaries. As the population and the number of uninhabitable areas on the planet grow, environmental education must strengthen solidarity and awareness of human dependence not only on nature but on each other. The role of skills in communication and mediation and mediation will get bigger.

In addition to environmental education, ecological reconstruction requires development and intensification in several areas of education and training. As production, logistics and construction change, some jobs are lost and new ones gained, which increases the need for professional (re)training. Technical and natural scientific fields are essential for developing many solutions.

However, social transition and cultural change also demand other types of skills. The effects of new technologies must be analysed critically from both the perspectives of human communities and natural environments. Due to environmental destruction and change, migration and other types of intercultural encounters become more prevalent.

The increase in catastrophic natural phenomena causes anxiety, possibly together with anxiety over injustice. The experience of the lived environment is transformed; as familiar natural environments change, seasons appear out of joint and everyday life must be adjusted accordingly. These changes cause many kinds of emotional responses and thoughts. The better and wider the knowledge and understanding of the environment, and the better the related skills, the easier it will be for citizens to negotiate these challenges and live with them. Environmental education has a key role in building up skills and knowledge, but addressing the environmental and resource crises and socio-economic change also necessitate renewal in basic, professional and higher education.

Issues of ecological and social sustainability will affect all sectors, from agriculture to healthcare and from trade to heavy industry. Changes in the education system, like cultural change more generally, demand humanistic and social scientific skills. Multidisciplinary environmental research has long understood the significance of cooperation between different fields of research and expertise. From the perspective of ecological reconstruction, the situation is promising: issues of nature, environment and the interaction between human and natural systems have finally been embedded in the humanities and social sciences for good. The groundwork for the scientific and educational aspects of ecological reconstruction has already been laid.

6. Education

Education is a fitting tool for ecological reconstruction because it already has a considerable and lasting influence on people’s skills and mind-sets, and officials and politicians are used to directing it vis-à-vis changes in the world. Educational policies must now anticipate the needs of ecological reconstruction.

Education planning in recent decades has relied largely on observed trends in the job market. Thus, it is expected that, for instance, the need for education in the agricultural and textile sectors will reduce further, while the need for education in marketing, sales and administration will continue to increase. However, the environmental crises and the socio-economic response to them cause a non-linear break in educational demands. The anticipation of disruptions in employment and working life must pay attention, on one hand, to the material boundary conditions of the economy and, on the other hand, to digitalisation, automation and ageing of the population.

From the perspective of ecological reconstruction, the above-mentioned sectors – (multispecies) agriculture and various sectors producing (sustainable and long-lasting) physical objects – are not a thing of the past. They require a lot of skilled labour and new expertise. It cannot be expected that global trade will continue to develop in a direction where it is always somebody else producing the food and goods we consume. Yet it seems that many jobs, for instance, in the insurance and financial sectors, can be automated. This means lower labour demand in these sectors.

In sum, education has to emphasise learning about the intertwinement of natural and human systems. In all sectors of society, understanding of the material boundaries of human activities has to be improved.

7. Accepting lower levels of consumption


Pictures, statues, poetry, stories, music and dance have always been methods for perceiving reality, expressing thought and creating meaning. Although our views of art are historical and cultural, certain key elements, like connections to the senses and emotions, expressivity, creativity and collectivity, have typically accompanied artistic world-making. In art, humans investigate themselves, their society and their environment. Art has expressed and interpreted intra- and inter-community conflicts and ideals, social upheavals and relationships with the non-human.

Artistic expression has a reciprocal relationship with concurrent views of humanity, nature and the world, as well as its material conditions. Futuristic art and its experimentality were inspired by the noise and speed of the rapidly industrialising world, propelled by the possibilities of the steam engine, motor car and electric devices. The modernisation of the Western world was reflected in the development of new forms of expression in literature, visual arts and music. The power of art in portraying and communicating ideas and experiences has had a decisive influence on the development of societies – Finnish national romanticism is a good example.

Furthermore, the relationship between humans and nature, questions of protecting nature and environmental problems have been addressed in the visual arts, literature, music and the performing arts. Famous literary examples are the fictional story ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’ about the disappearance of birds, which US biologist Rachel Carson placed at the beginning of her book Silent Spring (1962), and the book Laulujoutsen – Ultima Thulen lintu (Whooper Swan – Bird of Ultima Thule, 1950) by Finnish writer Yrjö Kokko, relating the impressions of a photographic journey to a nesting area of a then nearly extinct species. Both books succeeded in raising interest and alarm in their contemporaries. To a great extent, due to Carson’s book, a critical discussion on pesticides emerged, and Kokko’s book helped in ending the persecution of the whooping swan.

However, the main or only task of art is by no means to directly influence a particular topic. At the most fundamental level, art deals with human existence and the meaning of life. Art cares for meaningfulness by holding a constant inner and interpersonal dialogue on what is important in individual and common life. In art, the dependence of one human on other humans and nature becomes recognisable, acceptable and even enjoyable. Art expresses the fragility, finiteness and mortality of all life and the necessity of change.

Art has a specific relationship with truth. Among drastic changes, art can help us understand why facts are hard to deal with and provide the capability for accepting the truth. The importance of truthfulness is heightened in societies where there is a strong contradiction between the scientific, lived and experienced truth and the so-called official truth. In artistic work and in experiencing works of art, facing facts and truthfulness happen as collective processes, giving space also to the emotional reactions that new facts and knowledge may trigger.

Traditionally, art has been seen as connected to the senses and emotions: different visual, rhythmic, melodic, gestural and verbal expressions arouse feelings, experiences and insights. In this way, art can also portray phenomena that are otherwise hard to grasp. In this context, several humanists and art researchers have noted that climate change is a phenomenon whose spatio-temporal scale and planetary effects may be beyond human comprehension. Instead of scientific graphs, the matter may be easier to grasp via artistic means.

Artists have freedom of material, expressive and conceptual experimentation and freedom of imagination. They can propose new ways of being human and of forming collectives. Environmental philosophy has, for a long time, investigated how non-humans should be acknowledged as actors influencing human societies and cultures. The role of animals in scientific research, economic production and everyday life demands ethical scrutiny. As wild animals become ever more uncommon, the conditions and modes of co-existence of humans and non-humans must be reviewed.

All political measures have to start from the principle that nobody is encouraged to consume against their will ‘in order to keep the wheels of the economy turning’. Currently, citizens reducing their consumption are, in practice, accused of hurting the economy. Correspondingly, nobody should be (economically or socially) forced to take a job that destroys the prerequisites of future societies (see the section on job guarantee).

Typically, worrying about a decline in consumption is ultimately worrying about how to finance welfare services and social security. However, at the material level, the services provided by a teacher or a nurse are in no way dependent on someone first buying minced meat or a car. As part of ecological reconstruction, the economy must be reorganised so that the level of private consumption does not determine whether a teacher or a nurse can be paid a living wage. At the material level, the economy must be organised so that there are sufficient sustainably produced food, heated housing and transportation services for the teacher and the nurse. In so far as education and healthcare demand products that are not made in Finland, there must also be sufficient exports to import the necessities.

What will replace the missing consumption? As noted above, it depends on the cultural development, but at least spending time with communities, families and friends, and enjoying hobbies and artistic endeavours, provide a multitude of possibilities.


A key determining feature of the financing of ecological reconstruction is Finland’s membership in the Eurozone. Finland has transferred its sovereignty over monetary policy (e.g. central bank interest rates) to the European Monetary Union (EMU) and European Central Bank (ECB). Their main objective is Europe’s economic stability. Although Finland is still responsible for its fiscal policy – namely, its spending and taxes – this, too, is constrained by EMU budget and debt rules. According to the European Stability and Growth Pact (SGP), government budget deficit should not exceed 3 per cent (in relation to the national GDP) and government debt should not exceed 60 per cent (in relation to GDP).

In the modern fiat money economy, where money is not backed by gold or any other physical stock, money as such is not a scarce resource for the issuer of currency. After the 2008 financial crisis, the central banks in the US and Europe demonstrated this in practice by launching unprecedented programmes of quantitative easing. Between 2015 and 2018, the ECB bought financial assets, such as government bonds, worth 2,600 billion euros. All of this was newly issued central bank money. After the crisis, central banks also used non-conventional measures, such as very low, even negative, interest rates.

In the extreme, a fiat money system means that the issuer of currency can, in principle, buy everything that is sold in that currency. In other words, in the Eurozone, material capacity (e.g. natural resources, labour, technology) is the boundary condition for what is possible in European reconstruction, not the amount of money available. Thus, how much of this capacity is used for building the common good is a question of political will and decision-making.

Therefore, if Europe would reach a consensus on the need and means of ecological reconstruction, financing would not be an issue – at least not if the inputs required from outside the Eurozone are limited. Owing to the need for imports, sufficient capacity for exports must be taken care of. Within the Eurozone, central bank financing can be organised in different ways. For instance, professor of economics Paul De Grauwe has proposed that the European Investment Bank (EIB) start a large ecological investment programme and the ECB buy bonds issued by the EIB for this purpose. The ECB would buy the EIB bonds as the government bonds that the ECB now holds (due to quantitative easing) mature.

Even if the financing were to happen at the Eurozone level, the investments could be planned and implemented at the national, regional and municipal levels. However, multinational projects would also be necessary. For instance, energy and transport systems should not be planned strictly from national perspectives.

Alongside Germany and some other countries, Finland has supported tight application of the European Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). From the perspective of ecological reconstruction, this does not make sense. (The only emission-curbing feature in the pact is that it prevents governments from using direct measures to increase aggregate demand. This, however, has nothing to do with ecological reconstruction.) With other progressive nations, Finland should support a policy that involves making large investments in sustainable infrastructure possible, regardless of whether the investments lead to export and tax incomes or not. Instead of budget discipline, the goal must be climate and natural resource discipline. This implies significant changes in the economic directives and rules in the Eurozone.

At the national level, Finland can initiate ecological reconstruction even within the current international agreements, either by following or breaking the rules of the SGP.

Within the limits of the SGP, Finland can make some investments by moderately increasing the level of government debt and shifting finances from one item to another within the budget. Government can also make changes in subsidies and taxes so that market choices supporting ecological reconstruction become more attractive. The changes in incentives must be planned and implemented so that, in addition to the reconstruction of infrastructure, equal possibilities for a good life are supported. For instance, increasing taxes on emissions must not lead to a situation where some members of the population cannot afford to meet their basic needs.

Past Finnish governments have realised these kinds of measures in various combinations. However, they have been, and still are, insufficient, even in connection with emissions trading and other European level policies.

Using the tools of ecological reconstruction – mission-oriented innovation policy, public investment, job guarantee, sectoral transition policy, education and lowering of consumption – requires more. It will likely entail breaking the SGP. In terms of the possibilities and costs of financing, this is an opportune moment because the Finnish government can borrow very cheaply from the financial market. There are no signs that the market would consequently lose confidence in Finland’s ability to service the debt.

It is also important to note that since 2015, Finland’s debt (in proportion to GDP) to creditors other than the Bank of Finland has decreased, not increased. This is due to the ECB’s quantitative easing, which has meant that the Bank of Finland has bought large amounts of Finnish sovereign debt. It can be assumed that the Bank of Finland will under no circumstances demand the repayment of these debts under conditions that are detrimental to Finland.

As Finland is not economically sovereign, the breaking of budget and debt rules is based on three assumptions. The first is that breaking the rules due to financing ecological reconstruction will not be punished. So far, the rules of the SGP have been repeatedly broken, including by significant economies, such as Germany and France. Programmatic investments into ecological reconstruction are likely easier to accept as grounds for rule-breaking compared to financing regular spending.

Second, it must be assumed that investments in low-carbon solutions will help Finnish companies gain advantageous positions in international competition. The conditions of new debt are so favourable that in such a highly skilled economy, it should not be very difficult to find profitable investment targets. Third, if the investments do not lead to export profits in the future, it must be assumed that the ECB will act as one’s own central bank should and guarantee the continuity of basic economic functions (unlike what happened in the case of the debt crisis in Greece).

Ecological reconstruction shifts the focal points of economic policy. A larger share of economic activity will fall within the purview of democratic deliberation. This helps to ensure that investments supporting the long-term common good are made. At least for some time, a certain share of private purchasing power will be replaced by public investment capacity. In this regard, there will be regional variation: public investment into electricity, heating and transport is needed especially in cities, while in the countryside and areas of dispersed settlement, the role of private investment will be more significant. This difference must also be balanced by differentiated treatment of urban and rural areas in taxation and subsidies.

Overall, the economy will be directed towards concrete social and material goals. A high GDP growth rate or high employment rate, for example, will lose its significance as a stand-alone goal. The focus must be on ensuring equal opportunities for a good life while climate emissions and natural resource use are decreased radically. The content, quality and aims of economic activity – not the quantity – are paramount.


Holappa, Lauri and Jussi Ahokas. (2014). Rahatalous haltuun. Like.

Järvensivu, Paavo. (2016). Rajattomasti rahaa niukkuudessa. Like.

Mitchell, W., Wray, L.R. and Watts, M. (2019). Macroeconomics. Macmillan International.

The Green New Deal for Europe:
A Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition