The environmental policy of Finnish ecomodernists, in brief

Ecomodernism is a new environmental movement. Many people have asked whether there is anything new to it, or whether it is, as one commenter put it, a slogan searching for a meaning. Fair enough: so far, we’ve been content with the Ecomodernist Manifesto and, here in Finland, with the Charter of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. But to become something more than just a slogan, we need to begin to give more or less concrete policy proposals.

Therefore, we in the Ecomodernist Society of Finland have been preparing an initial draft of what we actually think about environmental policy. We hope to begin to illustrate what we hope to achieve, and how we are going to achieve that. To wit: the policy guidelines, in brief (!) and translated to English by yours truly. Feel free to use them in your own Ecomodernist or other endeavors!

Note that we strongly believe in living documents and in feedback. We readily accept that these are not perfect and could be improved greatly: therefore, any feedback is extremely valuable and will be taken seriously.

Note also that there is still a lot of work to be done in fleshing out many of these policy guidelines and translating them to actual policy proposals. Help and comments are greatly valued.

The original Finnish version can be found here. 

The environmental policy outline of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland

The Ecomodernist Society of Finland promotes farsighted and holistic environmental policy that avoids partial optimization. Our proposals are based on the best research available to us, and they are updated regularly as our knowledge improves. We absolutely refuse to bind ourselves in any proposal, solution or mode of thought to the extent that we cannot change our stance entirely should evidence so warrant. Changing our minds is, to us, a virtue: when the facts change, ecomodernists change their minds. (With hat tip to Keynesians.)

At this time, the most acute environmental problems are climate change and biodiversity loss through human action – and in the foreseeable future, increasingly through climate change. However, environmental problems are not limited to these two. In this brief summary, the challenges are divided to eight themes, namely

  1. Climate change and energy
  2. Biodiversity
  3. Fresh water and marine ecosystems
  4. Natural resources
  5. Community structure
  6. Air pollution
  7. Chemicals and harmful substances
  8. Green economy

In the following, the broad outlines of our policy proposals are sketched out for each of these themes.

1. Climate change and energy

  1. Mitigating and, if possible, preventing dangerous climate change is probably the most important single environmental problem today. If climate change proceeds according to current estimates, it endangers not only the lives and livelihoods of billions of people, but also the global biodiversity.
  2. There are no silver bullets against climate change. However, energy production plays a crucial role. Dangerous climate change is happening because of unabated burning of fossil fuels. By 2050, energy generation should essentially be free of carbon dioxide emissions. The scale of the challenge is apparent from the fact that even today, some 87 percent of world’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels. Therefore, climate success depends not only on strong support for renewable energy, but also on greatly enhanced energy efficiency. In addition, technologies for carbon capture and storage must be researched and developed, although their widespread adoption should be dependent on better understanding of long-term behavior of captured carbon dioxide.
  3. Even though the strong growth of renewable energy is encouraging, there are certain open questions about the extent to which they alone can truly substitute fossil fuels. Aside from these issues, the already short timeframe we have for implementing the most massive turnaround in the history of energy systems demands that responsible policy does not categorically rule out any potential alternative. For these reasons we join with the opinion of the IPCC and several expert organizations in acknowledging that nuclear power remains an important part of any realistic climate mitigation plan.
  4. In addition, stopping dangerous climate change requires that current deforestation trend is stopped and turned around towards reforestation. For this reason, we as a rule support efforts to increase forested area and the amount of carbon sequestered in vegetation. We acknowledge that active, judicious forestry management can increase the capacity of forests to sequester carbon dioxide. Furthermore, promoting the use of wood for buildings and other durables as a replacement for concrete and steel, for example, doubles the climate benefits.
  5. Behavioral changes, improvements in community structure, and more enlightened policies also have important roles to play in reducing energy demand and environmental degradation. We support and promote actions and policies that seek to, for example, promote circular and sharing economy, more restrained consumption and lifestyles, greener diets, increased awareness of environmental issues, and reduce energy and resource consumption. However, the success and long-term effects of these policies are not self-evident. For this reason, we demand environmental policies that produce results even if the majority does not change their behavior radically or require them to adopt wholesale “green” values.
  6. Climate change mitigation and other environmental policies must give the world’s poor an opportunity to considerably increase their standards of living. Proposals that ignore this requirement are not ethically or morally sound; furthermore, they will not be acceptable to the world’s poor and hence will not be adopted.
  7. In Finland, policies that seek the decarbonization of energy generation must be continued and accelerated. The assumptions of emission intensity of different energy sources must rely on science, not politics.
    1. Policy priority should be given, first, to substitution of fossil fuels (including peat); second, to limiting bioenergy use to sustainable levels; third, to mitigating other environmental damages.
    2. As a rule, new fossil fuel or peat fired power plants should not be allowed in Finland anymore. For plants that can also use renewable fuels (biogas, biomass, biochar), the use of these fuels must be a condition for a permission.
    3. Subsidies for renewable and/or low-carbon energy must be predictable and stable to promote investment. Overtly generous subsidies that are politically unsustainable should be avoided, as unstable investing environment causes long-term problems.
    4. The level of subsidies should nevertheless be high enough to promote strong growth of low-carbon energy generation.
    5. More subsidies should be directed towards research and development instead of feed-in tariffs and other production-based subsidies.
    6. The use of peat and coal for energy generation should be phased out as soon as possible. Peat use should be directed towards sources and applications where emissions and degradation of environment is minimized.
    7. The use of bioenergy needs to be limited to levels that independent research confirms as sustainable, and the use of waste streams from agriculture and forestry should be prioritized.
    8. To the extent that this is possible, biomass should be prioritized towards substituting fossil or fossil-intensive raw materials and feedstocks in bioeconomy and outside EU emissions trading, for example in chemistry, as transport fuels, and as building materials.
    9. As a rule, prime wood should not be directed to energy use.
    10. The capabilities and skills required for safe, reliable use of nuclear energy must be maintained and the building of new nuclear power must remain a possibility in the future.
    11. The usefulness and relevancy of current nuclear energy legislation and governmental support must be reviewed with an open mind. The possibilities to construct next generation nuclear power in Finland (i.e. fourth generation reactors) should be reviewed and promoted actively.
    12. The impact assessment for replacing or closing existing nuclear power plants and building new ones must be based on the best available research evidence.

2. Biodiversity

  1. Biodiversity loss is in some ways even more critical environmental problem than climate change. The greatest threat to biodiversity is the increasing appropriation of natural environment for unsustainable human needs. At the moment, only about a fifth of Earth’s surface remains free of human activity, and these few areas reside mostly in cold or dry areas of the planet. The mitigation of the effects of human activity is dependent primarily on increasing the efficiency of primary production of food, raw materials and energy. As a rule, the capability of already human-appropriated land to produce wellbeing needs to be increased. In many cases, this means intensification of production. To the extent of possible, however, alternatives where human and natural needs can be interleaved and production is compatible with sustaining and enhancing biodiversity should also be promoted. Such alternatives are possible in some forms of agriculture and energy production, for example. The development of new and improved methods should be able to use, without prejudice but with case-by-case assessment, any and all methods possible, including genetic technologies.
  2. Sustainable agriculture and forestry should be promoted. In Finland, new, large enough and interconnected natural reserves should be established. The proposals for forest and swampland protection should be executed in full, and “multi use areas” where industrial forestry is forbidden need to be established around the country. This is necessary to ensure the ecological connections of the species, and to ensure the genetic diversity. In addition, particularly vulnerable ecosystems such as fells and rapids must be protected.

3. Fresh water and marine ecosystems

  1. Even though the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide content threatens world’s oceans with acidification, at this moment pollution, trash, land-based nutrient overflows and overfishing are the greatest threats facing the world’s marine ecosystems. Particularly to maintain ocean environments, the nutrient overflows must be reduced, fishing quotas reduced, and too efficient methods of fishing must be disallowed. In vulnerable Arctic areas in particular, human activity should be reduced to absolute minimum. Plans for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic are in direct conflict with efforts to promote decarbonization and the sustainability of marine environment.
  2. In Finland, the Baltic Sea remains one of the most acute marine protection problems. Even though Finland cannot solve the problem on its own, it has to develop its practices so that nutrient overflows to the Baltic can be reduced to a minimum. The funds reserved for the purpose should be used efficiently, however, and using them to stop foreign emissions should remain a possibility if this provides better value for the money.

4. Natural resources

  1. The increase in world population and their standards of living, combined with decreased availability of natural resources, is causing pressures to appropriate even larger areas for human use and to use even more destructive methods for extracting the resources. To slow down and to stop this trend, it is of utmost importance to improve material use efficiency, or the welfare produced per unit of material used. Circular economy i.e. the more careful use of waste streams should be promoted forcefully.
  2. Mining and other natural resource extraction will, however, be a part of society in the future. Extractive industries must be based on principles of sustainability and equity that account for the interests of local population, future generations, and the nature. Even though mining and other raw material extraction will probably never become truly “green” business, utmost efforts should be put towards reducing their environmental impacts. Environmental damage per unit of material produced should be an important yardstick for regulation.
  3. Whenever possible, extractive industries should be based in countries that can and will regulate and supervise them properly, and where the preconditions for minimally damaging extraction can be met. At the moment, Finland does not fulfil the regulatory criteria, but improvements to natural resource legislation and increasing the authority of environmental protection agencies could make Finland a forerunner in responsible mining and other extraction.

5. Community structure

  1. Dense habitation is one of the ways through which the largest possible part of the Earth can be left free of human daily influence. Therefore, we promote urbanization and policies that increase population density in cities and communities.
  2. The livability of cities should be promoted and increased even as they grow. Important means to that end include ensuring ease of movement, livability of the environment, and access to services.
  3. Improving the usability and reach of mass transport and bicycling (including the use of light electric vehicles) are essential features of sustainable urban development.
  4. Even though private car ownership in rural areas remains a necessity, urban areas should not, as a rule, be developed to require car ownership. The negative effects of widespread car use, such as roadspace needs and decrease in air quality, must be acknowledged. In the future, solutions such as electrification of transport and shared, self-driving cars can possibly reduce the negative effects of wheeled transport.

2. Air pollution

  1. Millions die every year and many others are sickened due to poor air quality. The problem is most acute in countries where modern energy access — for instance electricity — is not widespread, and e.g. biomass is burned locally.
  2. The use of coal or biomass in more centralized power plants causes harmful pollution as well, but with the exception of carbon dioxide, they are even now feasible to remove to a large extent at the plant. Therefore, although it should be avoided if better alternatives are available, even coal-based electricity can be an improvement in many developing countries.
  3. Coal remains a cheap method for electrification, but overall carbon dioxide emissions need to be lowered. Therefore, the remaining “emission budget” would be fair to allocate mostly for the use of developing countries. This means even more stringent efforts from developed countries to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
  4. The electrification of energy sector (transport included) should be increased, as it reduces the need for burning coal or biomass locally.
  5. At the same time, the share of biomass and coal burning in electricity and heat generation should be reduced whenever possible.

7. Chemicals and harmful substances

  1. Human activity spreads potentially harmful chemicals and other substances in the environment. The effects of these substances should be assessed based on the best available scientific evidence.
  2. To the extent possible, the spread of harmful substances in the environment and in the food chain should be reduced. However, it should be noted that the effects are generally dependent on exposure, and in many cases not using the substances also has its effects. As an example, the use of preservatives to avoid food spoilage is generally justified.

8. Green economy

  1. Environmental protection should not be subordinated to economic benefits. The well-being of the natural environment should be a value in itself, and it shouldn’t be valued in financial terms. The danger of this economic approach to environmental protection is that irreplaceable natural values can be destroyed simply because we cannot properly measure their value, and/or because hidden assumptions result to some other activity being valued temporarily higher.
  2. However, we must acknowledge that true sustainability implies economic sustainability as well. Economic well-being makes it possible in the first place to leave resources unutilized. Therefore, we also have to be prepared to make choices regarding which natural values we want to prioritize.
  3. In emission reductions and sustainable development, regional and global policies and regulation are the key. Voluntary corporate social responsibility is not enough to ensure sustainable development.
  4. Taxation should emphasize taxing unwanted and harmful activities. In carbon taxation, the Fee-and-Dividend model proposed by James Hansen should be examined. In this model, fossil fuels are taxed when they first change owners or when they enter a trade area. Carbon leakage would be plugged with carbon tolls for products, whose “leakage” would otherwise seem likely. Paid carbon taxes would be returned in full and equally to all citizens.
  5. Since one all-embracing solution to environmental regulation is not likely to happen in the near future, a palette of policies must be used to promote more sustainable solutions, ease their political acceptability and to punish environmentally destructive alternatives. Political guidance should be predictable yet ambitious enough so that sudden changes in either direction become unnecessary.

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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