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Daring Cities Podcast, Episode 2: Turku, Finland

Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency.

In this episode we visit Turku, Finland. This city, dating back to the Viking era, will be carbon neutral by 2029. It has become a laboratory city for circular development, with a focus on reducing waste across sectors — solving the waste problem before it even starts.

Show notes

  • Host: Julia Scott
  • Produced by: ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability
  • Music credits: Lani K Thompson, Ketsa, Chad Crouch

Episode transcript

Julia Scott: [00:00:06] On this episode of Daring Cities, we visit Turku, Finland. As cities around the world work to meet their Paris agreement targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Turku will be carbon neutral by 2029 — just nine years from now.

Risto Veivo: [00:00:20] And from that point on, what we shall be carbon negative or climate positive, so that our net impact on the atmosphere will not be a warming one anymore, but shall be a cooling one.

Julia Scott: [00:00:33] Finland’s oldest city has also become a laboratory city for circular development, with a focus on reducing waste across sectors — solving the waste problem before it even starts.

Liisa Lahti: [00:00:45] What has happened is that we have built our society based only on waste, creating waste, and it is so embedded in our everyday life and in our production that we might not even see.

Julia Scott: [00:01:05] Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency. Cities are taking daring steps toward solving the climate crisis and finding ways to navigate opposition and support from unexpected places as they go. I’m your host, Julia Scott. Daring Cities is produced by ICLEI: local governments for sustainability. ICLEI is a global network of more than 2,000 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. We drive local action for low emission, nature based, equitable, resilient and circular urban development.

Julia Scott: [00:01:58] Turku is a proud city of 300,000 residents. It used to be the capital of Finland. It’s been a university town since the late Middle Ages. Its location, at the mouth of Aura Riverm has made it a seafaring city since the Viking age.

Risto Veivo: [00:02:12] It’s full of history and tradition and beauty.

Julia Scott: [00:02:16] One of the city’s traditions is its decades-long focus on the environment. Turku promoted sustainable development before there was even a term for it, says Risto Veivo…

Risto Veivo: [00:02:27] … Risto Veivo, and I work at the city of Turku in Finland as manager for climate policy.

Julia Scott: [00:02:35] Turku has had an environmental protection office since the early 1980s. It joined the Cities for Climate Campaign in the ’90s. Turku staff members were at the Rio Summit in 1992. In spite of those bona fides, Risto remembers the first time he asked the city council to set a binding climate goal: a 20 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by the year 2020. This was back in 2009, and it was controversial about whether that was reasonable or realistic.

Risto Veivo: [00:03:07] And then we did set these goals, and the world has been changing very fast. And we have also been successful with our investments. So only in five years’ time, six years’ time from that decision, we already had reached those goals.

Julia Scott: [00:03:23] That was by 2015, five years ahead of schedule. So then they set new climate goals. The city’s 800th anniversary was coming up in 2029. What better gift than becoming climate neutral, with the help of Turku’s citizens and businesses? That daring goal pushed the city into a renewable energy transition that, believe it or not, is already almost complete. And that’s where our other guest comes in.

Liisa Lahti: [00:03:50] I’m Liisa Lahti. I’m the project manager for the Circular Economy Road Map for the city of Turku.

Julia Scott: [00:03:57] Liisa Lahti is an expert on circular development, which is the art and science of designing products and infrastructure differently to use resources, including waste, in more efficient and creative ways — and to avoid more waste down the road. Starting in 2010, the city made a small number of big decisions that set it on the path to deep decarbonisation. One was to construct a wastewater treatment plant with 13 of its neighbors, which serves the whole region. Not only has the discharge gotten cleaner, but it became a renewable energy source in two different ways. First, a heat pumping station extracts the thermal energy from the wastewater to heat and cool local homes.

Liisa Lahti: [00:04:47] So we actually using the heat that would normally go for waste. We are using that also to heat our buildings.

Julia Scott: [00:04:55] Second, the sludge itself serves a purpose. It’s trucked offsite and processed into biogas, which is potent enough to produce electricity for thousands of homes, and powers local transportation, too. If you catch a taxi in Turku, there’s a good chance it’s filled with natural gas from the wastewater plant.

Liisa Lahti: [00:05:13] It is just waste. But what have happened in in Turku is that we want to use that sludge. The bacteria that is in the sludge will produce biogas if given the chance to do it.

[00:05:24] These wastewater activities produce 10 times more energy than they consume, meaning the plant pays for itself. Here’s a number for you: 91 percent. That’s how much of the Earth’s finite energy and resources are wasted after they go into producing our products, lifestyles and cities. Right now, only nine percent of the materials flowing through the global economy are given a second life. Solving this problem would be a huge resource. Extraction is responsible for half the world’s carbon emissions and also causes 80 percent of biodiversity loss, according to the U.N. That’s why in Turku, the circular economy doesn’t just apply to some sectors. Liisa’s goal is to embed it in the city’s DNA.

Liisa Lahti: [00:06:13] Well, I would say circular economy is respecting resources. So if you start to respect resources, whatever you have, you start to think, how can you value it? How can you preserve it? How can you maintain it better? How can you actually already when you are purchasing something, you already think of the quality, where it has come from and where it’s going.

Julia Scott: [00:06:42] One part of the circular economy: knowledge. Turku established the Smart Chemistry Park, a nonprofit that leases office space to 14 different companies working in the chemicals industry. Companies share the cost of the facilities they all use. — perfect for synergy. They work on projects that directly benefit Turku’s circular economy. For instance, one company invented a way to turn ashes produced through different combustion processes into reusable insulating material for building construction. Turku’s culture of collaboration has already spun out major innovations that will benefit all of society. The publicly-owned regional waste management company just built a new textile recycling center that uses advanced infrared technology to identify the types of fibers present in clothing, making it easier to actually recycle into future clothes. Right now, most of Finland’s used clothing ends up in African countries, where it creates serious problems. EU countries are required to start collecting textiles separately by 2025 to ensure they don’t end up in landfills. As usual, Turku is ahead of schedule. I asked Liisa how big of a problem textile waste actually is there.

Liisa Lahti: [00:07:58] Where to begin? Because it’s like, the way that we produce our clothes nowadays, it’s just, or our textiles in general — is just absurd. We produce clothes and materials that are basically for single use. And also that they are made of kind of mixed material, that it’s difficult for those to be recycled or reused directly.

[00:08:29] Turku has been working with ICLEI since mid-2019 to design its circular Turku roadmap and develop replicable tools and methodologies that other governments can also use as part of ICLEI’s Green Circular Cities Coalition. Turku still has a lot of work ahead. There’s only so much governments and even businesses can do without buy-in from residents who are making thousands of individual choices each day.

Risto Veivo: [00:08:55] From climate perspective, we would still wish more and more people daily to change from private car to busesn or to ride the bike, or to walk, if they are closer. And the challenge is, this change is slower.

Julia Scott: [00:09:11] Very soon, almost half the greenhouse emissions in Turku will be from transportation and other everyday sources of pollution. So that’s the next big challenge. Turku just announced the 1.5 Degree Life campaign in partnership with ICLEI. It’s a fun way to get younger people thinking about how their food selections, buying habits and home lives all add up to smart choices or destructive ones. People can enter the contest by submitting creative videos that show off their version of the circular economy. The campaign will involve youth in Turku, Nagano Prefecture, and Yokohama, Japan. Having a public that’s pushing the city forward is a key part of tackling the climate emergency, says Risto. Young people in Turku have been part of the Fridays for Future climate movement for years.

Risto Veivo: [00:10:00] And we have a Youth Council in the city, and they are one of the most prominent promoters and influencers of a proactive climate policy in the city. That’s also something I’m very proud of.

Julia Scott: [00:10:19] If Turku has any lessons to offer other cities of its size, one is — don’t be afraid of setting ambitious climate goals, even if you really don’t know how you’re going to get there. And, you’ll get there a lot faster if you recruit the skills and dexterity of universities and the innovation sector, the power of the utilities, the expertise of the construction and manufacturing sector, and funding from banks and public resources.

Risto Veivo: [00:10:47] There’s no daring city without daring people. Most of the time you really need, I would say always you need, allies and you need partners and you need support, and you need networking, and you need the daring people and the daring partners and the daring funders who are ready to put their time and efforts and their creativity and also their funds into the play.

Julia Scott: [00:11:10] Not every city may have the conditions to, in a decade, convert from fossil fuel-powered heating and cooling to the total opposite. But cities and the people in them can move from a waste-based economy into a circular one. And that starts today. Ten years from now, anything is possible. Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Daring Cities podcast. Daring Cities is produced by me, Julia Scott, with engineering help from Chris Hoff. Special thanks to Risto Veivo and Liisa Lahti from the City of Turku, and to Marion Genard and Ariel Dekovic from ICLEI.