SDG implementation in Finland: well-earned congratulations; several steps to be taken

Outi Hakkarainen

The global journey towards sustainable development has multiple routes, levels, interlinkages and perspectives. Different countries’ starting points are diverse and unequal, as are civil society organizations’ possibilities to participate. The conditions in Finland, a Northern European nation of 5.5 million inhabitants, are among the most conducive. Finland celebrated 100 years of independence on 6 December 2017. For most of these years, that is, since the 1918 civil war and the wars of the 1940s, Finnish society has been able to progress in peaceful conditions. Nowadays, Finland is used to being given top ranking in international country comparisons, as in the 2018 World Happiness Report  and the most stable country in the 2018 Fragile States Index.

Finland has actively started to implement the 2030 Agenda as reported in our Spotlight Report 2017 national summary. However, as noted last year, there is room for improvement and elements of decline exist. The follow-up reports 2017 and 2018 of Finnish civil society organizations (CSOs) provide information about the state of sustainable development in Finland, visions of a desirable future and recommendations for decision-makers. Each year’s report covers those SDGs which are discussed at the High Level Political Forum, and information on each SDG is produced by a CSO which is working on the topic.

This text is based on the 2018 follow-up report but also reflects last year’s analysis. The Finnish Government has made some positive advances but there are also findings confirming the shortcomings identified in 2017. Further, the texts on SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) offer evidence of why Finland’s ecological footprint is so big. Due to its ecological footprint Finland is only number 37 in the Happy Planet Index ranking in 2016, although it is doing well in other aspects of the index, such as life expectancy, wellbeing and level of income inequality.  

Towards a more ambitious implementation

Finland was among the first countries to draw up a national implementation plan, at the beginning of 2017. The preparatory process was an inclusive one but many Finnish CSOs were disappointed by the final content as they had worked for a more ambitious plan that would comprehensively acknowledge the universal spirit of the SDGs. They also wanted long-term policy commitments, but the Government decided to limit the time span to its own term. The next parliamentary elections will take place in April 2019 and Finnish civil society is advocating that the next Government programme be based on the 2030 Agenda. Kepa, as an umbrella organization, coordinates a civil society campaign and has published (in Finnish) its demands for the new government programme (2019-2023).

The monitoring part of the national plan was quite positively received by civil society actors, which have been able to participate in the planning of monitoring systems. Ten thematic baskets were decided and from four to five indicators selected for which the data is available annually, in few cases biennially for each. The results are published during the year on the website of the Sustainable Development Committee but unfortunately the follow-up section is only in Finnish. The first round of results was completed in June. There is scope for public debate on the results and the interpretation made by the responsible institution.

A common hope is that there should be significantly more resources to develop the indicator work so that relevant new data could be collected, especially on consumption and biodiversity. A few positive steps have recently been taken. Additional human resources were designated to the Prime Minister’s Office for the 2030 Agenda work, and the multidisciplinary group of experts which was formed for the selection of indicators has been given permanent status and a mandate to develop the monitoring process. Another good step is that the external evaluation of the national implementation of the 2030 Agenda programme will be carried out in the current Government term and so will provide information for the next Government.

Searching for policy coherence

Finland’s implementation plan states that the sustainable development programme requires profound social transformation and perseverance, and acknowledges global responsibility and policy coherence as important targets. These statements are considered crucial by Finnish CSOs and they are prepared to advocate and to follow Government will to fulfil them.

The Government plan acknowledges the need to involve the 2030 Agenda in legislative work and national budgeting. Concrete steps were still missing when we carried out our 2017 analysis but quite soon after the Ministry of Finance initiated a process to assess the national budget from the sustainable development perspective. This is a step in the right direction but quite a small one, as the budget proposal for 2019 will be estimated mainly from the climate change perspective. It is, however, a logical approach as the main challenges identified for Finland’s sustainable development situation is the inadequacy of its climate policies (SDG 13). Much work is needed in this field, a crucial issue being energy. 

Need for an urgent energy transition

It is stated in the 2018 follow-up report that although Finland has sought to enhance its sustainable energy policy, it is unfortunately unable to live up to its reputation as a model country. Fossil fuel consumption per person in Finland is clearly over the European and global average, and exceeds the sustainable level many times over. Finland’s energy production is centralized and largely based on the use of fossil fuels, such as coal, peat and natural gas, as well as the use of nuclear power. For example, more than half of electricity was produced in 2017 by using fossil fuels and nuclear power. The energy structure is insupportable in terms of climate and is ecologically unsustainable.

Finnish energy policy has supported the operations of the fossil fuel and nuclear power companies and belittled the importance of renewable energy and especially of citizens’ own energy production. However, the Government is expected to propose a bill in the second half of 2018 to ban the use of coal as an energy source by 2029, and it has promised support for power plants that stop using coal in a faster timeframe. The bill is a welcome move, although the target date should preferably be 2025. A gradual change towards energy democracy has also started, as more and more economical renewable energy is becoming more common in Finland. However, community energy is still rare. In community energy programmes people own or participate in energy production, administration, saving and/or distribution. In the pioneer countries, 70-80 percent of wind power (Denmark) and half of all renewable energy (Germany) is owned by communities.

Finland has the potential knowledge and skills to be a leading country in energy transition but Finnish decision-makers do not have enough political will to become a force for change.
Finland should acknowledge that climate catastrophe is the biggest future challenge, and that to cope with its threat an urgent energy transition is needed. Finland should admit its climate responsibility and understand that it requires action towards decentralized, 100 percent renewable, clean, safe and sustainable energy production, and energy saving. Only in that way would it be possible to try to fulfil Finland’s commitment to the Paris Agreement’s global warming target of less than 1.5-degree Celsius.

Critical notions on bio-economy

Sustainably-produced biofuels have a role in substituting for fossil fuels but it is crucial to acknowledge that not all biofuels offer real emission cuts. The best climate benefits will be derived from biofuels that utilize waste and residual forest biomass. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels without decreasing the consumption of energy and natural resources transfers rather than reduces negative environmental impacts. Besides climate emissions, the extensive use of biofuels stresses natural diversity both globally and in Europe.

The growing bio-economy has meant an increase in the use of wood. Increased logging threatens the diversity of forest nature and accelerates climate change. The Finnish Government aims to increase logging from the current record level by 20 percent. Around 36 percent of threatened species live primarily in the forest. Finland’s forests are the most important habitat for 816 species. Increasing logging in the way the Government intends would halve the carbon sink of Finland’s forests and would thus invalidate a large part of the national climate actions carried out in other sectors. Only about 5.7 percent of actual forests, so called productive forestland, is legally protected from logging. This protection is concentrated in the northern part of the country; of the southern forests only 2.6 percent is protected.

Impacts outside of Finland

It is crucial for sustainable development that the overall impact of country’s consumption is reflected in decision-making. It was stated in the 2017 civil society follow-up analysis that the implementation plan recognizes that national actions in Finland have an impact outside the country and that it is important to guarantee other people’s possibilities for achieving sustainable development but the means to enhance policy coherence between actions undertaken at national and global level are missing. A concrete example of this analysis features in the 2018 report in relation to the SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation).

Almost half of Finns’ water footprint is caused by production chains outside Finland. The group selecting national indicators made the startling observation that there is no reliable or even partially comprehensive information available in Finland on the external impacts of Finnish consumption, that is, how we exploit natural resources outside of our own country. Such information is crucial for enabling the country to estimate our global impact and to take our responsibility for direct consumption in a more sustainable direction. New indicators should be urgently developed in Finland to measure our global impact and to respond to other possible information shortcomings.

Towards sustainable and responsible consumption and production

Over-consumption of natural resources is a real challenge for Finland. If everyone in the world consumed as much as the Finnish people do, there would have to be four planets. The Finnish economy needs to respect the limits of our globe. It also needs to be aware how the products are produced. The contexts of the products that are consumed in Finland contain linkages to child and forced labour that is often unpaid and to such wages that barely covers basic needs of life.

The Finns are largely ready to be responsible consumers. Studies show that 68 percent of the population find it important or very important that the product or service they buy is produced responsibly. Three out of four Finns are ready to pay more for a product that is produced responsibly. The commitment is seen in practice. For instance, in 2017, the sales of Fairtrade and organic products grew 23 percent and 13 percent, respectively. By comparison, the total sales of daily consumer goods grew less than 5 percent. Companies are also more and more doing their share, and pioneering ones cooperate with trade unions and NGOs, publish and audit their suppliers and use certified materials.

However, the principal framework for sustainable and responsible consumption and production need to be built by the state. There are many ways how the State, and regional governments and municipalities, could increase responsibility, such as by voluntary norms, by smarter regulation, by legislation, by integrating responsibility into their own purchasing strategy, and by strengthening resources and proficiency of the personnel responsible for public procurement. Finland should also pass a law that obliges companies to map and reduce their negative human rights impacts, and promote the international binding treaty on corporate human rights responsibilities by making constructive proposals in the EU and by continuing open dialogue with CSOs.

In Finland, however, the orientation of State consumption and investment does not really make use of development indicators depicting the wellbeing of people and nature. For example, the economic reviews that govern State budget negotiations strongly focus only on the growth outlook for GDP. GDP measures the value of domestic production, disregarding such things as education, natural resources and inequality. The State needs also to set the coordinates to achieve a significant and absolute decrease in the consumption of natural resources.

Municipalities and regional governments can influence production and consumption responsibility by their own procurement policies. As big buyers their procurement criteria have an impact beyond a single service or product to the responsibility of companies’ general procedures. Public procurement covers about 16 percent of Finland’s national economy. Responsibility is fairly dubious with respect to purchasing that is made only on the basis of cost, as labour, human rights and environmental problems are commonly evident in such areas as the production of groceries, electronics, textiles, furniture and paving stones. A positive step is that the procurement law reform in 2017 gave public officials a clearer right than before to take into account responsibility in their procurement activity.

Global commitment requires improvement

According to external evaluations completed in 2017, CSOs act cost-effectively and successfully, including in those regions and themes to which other forms of development cooperation do not necessarily reach. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of Finland stated in its budget statement that the positive outcome of these evaluations should be taken into consideration and recommended an increase to the CSO development cooperation funding in the 2018 budget. Unfortunately, in spite of that statement, just EUR 65 million have been proposed for CSO development cooperation, the same amount as for the last two years, following the huge (c. 40%) overall cuts in 2015. Currently the CSO share of total development cooperation funding is at its lowest for 16 years. The funding of civil society actors should be increased to 15 percent of Finland’s actual development cooperation.