Ii: How an entire Finnish town went green

As CEO of local development company Micropolis, based in the small Finnish town of Ii, Leena Vuotovesi has spearheaded a world-leading initiative to tackle climate change. Paula Dear reports

As we grapple with how we can make a difference to the global climate emergency, the citizens of Ii have undertaken a project that many of us would like to see our own communities replicate: taking achievable action against climate change at a community level.

Located in northwestern Finland on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Ii, pronounced ‘ee’, is part of Fisu (Finnish Sustainable Communities), a network of municipalities – including Forssa, Hyvinkää, Joensuu, Jyväskylä, Kuopio, Lappeenranta, Riihimäki, Turku and Vaasa – all of whom are working towards becoming carbon neutral and waste-free by 2050.

With a population of just 9,889 people, Ii wants to be the World’s first zero-waste town. By investing in solar, wind and geothermal energy, it is on track to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2020. These measures are already having a tangible impact on the town’s community and has attracted the attention of the outside world. Why? Because the town’s commitment is world-leading: it’s a full 30 years ahead of the EU target.

“You feel like you can touch it in our everyday life here,” says Leena Vuotovesi, CEO of local development company Micropolis, speaking of the impact the measures are having on the people of Ii.

So how has life actually changed?

Previously a big user of oil for heating, Ii has ditched fossil fuels. Instead, local wind farms and hydro stations mostly power the town now, with some solar, geothermal and woodchip-generated energy thrown into the mix. Instead of buying in oil, Ii produces 10 times more energy than it uses, and the rest is sold back to the grid. This has slashed the town’s CO2 emissions by 80 percent since 2007. Combined with other energy efficiency measures, the town is saving a cool €0.5m every year. Meanwhile, another €2m comes in via taxation from wind energy companies who have invested in the area.

There have been other economic benefits too. Recycling facilities have been expanded as Ii aims to become the world’s first zero-waste town. Around 100 jobs have been created, including 40 in one firm that maintains the wind turbines. And the council has a fleet of electric cars that they’re making available to the public to hire out of hours, albeit with a few hiccups in the current pilot scheme says Vuotovesi.

One of the best things has been how this has united people. Climate actions are not just about what you give up or needing to do things in a simpler way, it is also something from which you can gain for your environment, your region, yourself – it is positive

– Leena Vuotovesi, Micropolis CEO

Crucially, children have been given a key part to play and it’s instilling them with a sense of empowerment and hope that will pay huge dividends, she says. For example, via a ‘50:50’ scheme, the children of Ii help monitor their school or nursery’s water, heat and electricity consumption each day, and can leave feedback for the teachers on whether devices or lights have been switched off. Each institution gets 50 percent of the value of the resources saved to spend as they collectively choose:

“Some schools have bought sofas, or billiard tables. One bought composters for their biowaste. They grew flowers with it and brought them to the old people’s home. It was so beautiful, and it was all their idea. It teaches the children that they have power over their environment. I think it’s the most important part of what we do.”

When Vuotovesi switched from working in the arts and culture sector to take up the CEO role at Micropolis five years ago, the company – which is majority-owned by the municipality – had already made its own leap from operating in the field of micro and nanotechnology to focusing on “new ways to boost the region for the future”. Renewable energies and energy efficiency were selected as the new strategy.

“When I came in, we started to look at it from a broader perspective,” explains Vuotovesi. “What does climate change actually mean? It’s not coming, it is here, and how are we reacting? Instead of waiting for bigger institutions to do something we said we should take it into our own hands, [and] now.”

They do this through piloting local projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions – often with the help of EU funding and other collaborations – and assisting other organisations, including companies, research institutes and municipalities, to access EU money to develop their own projects.

Their work, mostly centred around Ii and the surrounding area, often involves bringing together citizens, experts, politicians and companies to discuss plans and ideas.

“This is a very important part of sustainability – if you want to make plans that last you need to have everybody involved in making them. Also, criticism is needed and is an important part of development. We welcome it.”

Vuotovesi says much of their success also comes down to meticulously predicting and measuring their outcomes.

“Most of my team are also engineers, so we have been really strong on calculating the impact. What is the payback time of a certain investment? How much is it bringing in [terms of] new investment for clean tech? Are there jobs created? What is the impact for city taxation?

“I often hear the claim that cities or institutions can’t do climate actions because it’s too expensive. Yet we have done it without any specific resources from this region. We have tried to create competitiveness and to make it profitable – and it is possible.”

New projects underway include work on an app for ‘smartly’ managing traffic, and collaborating with a nearby university to help companies develop nutrient recycling technologies such as using micro seaweed to clean industrial waste. Micropolis also trialled a national climate festival, IlmastoAreena, in 2019 – bringing together citizens, scientists, political and business leaders. The plan is to hold it annually in August.

Preparations to hold it online are going ahead and will include discussions on the response to the coronavirus crisis: “This special situation has shown that many climate actions that depend on people’s private behaviour are very possible,” says Vuotovesi.

Working in this field can bring with it a certain pressure to behave ‘perfectly’ in every aspect of one’s own private life, says Vuotovesi, but she tries to maintain a realistic balance:

“I do what I can and what makes sense. I sometimes fly for work, which doesn’t feel good but, with two small children, I just wouldn’t have time to do [it all] otherwise. I always think twice before going anywhere, and then we compensate the emissions to the local peatland restoration.

“I feel guilty if I need to use our old gasoline car, which we’re getting rid of,” explains Vuotovesi. “So I always try to use a bicycle. We’ve seen in our pilot schemes that the more climate-positive actions people do, the better they feel. If I take the bicycle, even if it’s -20C (-4F) outside, I do feel so much better, physically and mentally.

People do need to be given hope; to know that it’s very important to take these little steps. You shouldn’t feel so guilty if you eat a sausage or drive the car sometimes, but you can do bigger things like change your electricity to make it green

– Leena Vuotovesi, CEO, Micropolis

People do need to be given hope, to know that it’s very important to take these little steps. You shouldn’t feel so guilty if you eat a sausage or drive the car sometimes, but you can do bigger things like change your electricity to make it green.”

The recognition the area is receiving for its ‘little steps’ has, in itself, generated a cycle of empowerment that incentivises people to keep going, says Vuotovesi, who says external validation has been “one of the most effective participatory factors”. In 2017 the European Commission awarded Micropolis the RegioStar Award for the best regional climate actions, and Ii was recognised by the Nordic Council of Ministers as one of the area’s best examples of a bioeconomy.

When we talk – pre-coronavirus travel restrictions – she has just returned from filming a BBC documentary about local climate actions in Chile and Spain, and she’s often invited to speak about their work, as are the local children.

“Recently the president of Finland was in Ii getting to know our work and we asked the children to present it. One child wrote to me to thank me and to say she felt that they’re the most important part of climate action in Ii. I love this!

“I do think the children are the best climate hope we have. When all the way from day care until 18 you’re doing climate actions every day in your nursery or school, you learn it in a way that I can’t even begin to imagine.

“What will it be like when these young people are the leaders of society? Which, of course, they will be one day.”

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