On 25 May 2022, the Finnish Parliament adopted a new Climate Change Act, enshrining in law the goals for the country to be carbon neutral by 2035 and for its greenhouse gas emissions to continue decreasing and removals increasing thereafter, meaning that Finland must become carbon negative. The aim here is to explain how the 2035 carbon neutrality target was developed, how it became legally binding and what it can be expected to mean in practice.
What is particularly interesting in the Finnish example for international climate policy discussions is the role of science and detailed analysis of the country’s fair contribution to the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) played an important role in generating political momentum for stronger climate action in Finland. The domestic 2035 carbon neutrality target, then, is based on scientific analysis by the Finnish Climate Change Panel on the country’s fair share of the global carbon budget to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times.
A carbon neutrality target based on scientific analysis by the Finnish Climate Change Panel
In the autumn of 2018, the IPCC released its Special Report on 1.5 degrees of global warming. The report generated a strong public reaction in Finland and elsewhere. Shortly after the report’s release, the Finnish Climate Change Panel proposed that Finland should step up its climate action, becoming carbon neutral by 2035. The proposed target was based on the Panel’s study on Finland’s fair contribution to the 1.5-degree target on the basis of equity principles and global carbon budgets.
Inspired by the UK model, the Finnish Climate Change Panel is an independent scientific advisory body, created in 2012 and given a permanent status and formal mandate through Finland’s first Climate Change Act in 2015. The panel consists of a Chair and 15 members chosen based on scientific merit and representing a range of scientific disciplines. While the Panel’s legal mandate is not particularly strong, in practice, it has engaged with a broad range of climate policy issues and, according to an independent evaluation in 2019, is widely perceived as having made a positive contribution to Finnish climate policy.
In 2018-2019, the Panel analyzed Finland’s long-term climate targets and the country’s fair contribution to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 1.5 degree target. The Panel assumed a global carbon budget of 378 gigatonnes for 2019-2050 to maintain the global average temperature increase at 1.5 degrees. It studied ways to divide the global carbon budget based on equity, ability to pay and historical responsibility, concluding that Finland’s fair share of the budget for 2020-2050 amounted to 79 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The Panel’s initial recommendation assumed a gross emission reduction of 90% by 2050 and that Finland maintains and increases its net carbon sink in the land-use sector. When recommending the 2035 carbon neutrality target, the Panel also presented early results of a study on a possible emission pathway for Finland and possible mitigation actions for key economic sectors to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, illustrating that the proposed target was ambitious but achievable.
During discussions on the new Climate Change Act, various stakeholders argued that the carbon neutrality target should be even more ambitious; others thought it was too ambitious. Indeed, the Panel’s analysis can, like any scientific work, be contested and criticized. What is important is that the carbon neutrality target enshrined in Finland’s new Climate Change Act builds on transparent and detailed scientific analysis of a country’s fair contribution to the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is a good practice that could and should become more widespread globally, gradually also developing the methods and approaches for assessing country-level targets, including in terms of their international fairness.
Building up political momentum for stronger climate action
Meanwhile, political momentum was also building up in Finland for updating climate policy objectives. Following the release of the IPCC report in October 2018, the Finnish Prime Minister invited all political parties represented in the Finnish Parliament to a roundtable discussion with the aim of agreeing on stronger climate action. Representatives of the Finnish Climate Change Panel participated in the discussions, offering scientific insight on the level of ambition and concrete policy options. As a result, eight of the nine major parties agreed on thirteen general climate policy objectives, including that Finland should be carbon negative by 2040.
Climate change played an exceptionally strong role in the general elections in the spring of 2019. The Green Party performed particularly well and was invited to form a coalition government along with the Social Democrats and Center Party. Based on the mandate given by the voters, climate change featured strongly in the new government’s programme for 2019-2023. The programme includes an undertaking to amend the Finnish Climate Change Act to enshrine new targets leading to carbon neutrality by 2035 and carbon negativity beyond that.
As a result, the Ministry of the Environment launched a legislative process culminating with the adoption of a new Climate Change Act in May 2022 with 121 votes in favor and 41 against. During the legislative process, the Finnish Climate Change Panel prepared recommendations for new climate targets to be included in the revised Climate Change Act and leading to carbon neutrality by 2035. These were accepted without amendment and the new Climate Change Act includes targets to reduce gross emissions by at least 60% by 2030, by at least 80% by 2040 and by 90-95% by 2050. In addition it requires carbon neutrality by 2035 and that emissions keep decreasing thereafter, and the carbon sink increasing.
What will the new targets and new Climate Change Act mean for Finnish climate policy?
Achieving the targets enshrined in Finland’s new Climate Change Act will be challenging – in early 2022, the Finnish Climate Change Panel identified an important gap between existing climate policies and those needed to reach the 2035 carbon neutrality target. In other words, the current Government has been highly successful in terms of setting science-based climate targets and enshrining them in the new Climate Change Act. It has, however, been far less effective when it comes to adopting concrete climate policies.
Furthermore – and almost ironically – on the very day that the new Climate Change Act was approved by the Finnish Parliament, early reports shocked the Finnish climate policy community by showing that the Finnish land-use sector – traditionally a sizable net carbon sink – had for the first time become a source of greenhouse emissions due to increased logging combined with updated estimates pointing to a slower than expected growth of forests. If these early results prove to be accurate, they signal a deep crisis not only for Finland’s national climate policy, but also for Finland’s legal obligations under European Union law, including the so-called LULUCF Regulation.
An important gap between climate targets and concrete action is of course all too familiar for those following climate policy. However, what is now new in the Finnish context is that there is a legal obligation to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. The target is binding not only on the current and all subsequent governments, but also on all civil servants obliged by the Finnish Constitution to ensure that the country’s laws are respected and implemented. Addressing the looming climate policy crisis and decreasing carbon sink is therefore no longer only a moral and political but also a legal necessity. In a Rule of Law country this is bound to mean something.
We will publish a more detailed description of the detailed contents of the new Climate Change Act in early June.
Kati Kulovesi is professor of international law and director of the Center for Climate Change, Energy and Environmental Law at the UEF Law School. She was a member of the Finnish Climate Change Panel in 2014-2019 when the carbon neutrality target was developed.
 Presentation by the Finnish Climate Panel Chair Markku Ollikainen, Mikä on Suomen globaalisti oikeudenmukainen ilmastopolitiikan kunnianhimon taso? (What is Finland’s globally just level of climate policy ambition?), presentation at the Finnish Climate Panel’s event: Citius, altius, fortius: more ambition for Finland towards the 1.5 degree target: How much and with whom – perspectives on greenhouse gas emission reductions and relevant actors? 9 November 2018, Helsinki.
 Presentation by the Finnish Climate Panel member Jyri Seppälä, Suomen päästövähennyspolku hiilineutraaliksi jo 2035? (Finland’s emissions pathway to be carbon neutral already by 2035?), presentation at the Finnish Climate Panel’s event: Citius, altius, fortius: more ambition for Finland towards the 1.5 degree target: How much and with whom – perspectives on greenhouse gas emission reductions and relevant actors? 9 November 2018, Helsinki.