My Helsinki -seminar, Washington D.C

Embassy of Finland

Ladies and gentlemen,

First, let me extend my thanks to Ambassador Lintu and the Finnish Embassy for offering me the chance to address this prestigious audience. I can’t think of a better venue to discuss green cities and green building practices than this building, the first embassy in the United States to be awarded the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star award. I would also like to thank the experts present here in our audience today for taking the time to join us.

The US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan stated in one of his recent speeches (March 16, 2009):

”Our mission and vision for the future at HUD encompasses working to: catalyze the market for energy-efficient homes; develop communities that are livable, walkable, and sustainable; plan with housing and transportation in mind, giving the families the choice to live closer to where they work and cut transportation costs; and create a geography of opportunity for all.”

It is easy to agree with Secretary Donovan. Creating green cities truly is all about these objectives.

Urban planning, as well as land use and construction in general have exceptionally long-term effects. Many expendable products are produced with next season’s or even the next week’s needs in mind, but the built environment will follow us for tens, or even hundreds of years. The building stock is a slowly renewable source. The decisions and solutions made today are partly irreversible for the next generation. This is the reason why developing and implementing climate friendly solutions is especially important in land use and construction.

The cities and urban areas have a key role. In a globalized world, the economy is increasingly based on expertise and innovation, two driving forces that cities with diverse services are able to facilitate. Most of the jobs and the population of the world are already concentrated in urban areas – and this concentration process continues.

Cities and urban regions are significant factors when considering the issues related to climate change and energy efficiency. Securing the vitality and well-being of cities means finding solutions for controlling and adjusting for climate change. These solutions will bring about in-depth changes to the way urban regions function.

The dynamics of economics pose varying challenges to different types of city regions. Large and diverse university hubs have a better ability to handle change. Small and flexible city regions may also handle the economic changes well, provided that they select correct adapting strategies and draw from the know-how of larger communities. Both large and small cities share one prerequisite for success; ensuring that environmentally sustainable options compass all urban development activity.

The total energy consumption of buildings is 40 percent of Finland’s total energy consumption. This represents 30 percent of all our greenhouse emissions. A fifth is caused by the increasing amount of traffic. These figures describe the situation in Finland, but they correspond in size to the respective figures around the world. Improving energy efficiency in both buildings and communities is therefore crucial as we deal with climate change.

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings must be a goal both with the new building stock –where technological innovations provide us with many different possibilities – as with building repair, which is more challenging. It is estimated that half of the existing buildings in Finland in the year 2050 have already been constructed, and half will be constructed between 2009 and 2050. From this future perspective, both new building stock and renovation have an equally important role. The situation must not be dramatically different elsewhere, although the most challenging task – building renovation, that is – will be more pressing in countries where the building stock is relatively older.

Improving energy efficiency requires various things. We need informed consumers, who demand more energy efficient solutions. We need progressive and innovative industries that will develop and produce these on their own initiative. However – and this is what we believe both in Finland and in the European Union at large – we need tighter legislation, which will force us to construct in a more environment friendly way.

With new construction, we are off to a good start in Finland. Our buildings are already rather energy efficient. In addition, in December 2008 the Ministry of the Environment issued new building regulations that improve energy efficiency. The new regulations are approximately 30 % more strict than the current regulations. They will come in force on 1 January 2010. The goal is to quickly move into low and passive energy construction nearly altogether. Therefore, additional restrictive regulations are to be expected in the next few years.

However, first and foremost we need technological development and market-driven incentives, which encourage all of us to act as pioneers.

Heating is one important component when improving any community’s energy efficiency. In Finland, district heating, which is based on joint production of electricity and heat, is a common heating method for buildings in city centers and densely populated residential areas. The construction of a district cooling network is also well underway in Helsinki. However, building-specific electric heating is still the most common heating method in single family residential areas. It cannot be seen as a viable alternative for climate or energy policies.

Also, increasing the use of renewable energy sources in cities is a challenge that will have to be taken seriously.

On the city level, mitigating the effects of climate change requires the creation of a community structure that is cost-efficient and safe against unpredictable events such as extreme weather conditions. Integrating land use and transport planning so that it favours public transport, walking, and bicycling, would be the most significant tool to improve energy efficiency on the city level. It is also important to take into consideration the heavy downpours, storms, floods and new types of humidity and temperature conditions caused by global warming at this point because the community structures designed now will last for decades.

Unfortunately, the integrated planning of land use and transport, in particular, has not been sufficient in Finland. The average daily amount travelled by Finns is increasing and this growth has consisted almost completely of car traffic in recent years. Instead of a community structure that supports public transport, walking and bicycling, car-centric cities and communities have been created also in Finland. From the perspective of climate policy, it is vital that this trend is reversed and that reducing car traffic takes on a more important role in city planning.

In a compact, well-planned, smart city the average distances between homes, jobs, services and hobbies are shorter. This leads to the reduction of commuting times, traffic jams, emissions and loss of time.

I started my remarks by citing Secretary Donovan, whom I have the pleasure of meeting tomorrow. This is why I would like to also end with his words.

According to Secretary Donovan (April 8, 2009):

”investments in green building practices and energy efficient solutions create new clean energy jobs, reduce operating costs, create savings for low and moderate income families on their utility bills, improve real estate values, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help us become more energy independent, and preserve existing affordable housing stock.”

Creating green cities is not just about creating green cities or saving energy. It is also about creating cleaner and more pleasant living environments with fewer traffic jams. This will be beneficial to society, industry and commerce, as well as families, and it would present a wise course of action, even if climate change did not exist.

An ever greater part of people live in cities. Thus creating green cities is a challenge that concerns the lives of most of the world’s inhabitants.

With these words I wish on my part to open this seminar, give my sincere thanks to our hosts, the Finnish Embassy and the City of Helsinki, and wish a rewarding and fruitful afternoon to all.