Minnesotans take inspiration from Europe's ambitious emission reduction goals

December 2, 2021
CEEM's Virginia Mooty Rutter joined the Governor's trade mission to the United Kingdom and Finland last month, where she met with local businesses and government officials to discuss sustainability and clean tech.

In mid-November, I traveled with the Minnesota Delegation on the Governor’s Trade Mission to the United Kingdom (UK) and Finland, and I am so grateful to have had that opportunity! It was an amazing trip, packed full of meetings and learning. I joined the Environmental track, which focused on sustainability and clean tech, and there were also Med Tech, Higher Education, and Agriculture tracks. Later this month you will get to hear from three CEEM members who joined me on the trade mission.

My biggest takeaway from this trip was that climate change is an accepted reality in Europe, and the debates around it are how best to take action. These countries have set ambitious carbon reduction goals. The UK is striving to be net zero by 2050, and London is even more ambitious – net zero by 2030. Finland is seeking to be net zero by 2035. Sustainability in general was a big focus in both countries; Finland is the most sustainable country in the world, as ranked by the UN, and they are very focused on growing a circular economy and minimizing waste. Both countries are also making substantial investments in growing clean technology.

For context, Minnesota’s goals are to decrease our carbon emissions by 30% by 2025, and 80% by 2050. We are not on track – we missed our 2015 goal of 15% decrease, and though we have decreased emissions from our 2005 levels, it is only by 8% across all sectors. The majority of our decreased emissions came from the electricity sector, which has decreased emissions by 29%. This was countered by increases from the industrial, residential, and commercial sectors – showing that Minnesota’s built environment needs more focus on carbon reduction in order to meet our goals.

Ambitious goals in London

Our time in London began with a conversation with two members of the Ministry of International Trade who gave an overview of the goals the UK has set around renewable energy and other climate technology. These goals are laid out in a 10 point plan, wherein the UK government plans to invest £12 billion and create 250,000 jobs. Currently, the UK’s electricity is about one-third offshore wind, one-third nuclear, and one-third natural gas. To decarbonize their electricity sector, they plan to grow the share of wind from the current 10 GW to 40 GW by 2030. Due to their substantial investment already in offshore wind, the pricing is more competitive than in the US; offshore wind is about $53/MW in the UK, compared to $71-96/MW in the US. The UK is also investing in small scale nuclear reactors and fusion research, though one of our hosts acknowledged that “the joke is that fusion always seems to be 30 years away.”

I liked the breadth of the policy topics covered by the 10 point plan; the UK is approaching carbon reduction working across transportation modes and the built environment, while also investing in innovative energy technologies. Their plan does not address agriculture, though they do plan to provide grants to farmers to improve their economic situation while decreasing carbon emissions.

One of my favorite stops in London was at New London Architecture (NLA), where we got to see a model of most of the City of London. NLA is a member-based organization that works to improve the built environment and improve the quality of life in London. We heard about two recent reports they compiled, one on climate change resilience and another on getting to zero carbon.

London Model City

The City of London has very ambitious goals around carbon reduction, and they are already noting the impacts of a changing climate on their city. The River Thames cuts across the city, and sometimes it floods its banks. About 30 years ago, London installed a rotatable barricade within the river, to protect the downtown areas from flooding risk due to rising tides or from rains. In the beginning it was raised only one or two times a year; during the 2013-14 flooding season (the worst year), the barrier was raised 50 times. Nearly one-fifth of London’s buildings are within the Thames floodplain, and flooding is listed as the highest climate risk for the city.

NLA members see the built environment playing a major role in meeting London’s zero carbon goals. The UK has a lot of old housing stock, and many homes are listed in historic registries and therefore cannot be dramatically modified. Retrofitting these buildings to be more efficient is a top priority, and the UK is innovating new technologies to facilitate these retrofits. At Sustainable Ventures, we got to hear from two new companies touting technology set to improve housing comfort and efficiency. First we heard from Guru, a company that creates technology to efficiently manage district heating and cooling systems, and next from Thermulon, a company creating a new insulation material that can be easily installed on brick or stone walls, common in UK housing.

Highlights from Finland

As Governor Walz noted at our opening dinner in Helsinki, “coming to Finland feels to Minnesotans like coming home – the climate is familiar and the people are so welcoming.” I loved our brief time in Helsinki, though we had little time to enjoy the city, so I will have to go back!

The main theme throughout our time in Finland was their focus on innovation, the Internet of Things & technology, as well as incorporating sustainability into everything – “it’s our way of life,” said Markku Kivistö, Head of Industry Cleantech at Business Finland. Finland already is at 85% carbon-free electricity, and they have a 2035 target of carbon neutrality. They believe their focus on climate policies gives them an advantage globally, and their investment in green technology and climate has helped the economy recover from the effects of Covid, according to Ian Campbell, the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Finland.

One of the most compelling presentations for me was from the Climate Leadership Council’s (CLC) CEO, Jouni Keronen. The CLC is the largest climate business network in the EU, somewhat a sister organization of CEEM, comprising companies, cities, associations, trade unions, universities and think tanks. CLC provides networking opportunities, events, and best practices for members, and also presents policy proposals to the EU. Most recently they shared the concept of a carbon budget with the EU, and 100+ companies, cities & organizations signed onto a letter of support at COP 26. A carbon budget works similarly to a household budget – it’s a way to set an overall goal and move the pieces around to figure out how to get there. For example, in Minnesota, the electricity sector has been easiest to decarbonize, whereas our built environment is increasing emissions. So if we were to create a carbon budget for Minnesota, we could factor those emissions into the total and look across the state to find the best reductions to fit our budget.

Fitting in with the Finnish circular economy focus, CLC also presented the concept of a carbon handprint, to encapsulate the positive environmental impact of a product through its lifecycle – the reduction of a carbon footprint of a customer through the use of this product. So using recycled materials or increasing the efficiency of the energy used to make a product would improve its carbon handprint.

Trade Group Photo

I also loved the opportunity to connect with businesses and institutions interested in working with Minnesotan companies. We toured Smart Otaniemi, a startup ecosystem in Espoo (just outside of Helsinki), and I hope to leverage those relationships to create a knowledge exchange with Grid Catalyst’s cohort.

Achieving these carbon reduction goals presents a big challenge to both countries. No one thinks this will be easy – at one presentation, Clive Grinyer from the Royal School of Design in London noted that they are “taking the UK on a cultural journey” to adapt to new technologies and practices, which is undeniably difficult. But the enthusiasm and opportunities for innovation and economic growth are contagious, and a lovely takeaway from my trip.

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