Finland’s Green Diplomat
Under Pekka Haavisto, Helsinki tries to chart a path to a fossil fuel-free future.
Pekka Haavisto, the world’s only currently serving Green foreign minister, could not have taken up his job as Finland’s top diplomat at a better or worse time, depending on how you look at it.
Prime Minister Antti Rinne, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, set an ambitious target for Finland to become one of the first countries in the world to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. But key greenhouse gas emitters—including the United States and Brazil—have been backsliding on commitments to confront global warming.
The Trump administration has withdrawn from international pacts calling for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, such as the Paris climate agreement. U.S. President Donald Trump skipped the climate change discussion among the major industrial powers of the G-7 in Biarritz, France, last weekend, saying he had a scheduling conflict with the leaders of India and Germany, who in fact were able to attend the meeting.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Haavisto, a former leader of the Finnish Greens who became foreign minister in June, said Finland and its international partners are currently exploring a variety of options—including potential trade sanctions and the provision of firefighting equipment—to persuade Brazil to act more aggressively to tame wildfires that are threatening the Amazon rainforest.
Finland’s finance minister, Mika Lintila, proposed this month that the European Union and Finland, which currently holds the EU presidency, “look into the option of banning the import of Brazilian beef.” Haavisto said it may come to that, but no decision has been made. For now, he is encouraged that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has deployed troops in the Amazon to fight the fires, has taken action to address the crisis. The G-7 pledged $20 million to help put out the blazes, but Bolsonaro’s government refused the aid package, with the president’s chief of staff saying that the money might be better spent to “reforest Europe.”
“If this is now the path they are also following, of course, that’s a positive issue,” Haavisto said. But if Brazil is unwilling to take action, he added, “then maybe strong international reaction should be … linked to trade.”
Haavisto suggested that a major trade pact under negotiation between the European Union and South American countries, known as the Mercosur free trade agreement, could be used to pressure Brazil to improve its environmental conduct. The provisions of the Paris climate pact, according to Haavisto, are built into the trade agreement. “So we have also responsibilities in our trade [relations] to take care of our environment and our climate,” he said.
France and Ireland have already said they will not sign the Mercosur pact unless Brazil lives up to its environmental obligations. But the Europeans appeared divided as Britain and Germany broke ranks with Finland, France, and Ireland, asserting that trade sanctions were an inappropriate response to Brazil’s wildfires.
EU foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss the Brazilian crisis at a meeting in Helsinki on Thursday. But Haavisto said he has been discussing the issue with European policymakers, including Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign-policy chief.
“When I woke up at 6 o’clock, I had a call with her and [asked], ‘What are we going to do as the European Union on this issue?’” he said on Friday. He also raised the issue in talks with U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who said the United Nations “has been offering some technical help to the government of Brazil, I think, to [put out] these forest fires.”
Haavisto, a former environment minister in the 1990s, joined a task force with the U.N. Environment Program in 1999 that explored ways to cope with the environmental impacts of war. In Kosovo, which was grappling with the postwar rebuilding effort, environmentalists were received by local administrators and other U.N. agencies with skepticism. “‘Hey, guys, you can come and count the butterflies a little bit later,’” he recalled being told. “‘Now we have had a war here, and this is a serious situation. We don’t need environmentalists here.’”
That, he said, has changed. The environment is considered a key contributor to conflict.
Haavisto said he hoped the international community would go further and begin to treat global warming as a threat to international peace and security. “The U.N. Security Council could and should be actually a body also reacting to climate [change],” he said.
Finland’s intense focus on the climate is being driven by an electorate that increasingly views global warming as one of the government’s key priorities.
Haavisto said the difference between Finland and, say, the United States—where the only Democratic presidential candidate who campaigned on the climate, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, pulled out of the race after failing to generate enough momentum to capture his party’s nomination—has to do with location.
A third of Finland’s territory lies above the Arctic Circle, which has experienced some of the most extreme consequences of global warming. And Finnish voters appear to be willing to shoulder greater sacrifices, through taxation and the elimination of the most polluting industries. Greenpeace Finland dubbed the country’s April parliamentary vote as the “climate election.”
“We know, we see the glaciers melting and somehow feel the pain of those northern areas,” Haavisto said. The Finns, he said, fear “this might mean a major change in our climatic conditions here. We might have very different winters in the future. We might have very different summers in the future. That the extreme conditions will increase, and people are afraid of that.”
Before the election, he said, young Finns would gather before the Parliament House in Helsinki.
“In Finland, young people every Friday start to gather at the Parliament House before the elections and stop the parliamentarians asking, ‘What are you doing for my generation?’”
It remains unclear whether Finland’s green policy ambitions are sustainable. Concern over global warming crosses party lines. But the Social Democratic Party won the election narrowly (it secured 40 of Finland’s 200 parliamentary seats) to the nationalist Finns Party (39 seats), which is more skeptical about the wisdom of spending heavily on the climate.
Haavisto said his own government is seeking to set the global standard for environmental policy by drastically eliminating the use of fossil fuels and relying on a mix of nuclear power and renewable energy sources harnessed from the sun and wind—plus a huge helping of regulation aimed at getting the Finnish people to turn from cars to public transportation.
The transition, he said, will require “regulations and using the economic tools, using the energy taxation, certain subsidies to renewables, certain subsidies to green choices when you make this transition.”
Finland aims to ban the use of coal by 2029 and to become a carbon-neutral country by 2035. Finland is also using its EU presidency to lobby European governments—many of which still rely heavily on coal—to achieve emissions neutrality by 2050.
“We need a Europe-wide legislation for car industries and so forth,” Haavisto said. “It’s about collective [transportation], improving the train connections, and so forth. It’s about the industries and industries’ emission limitations. Changing to renewable energy also in the industries, that’s happening. It’s about the housing, how we make more energy-saving houses and energy-friendly solutions and so forth. It’s even about what you eat and what you produce, about what you consume as a consumer, what kind of food and food production.”
Haavisto said the Finnish government has faced relatively little resistance from industry, which has been lobbying for stronger and more strict environmental recommendations.
“Something has changed,” he said. Industry, he added, is telling the government: “Hey, guys, you should be more ambitious on climate goals, and that the green technology is coming, and we have to be leading those technologies, energy-saving technologies and others. It’s a question of our competitiveness. That we are ahead, and we can offer the market those technical solutions that are needed.”
But he also said the government will have to proceed “step by step” to avoid a public backlash. “There has to be a certain transition period,” he said. “You cannot put our people in a too difficult situation because of the energy prices or because of this new legislation.”
Asked what keeps him up at night, Haavisto said he is concerned about the impact that potentially irreversible changes, such as the melting of the poles, will have on life on the planet. We may have to “survive in conditions that are much more difficult than what we have now,” he said. Some parts of the globe will become increasingly difficult to live in, whether it’s a result of flooding, drought, or extreme change in weather, fueling large-scale migration. “The rich people in some cases can buy their way out of these consequences to a certain extent,” he said. But “of course, the poor people in developing countries [will be] hit by these changes.”