Insights from Finnish decision-makers on the role of forest in climate change mitigation

Nina Gestrin, an exchange student at the University of Helsinki, in her recently defended master thesis provides insights on the perceptions of Finnish Parliamentarians on the role of forests for mitigating climate change

The role of forests in mitigating climate change is a contested, divided and highly topical question in Finland. Compared to other Nordic countries, Finland has so far been dragging behind when it comes to efficient climate policies. However, according to the current Governmental programme, Finland aims to become climate neutral by 2035, with a strategy that includes emission reductions as well as actions aimed at strengthening forest carbon sinks and stocks.

Previous research has found that governmental decision making on forest and environmental matters is strongly influenced by the interests of industry, landowners, and the Ministry of Agriculture. Another study has revealed that a dominant pro-economy coalition is hindering efficient climate change policies by lobbying activities. During my classes as an exchange student in Finland, I learned that even research is divided in the question of how forests should be used for climate change mitigation.

The objective of my master thesis was to shed light on Finnish climate mitigation performance, by analysing Parliamentarians’ perceptions and beliefs regarding forest-based mitigation plans. Drawing from the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) I examined the interaction between policy makers and science in order to discover challenges and opportunities concerning the realisation of Finnish ambitions of reaching climate neutrality by 2035.

Almost all policymaking take place within policy subsystems. An important aspect of an ACF research project is understanding the scope of the policy subsystem within which the studied phenomenon lies. Policy subsystems are nested and overlap with each other, therefore identifying the scope of the relevant policy subsystem can be challenging. Paul Sabatier and Weible, who have developed the ACF framework, recommend a “focus on the substantive and geographic scope of the institutions that structure interaction”, in order to identify the right scope of policy subsystem. When analysing the policy process regarding the role of forests in mitigating climate change, the substantive scope covers both forest policy and climate change policy. Furthermore, the subsystems are part of a wider international dimension and an EU-scope with limited authority to influence national policies. (See figure 1.)

Finnish forest and climate policy arena

 

In order to acquire information about how decision makers perceive climate change and the role of forests in climate change mitigation, I obviously needed to talk to them about it. I conducted semi-structured interviews with ten members of the Finnish Parliament. Interviewees were selected based on membership in the Environment Committee and the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, political party membership and willingness to participate in the study. The interviews were held online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic via Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings. The interviewees represented the following six political parties: Social Democratic Party of Finland, Finns Party, The Greens, Left Alliance, The Swedish People’s Party of Finland and The Christian Democrats. None of the contacted members of the Centre Party nor the National Coalition Party was willing to participate in the study.

Findings:

  1. Individual belief systems of policy makers influence decision-making, and beliefs are resistant to change.
  2. The background of the policy makers, particularly whether they come from an urban or rural area, seemed to affect how they perceive climate change and steer their opinions on how forests should be used to reach climate neutrality. The results suggest that policy makers who come from urban areas perceive climate change as a stronger threat to themselves and the Finnish population when compared to policy makers from rural areas. Members from a rural area were more concerned about extreme or unjust measures for mitigating climate change than members from an urban area. Furthermore, policymakers who live in urban areas value the carbon sink capacity of forests higher than policymakers from rural areas, who in general expressed a greater confidence in the current forest policy and management methods.
  3. Signs of a business-as-usual or pro-economy coalition being influential in the committees were identified. The presence of a dominant pro-economy coalition is stronger within the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, resulting in limitations for autonomous research bodies to participate in expert hearings. The prospects of Finland reaching climate neutrality by 2035 will to some extent depend on the influence of this coalition.
  4. Signs of factors that could enable policy change were identified. They include changes in beliefs regarding climate change and the importance of biodiversity aspects, as well as lifestyle changes. Post COVID-19 revival funds were seen as possibilities to speed up societal changes that support climate neutrality.

It must be acknowledged, and regarded as a limitation, that the small sample of ten interviews only expressed the beliefs and views of those who were willing to participate in the study.

The ACF assumes that policymaking is motivated by the strong beliefs of policy participants, and that information (scientific and technical) is the key to modifying these beliefs. University scientists, policy analysts and consultants are important actors in policymaking and policy change. I leave it for future research to uncover how the belief systems of forest experts and researchers influence how they perceive, interpret and produce information regarding the role of forests for mitigating climate change. 

Conducting research during the COVID-19 pandemic meant working by myself at home, which was challenging at times. On the other hand, these conditions might have been favourable for conducting online interviews with decision makers who, I would imagine, are extremely busy and could be difficult to reach. I was moved by the helpfulness of the university personnel who gave me valuable advice and by the generosity of the parliamentarians, who invested their time and enabled this study. Finally, I would like to thank my two supervisors, Prof. Sandro Cattacin from the University of Geneva and Prof. Maria Brockhaus from the University of Helsinki, who encouraged me and supported my ideas, but also guided me and gave sharp advice on practical things, making it possible for me to complete this project successfully.

The thesis available here

Sources:

Government of Finland. (2019). Programme of Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Government 2019. Government of Finland.

Gronow, A., & Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). Cooptation of ENGOs or Treadmill of Production? Advocacy Coalitions and Climate Change Policy in Finland. Policy Studies Journal, 47(4), 854–875.

Harrinkari, T., Katila, P., & Karppinen, H. (2016). Stakeholder coalitions in forest politics: Revision of Finnish Forest Act. Forest Policy and Economics, 67, 30–37.

Kröger, M., & Raitio, K. (2017). Finnish forest policy in the era of bioeconomy: A pathway to sustainability? Forest Policy and Economics, 77, 6–15.

Sabatier, P. A., & Weible, C. M. (2007). The Advocacy Coalition Framework: Innovations and Clarifications. In Theories of the Policy Process (pp. 189–223).

Sewell, G. C. (2005). Actors, Coalitions and Framework Conventions on Climate Change. In Development.

Vesa, J., Gronow, A., & Ylä-Anttila, T. (2020). The quiet opposition: How the pro-economy lobby influences climate policy. Global Environmental Change, 63(April), 102117.