Science for Action: Translating Safe and Just Boundaries for Cities and Companies

11 June 2024, Helsinki: During the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2024, the Earth Commission offered a panel discussion on the challenges to translate science into action by cities. The session brought together Earth Commission researchers and city representatives from Helsinki and Copenhagen to discuss where the needle stands – and how to move it forward.

Panellists: Xuemei Bai, Earth Commissioner and Distinguished Professor, Australian National University; Professor Şiir Kilkiş, Senior Researcher and IPCC WGIII Vice-Chair; Syezlin Hasan, Research Fellow, Earth Commission Secretariat and Griffith University Australia; Morten Højer, Chief Advisor, Technical and Environmental Department, City of Copenhagen; Iina Oilinki, Project Director, City of Helsinki.

Science for Action

The Earth Commission synthesises the latest science to identify limits of the Earth’s life support systems within which the planet can remain stable (safe) and everything living on it can thrive (just). The ‘Safe and Just Earth System Boundaries’ are becoming the scientific backbone of the next generation of sustainability targets and practices. But how can these boundaries be operationalised for climate and environment action? This was the core of the discussions in Helsinki.

In order to have an impact, boundaries must be “translated” into science-based targets that actors can adopt and use. Whilst a lot of focus has been placed on nations, “we have identified cities and businesses as particularly impactful actors,” said Earth Commissioner Xuemei Bai.

Cities account for around 80% of global consumption, and businesses represent the lion’s share of environmental impact from the production side, so activating the joint force of these actors can have a substantial impact on our trajectory. And major steps have been taken in this direction. The Science Based Targets Network (SBTN), for example, has developed guidelines for companies to this end, and is now initiating work towards similar guidelines for cities.

Studies show that science-based targets matter. Prof. Bai showcased a study led by Earth Commission’s working group on translation of 2000 companies and their environmental commitments, and found that the ones committing to science-based targets had considerably more stringent sustainability targets than companies that did not. In order to enable cross-scale translation of Earth system boundaries, Dr. Syezlin Hasan explained that the boundaries must be “transcribed” into, or expressed in, meaningful units for actors or stakeholders (from state variables into pressure variables). No city or company can work against a target of 1°C degree of warming, for example, but they could work towards reducing annual emissions by X tonnes of carbon dioxide. Such transcription work must be done for all boundaries.

A number of hurdles remain. As Prof. Şiir Kilkiş pointed out, targets are often set in isolation, by a single business or unit. In order to leverage the impact, not least as they are often co-located, actors should unite and determine targets together.

Ambitious cities – but hurdles still to overcome

Representing the implementation side of the equation were representatives from two cities, Helsinki and Copenhagen. These cities, together with Oslo, have embarked on a unique journey as part of the Global Commons Alliance (GCA) Nordic Cities initiative, to mainstream Earth system boundaries into climate and environmental planning in the years ahead. Why? Morten Højer, Chief Advisor at the Technical and Environmental Department of the City of Copenhagen explained: If everyone lived like in Copenhagen, we would need 4.5 planets. This pattern of consumption, energy use et cetera, must be broken. 

Both Copenhagen and Helsinki presented a number of solutions, but were also up-front about their limitations. Iina Oilinki, Project Director at the City of Helsinki explained that the city is looking into carbon sinks in terms of green areas, but in reality it is hard to increase these sinks substantially in a growing city. To exclusively use carbon sinks to mitigate the city’s carbon footprint would require an area four times the size of the city itself, covered only in forest. 

Financial and justice aspects can also come into play. Helsinki announced a competition, offering a construction contract on an attractive piece of land to the company with the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly housing, looking at the whole lifecycle of the building from construction to demolition and the use of heating and electricity over a 50 year timeframe. The city received over 20 entries.

Construction companies have the techniques now, they can bring carbon dioxide emissions down rather radically. But those techniques are costly”, Iina Olinki said, “and the inner city apartment will be available only to the wealthy.” 

The city still decided to set a limit for the lifecycle of emissions on all new residential buildings as the first city in  the world, but using a more moderate limit (16 kg co2e/m2/a), hoping that the price of energy efficient construction techniques will come down over time.

Opportunity to work on all Earth system boundaries

Morten Højer highlighted that the work of the Earth Commission is interesting as it shows the need for many actors to work in a more holistic way to protect the planet. 

“Many cities have ambitious climate action plans, and this is is all well and good, but we need to take a broader look at our impacts cutting across all Earth system boundaries. This is a real challenge, but we have to take it on given the urgency. And this is exactly what the GCA Nordic Cities Initiative is all about”, he said. 

The initiative is also presenting a new way for cities and scientists to work closer together to test how the science can work in practice.  

“We want a circular approach where we test out what policymakers understand and what doesn’t really work in reality. This will be an important feedback to the science and how science is communicated, and how it can be conveyed to the citizens”, Morten Højer explained. 

Iina Oilinki agreed that global initiatives must be translated into a language that makes sense to the people working in the day to day city administration.

Audience members were invited to discuss. One participant agreed that focussing only on climate is risky. “For decades we have been discussing an energy transition,” he said, “and we have corridors full of climate specialists. But if we are talking of nature, if you want to understand how to manage natural vegetation within the cities, then we must include more biologists in this work. 

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