The University of Helsinki Set to Become Carbon-Neutral by 2030

The University of Helsinki has joined other global universities in their quest to reduce their carbon footprint and ultimately become carbon-neutral.

The University of Helsinki in Finland has recently published its Roadmap describing the University’s carbon footprint and identifying central measures through which the University can achieve significant emission reduction to achieve its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2030. “We want to be a leader in sustainability and responsibility, and serve as an example of how an organization the size of the University of Helsinki can set realistic carbon-neutrality goals,” said Vice-Rector Tom Böhling. A short version of the Roadmap is available here (pdf).

The University’s roadmap is divided into four categories:

  • Carbon-neutral facilities: In 2019, the facilities accounted for 48 percent of the University’s total emissions. The largest individual emission sources were purchased electricity and district heating. Because the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted operations in 2020 and 2021, the year 2019 was chosen as the period of analysis for the Roadmap. “The figures compare relatively well with the results published by other universities, although the calculation methods used vary. The results will be more comparable in the coming years, as Finnish universities will have developed common principles for calculating their carbon footprint and the related reporting will be harmonized. This work is carried out in a coordinated manner under the direction of a sustainability and responsibility working group set up by Universities Finland (UNIFI),” said Project Manager and Head of Laboratory Services Pekka Joensuu. The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint by 65 percent by 2030. In terms of the remaining emissions, the University will examine the deployment of internal and external carbon offset models.
  • Sustainable procurement: The goal for 2030 is that all electricity and district heating purchased by the University of Helsinki will be carbon-neutral, while 10 percent of the energy consumption will be covered by independently produced renewable energy. Fossil heating fuels will be completely abandoned. In addition, energy consumption will be reduced by 15 percent. “For a long time, we have been paying attention to the energy efficiency of our properties and increasing our independent energy production by building several solar power plants and geothermal heating solutions. However, reducing energy consumption is one of our most central goals in terms of global sustainability,” said Director of Properties and Facilities Teppo Salmikivi. In the future, the University plans on purchasing goods and services only from suppliers that are committed to low-carbon solutions.
  • Low-emissions travel and transport: Commuting and work-related travel investigations showed that driving one’s car and air travel generate the most emissions. While international activities and mobility are important for the University, there is a plan to implement comprehensive guidelines for low-carbon travel and transport.
  • Sustainable eating habits: Most of the emissions from meals come from the cafeterias operating on the University premises, several of the cafeterias are operated by Ylva, a business owned by the Student Union. According to Linnéa Partanen, a member of the Board of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, Ylva is in many ways a leader in responsibility. “This is evident, for example, in the cafeterias of UniCafe, where we offer responsible and diverse vegetarian and vegan food at student prices. The latest location, Myöhä, offers vegan options only.”

According to Partanen, students are satisfied with the ambition of the University’s carbon-neutrality goals; she points out that the current generation of students will bear the consequences of the decisions made today. “We want to do everything in our power to curb climate change. Participating in the climate debate and identifying solutions give us hope, Partanen said.

The University’s multidisciplinary research, innovation activities, and teaching are also making a significant contribution to the sustainability efforts. “We are urging our entire community of almost 40,000 individuals to participate in this climate action. The Roadmap shows that the community can take small actions that are cumulative,” says Böhling.  

One theme on which the University of Helsinki wishes to stimulate discussion is the carbon handprint, or what the University is contributing to climate action through research and teaching. “The role of the carbon handprint in higher education is being investigated at several universities. We intend to be at the forefront of developing this challenging perspective and defining the carbon handprint together with our national and international partners,” said Joensuu. 

The University of Helsinki aims to promote the carbon handprint by enhancing awareness of climate issues within the academic community. There are already sustainability courses available to both students and staff, with more on the way during this and the coming year. “In our climate efforts, genuine impact is key. Here, too, the University community must have the courage to defend the significance of research knowledge,” Joensuu said.