The Earth can only take so much

Our planet is in distress. Unsustainable consumption and climate change bring along a myriad of universal problems from poverty to unemployment. Now at the latest these problems need solutions. Science can be one of them.

A lot has been done globally in recent years to make the world a more sustainable place to live. The Paris Agreement made in 2015 states that the global temperature can’t rise more than two degrees. In 2016 the UN launched the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It’s a universal action plan that consists of 17 goals aiming at reducing poverty, increasing equality and stopping climate change.

These goals have inspired the three main themes of Helsinki Challenge, the science based idea competition: sustainable planet, people in change and urban future.

Global consumption, unsustainable use of natural resources and climate change are not just environmental threats. They affect everything and everyone from health to human rights and business to biodiversity. It is in fact preserving biodiversity that motivates last year’s Helsinki Challenge finalist team Biodiversity Now.

“The best guarantee to make it through changing conditions is to have an environment as rich and diverse as possible. It is our main source of new raw materials and innovations”, says Markku Ollikainen, team leader and Professor of environmental economy at the University of Helsinki.

Biodiversity Now is working on a compensation mechanism for companies and other actors who deplete everyday biodiversity. Whereas endangered species are protected by law, less exotic yet still rare environments aren’t. If someone builds a road through for example a wetland, there’s not much to do. Ollikainen’s aim is to create a law-based system that states clearly which environmental damages require which compensations.

In search of better living conditions

The main threat for biodiversity and the well-being of our planet is people. This is why we should’ve changed our lifestyle a long time ago, says research fellow Irmeli Mustalahti from the University of Eastern Finland. In her research she specialises in environmental science and forestry.

“Increasing consumption and chasing economic growth is unsustainable. I believe that’s what strains our planet the most”, Mustalahti summarises.

According to both Mustalahti and Ollikainen, another phenomenon that literally pushes the Earth’s capacity to its limits is climate induced migration. Extreme weather phenomena such as floods and drought cause a shortage of nutrition and clean water in countries that are already poor. Because of these conditions, many are left without livelihood or forced to leave their homes and take refuge in other countries.

“Migration caused by climate is a big global challenge. It increases social crises and causes even more environmental problems. For example in African countries conflicts in land use, mining and natural resource management affect safety and living conditions negatively. This is why people move a lot within the continent and the amount of refugees rises”, Mustalahti says.

There are many good things to say about Finland in terms of sustainability. We have a stable society, high quality education and reliable institutions. However, if Finland wants to lead other countries by example, there’s still a long way to go. The slow economic growth and unemployment have increased inequality. In Finland, like in other wealthy western countries, there’s reason to reevaluate the way we use natural resources.

Science helps the Earth in need

The unsustainable use of natural resources is often linked with the energy sector. In order to even out previous environmental damages future energy systems have to be flexible in both energy production and consumption. According to Fortum’s Chief Technology Officer Heli Antila the energy sector plays a central role in achieving sustainable development goals.

“Energy companies should strive towards emissionless production as soon as possible. Their clients should be able to participate in creating a clean energy system”, Antila says.

Many Finns heat their houses with solar power. Although solar panels in the backyard don’t diminish the planet’s distress by much, solar energy has a lot of potential for countries all around the world.

“Third world countries could go straight into clean energy production. However, even though solar energy is cheap, it requires a lot of investment expenses”, Antila says.

Biodiversity Now team leader Markku Ollikainen thinks the answer to climate related and environmental challenges lies in the field of research and development. Biodiversity Now is a shining example of what many wish for but only few can carry out. Science can solve the world’s biggest and scariest problems. Helsinki Challenge provides a chance to do exactly that.


Helsinki Challenge call for applications is now open and it is the time to put your team together, since registration for the competition closes on 31 October. The final competition proposal must be submitted by 15 November.