Green growth in the Nordic countries

Nordic cooperation on research and innovation is one of the most important efforts in creating a more climate-oriented and environment-friendly Nordic region. This was the key message from the 2012 annual conference of the Top-Level Research Initiative held in Helsinki.

Green growth was the primary theme of the conference.

In his opening speech, Halldór Ásgrímsson, Secretary General for the Nordic Council of Ministers, stated that anthropogenic climate change is beyond doubt the greatest challenge of our time.

Mr Ásgrímsson believes that the Nordic region has already made important strides towards creating greener economies through major investments in research on green solutions. The Top-Level Research Initiative (TRI) serves as an excellent example.

“Even though we are currently at the forefront in fields such as wind energy, bio-energy and thermal energy, there is still much to do,” the Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers emphasised.

He also believes that a financial crisis with high unemployment in many countries gives rise to major challenges, as it makes it tempting to focus on growth at any cost without due regard for the fact that such development must also be sustainable.

Starting at the top

Initiated by the prime ministers of the Nordic countries, the Top-Level Research Initiative is a joint effort designed to deal with real challenges that call for more sustainable development. The TRI is currently the largest joint Nordic research and innovation initiative to be launched.

The initiative spans from impact studies on climate change and adaptation to these changes to nanotechnology research, wind energy, bio-fuel and carbon capture and storage. The initiative also includes perspectives relating to the Arctic. Activities under the TRI have brought together many research groups across traditional boundaries between ministries and sectors.

Interdisciplinary research

Nils Christian Stenseth, project manager for the Nordic Centre for the Study of Climate Change Effects on Marine Ecosystems and Resource Economics (NorMER), a Centre of Excellence under the TRI initiative, spoke on the importance of interdisciplinary research.

Although the research project headed by Dr Stenseth is focused on a single organism, cod, the participating researchers represent a wide array of subject fields and come from all the Nordic countries. The project has employed a work method in which a multidisciplinary research strategy is used to lead to cutting-edge research. This has put NorMER in a position to produce new knowledge about climate variability on marine ecosystems and how this affects fisheries management.

Disseminating research information

Anne Gammelgaard Jensen, Daily Coordinator at the Nordic Strategic Adaptation Research (NORD-STAR), another Nordic Centre of Excellence, voiced her concerns at the Helsinki conference about how difficult it is for researchers to communicate information on climate change to others.

“Nordic researchers often emphasise the importance of disseminating research findings, but few of them look into how to do it properly. We need to apply new methods in our dialogue with society at large,” she stated.

“Climate change is an abstract problem. The challenge is a global one. There are many actors, the data are complex, uncertainty surrounds research results and many people remain sceptical. We hold a mixed bag full of challenges whenever we wish to convey information on climate change,” she said.

What we want and where we want to go

During the discussions, Secretary General Ásgrímsson urged the Nordic countries to work harder to become good at what they want to achieve and to be better focused on where they wish to end up.

One important area in the context of green growth where more research and innovation is needed is in the building industry.

Ilari Aho, former researcher and current employee of the Finnish construction materials company, Uponor, believes that there is great potential within this branch of industry for promoting positive change. He points to the example of Nordic Built – a body established on the initiative of Nordic ministers of trade and industry. Nordic Built is working to accelerate the development of shared, sustainable Nordic building concepts.

Stay focused!

During the second day of discussions at the TRI annual conference, participants received some advice from Germany’s Andreas Ehinger, who is Joint Programme Coordinator for the European Energy Research Alliance’s Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Programme:

“The Nordic region may be small in terms of population but that may be precisely why you can make things happen more quickly here,” Dr Ehinger stated. “My advice to you in the Nordic countries is to stay focused on the green growth areas that are most important to you,” he added.

Experts in nanotechnology

One area in which Nordic countries excel is nanotechnology.

“This is the result of a conscious focus on research over the course of many years. It can take a long time for such efforts to show results. But things are really happening now,” said Professor Helge Weman at the Helsinki conference.

Dr Weman is one of the researchers behind the nanotechnology breakthrough at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), where researchers have succeeded at creating a material from graphene that could revolutionise the technology industry. This is basic research which could result in much improved solar cells and LED components.

“The production of solar cells today is based on technology which is nearly 50 years old. Managing to produce solar cells that are far more efficient and less costly to manufacture will be a vital contribution to green energy in the future. Nordic research and Nordic companies can take charge and become leaders in the field,” said Dr Weman.

A focus on infrastructure

Professor Anne-Christine Ritschkoff, an expert in nanotechnology and Executive Vice President, Strategic Research at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, pointed out the importance of investment in infrastructure in order to achieve success:

“Infrastructure is often very expensive. This is thus a key area in which the Nordic countries should do more to collaborate,” she believes.

Heavy EU investment

The EU is also focusing a lot of resources on green growth, explained Eveline Lecoq who represented the EU Commission at the annual TRI conference.

“It is a matter of necessity given the current dependence of EU nations on fossil fuels,” she pointed out.

The EU’s ambition is to make the bioeconomy a cornerstone of the economies of the member states. The EU is slated to invest heavily in green research under the Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation. Another initiative may also be in the works that would allow the EU and industry to work together on the bioeconomy and research, Ms Lecoq explained.

Text: Bård Amundsen

Photo: Terje Heiestad