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Young people's climate protest in front of the Finnish Parliament in September 2019. Photo: Anna Juhola.

Politics of climate change is shaped at many forums

Climate policy started moving ahead in a new way after the publication of the alarming 1.5-degree report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in autumn 2018 and the launching of the Fridays for Future climate protests by Greta Thunberg and followed by millions of people, especially youth. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a large share of public attention in the past year, both in the media and in parliaments, much has happened in climate policy at the same time.

Many countries have modified their targets to curb climate change. Much attention was drawn to China’s declaration to strive for carbon neutrality by 2060. This declaration has been praised, but also questioned and interpreted as one sign of China’s desire to become the world’s leading superpower. There is also speculation about, what China’s possible trajectory of moving to massive climate change mitigation strategies in a similar vein as it successfully overcame the COVID-19 pandemic, would do to democracy and its “brand” globally.

Finland’s actions are also internationally significant as Finland’s carbon neutrality target for 2035 is among the most ambitious in the world. Sweden, for example, has announced a target for carbon neutrality in 2045, while the EU, the US and several other countries have set their target to 2050.

Political parties' climate policies are put into practice in government and parliamentary decisions, but many other actors also shape climate policy. Click To Tweet

With mass demonstrations along with many other walks of life moving from the streets to online space and the media focusing on the pandemic, who and where is shaping climate policy? Parliaments are obvious actors in climate policy, preparing climate laws, approving budgets and overseeing governments’ climate action. Political parties’ climate policies are put into practice in government and parliamentary decisions, but many other actors also shape climate policy.

The increasing role of the judiciary

Recently, the judiciary has had an active role on climate action. In April, German climate policy was affected by the country’s Constitutional Court surprisingly ruling that the country’s current climate legislation leaves too much of a burden on the young generations. The court ruled that the current climate law is in part unconstitutional and threatens to force restrictions on young people’s freedoms over the next decade. The German government took swift action. Just two weeks later, it had reformed its climate policy, and the carbon neutrality target was brought forward by five years to 2045. Parliament is expected to vote on a new climate law package during this parliamentary term before the autumn elections.

There are a number of other similar cases in the world where support for climate action is sought from the judiciary. One of them is the lawsuit filed by six Portuguese young people with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that inadequate climate action violates the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Citizens’ panels on climate policy becoming more common

More concrete climate policy has also been promoted through various instruments of deliberative democracy, such as citizens’ panels. In France, a panel of 150 citizens, launched by President Emmanuel Macron, convened for up to eight months and was widely regarded as legitimate, according to research. 70% of citizens had heard of the panel’s recommendations, and a majority supported all but one of the panel’s proposals. In Ireland, a citizens’ panel, launched by Parliament, has proposed strengthening the country’s climate law and putting the climate at the heart of the country’s policy-making. The panel also highlighted citizens’ will to pay higher carbon taxes.

In Finland, the Ministry of the Environment also recently set up a citizens’ jury to assess climate action, together with the Climate Policy Round Table. Represented in the Climate Policy Round Table are political, business and civil society leaders, including the Prime Minister, and it has been set up by the government. The citizens’ jury included 33 citizens aged 18–80, selected through random sampling and quotas, and met for three days in April. The statement of the citizens’ jury calls for, among other things, the need for the costs of new climate actions to be shared fairly between the various sectors. The jury assessed the fairness and effectiveness of existing climate policies, but also proposed, for example, a new “eco tax credit” for household expenses to be earmarked for measures that improve the property’s energy efficiency. The jury’s official role and mandate in relation to Parliament has not been determined in Finland.

Although democratic decision-making is often blamed for being too slow in face of the urgency or climate change, studies confirm that democracies produce better climate policies. Click To Tweet

Finnish decision-makers’ efforts towards carbon neutrality and carbon negativity are also urged by, for example, the Finnish Climate Change Panel that represents different branches of science and was set up under the Climate Change Act, the Climate Leadership Council that represents business, and several environmental organisations, among which the most visible has been Extinction Rebellion by blocking streets and staging hunger strikes to demand for more urgent action.

Politicians discussing around a table
Parties of Finland’s coalition government gathered for a climate conference in February 2020. Photo: Laura Kotila / Prime Minister’s Office.

Inclusive democracies produce better climate policy

A comprehensive and open debate is essential for an effective climate policy. According to the V-Dem Institute, it is clear that democracies produce better climate commitments. A 10% increase on the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index corresponds to a 3% improvement in the level of ambition of the degree target under the Paris Climate Agreement. The difference between fully authoritarian regimes and full democracies in terms of ambition is almost 1.6 degrees Celsius. There are nine democracies among the top ten countries in the Climate Performance Index 2020. The index covers 57 countries as well as the European Union, which corresponds to 90% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Although democratic decision-making is often blamed for being too slow in face of the urgency or climate change, studies confirm that democracies produce better climate policies. Moreover, without democracy, there is no independent judiciary, and it is the judiciaries, which now have taken on an increasing role in climate policy. Likewise, inclusive decision-making is key to truly tackling climate change in a timely and effective manner. In countries where the proportion of women in parliament is high, climate policy tends to also be more ambitious. The same could be expected to apply in municipal councils as well.

Municipalities have an important role in the politics of climate change

Significant climate policy is also implemented in municipalities. Finnish municipalities are even more ambitious than the state. The municipality of Ii in the Northern Ostrobothnia has raised interest in the international media after succeeding in achieving carbon neutrality in 2020. Also, in the municipalities of Lahti and Joensuu, carbon neutrality is believed to be achievable by 2025. Helsinki’s goal is in line with the national goal: carbon neutrality by 2035. Tampere has drawn up the country’s first municipal climate budget. Two out of three municipalities in Finland have already set their own climate targets and, if achieved, they would cover more than half of the emission reductions needed for Finland’s carbon neutrality. The role of municipalities in the politics of climate change should therefore not be underestimated.


International IDEA. Global Virtual Conference on Catalysing Parliamentary Action to Fight Climate Change. Online event 11.5.2021.

Könneke: Out of Order: How Germany can become a aclimate leader once more. European Council on Foreign Relations 11.5.2021.

Mavisakalyan & Tarverdi (2019). Gender and climate change: Do female parliamentarians make difference? European Journal of Political Economy. Volume 56, January 2019, 151–164.

Ministry of the Environment: Citizen’s Jury publishes a statement on the fairness of climate actions. Press release 27.4.2021.

Teivainen: Sitra: Most Finnish municipalities have goal for emission cuts, few for biodiversity. Helsinki Times 20.5.2021.

V-Dem Institute (2021). Do Democracies Perform Better Combatting Climate Change?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland. 

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