Ville Niinistö, the MEP fighting to preserve biodiversity at COP15

Ville Niinistö has long been at the fore of debates on biodiversity and wildlife preservation, first as Finland’s environment minister and now as Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to COP15. Will the world heed his calls?
Ville Niinistö | Photo courtesy of Ville Niinistö

By Sean Craig

Sean Craig is a business and investigative journalist who has contributed to The Daily Beast, the Financial Post, BuzzFeed News and Vice

15 Dec 2022

In 2009, Ville Niinistö, then a member of the Finnish parliament, was a fan of playing Civilization IV, at the time the most recent release in a series of wildly popular computer strategy games that lets players oversee their own simulated society from prehistory to an imagined future.

A lot has changed since then. “It’s Civilization VI now,” Niinistö tells The Parliament, with a laugh. “And games like Crusader Kings. It’s kind of like my way of getting the mind off work.”

That work has been plentiful. His 12 years in the Suomen eduskunta, Finland’s legislature, followed a promising academic tenure and a municipal politics career with a stridently green bent. Later serving as his country’s environment minister, Niinistö led the department responsible for much of Europe’s most precious northern biodiversity and took a bold stance against dependence on Russian energy, years before other politicians in the bloc came around to the idea.

A Green MEP since 2019, Niinistö is now headed to Montreal, Canada as the Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference. There, global governments will try to reach an agreement by 19 December to protect the land, plants and animals that the planet needs in the fight against climate change. No pressure.

The European Parliament delegation was sent to COP15 with a mandate to advocate for the protection of at least 30 per cent of land and ocean by 2030, as well as the restoration of 3bn hectares.

While last month’s COP27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt, might draw more top-level headlines as the chief negotiating point for efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, scientists have warned that equal importance should be placed on maintaining a healthy ecosystem if the world is to avoid a temperature rise that exceeds 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Land and the ocean absorb over half of all carbon emissions, according to the UN. And the world’s biodiversity, which includes plants and animals that are essential to the stability of the natural world, is at a crisis point. UN scientists said in a 2019 report that one out of eight million species on Earth are threatened with extinction, while the World Wildlife Federation found that nearly seven in 10 species saw wildlife populations fall between 1970 and 2018.

Around the world, 85 per cent of wetlands, like mangrove swamps that can absorb massive amounts of carbon, have gone, and irreplaceable ecosystems in the Amazon rainforest have been replaced with carbon-producing activity following deforestation.

“Our health, our well-being, our climate, our economy – they all depend on nature”

“Our health, our well-being, our climate, our economy – they all depend on nature,” Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said earlier this autumn after the COP15 mandate was agreed. “We cannot waste time anymore in losing biodiversity. We have to act now.”

Niinistö – who notes that while he “very much likes nerdy games” was also once the captain of his football team – is well aware of the challenge the world is facing and has had a front row seat for the tug-of-war politics that it’s taken to push forward a robust climate agenda.

Finland is the most forested country in Europe – forests covered 74 per cent of the land area in 2020, according to the World Bank – which has thrust the country to the fore of the debate about biodiversity and wildlife preservation.

From 2011 to 2018, Niinistö chaired the country’s Green Party, boosting the party’s vote share in successive elections. The party served in government from 2011 to 2014, during which time he held the environment minister portfolio.

In that time, Niinistö created two national parks, helped pass the country’s landmark Climate Change Act that pledged major emissions reductions, convened the expert Finnish Climate Change Panel that advises policymakers to this day, extended forest diversity programs to protect 13,000 hectares of land and designed a major wetland protection program.

The government that followed, however, cut environmental funding and pulled back on the wetland plans, which Niinistö criticised as counterproductive.

“In general, our land use is of such massive scale when it comes to any EU Member State because of forestry, so the climate crisis is something that came naturally to the main discourse of politics,” he says. “But biodiversity is still a few steps behind.”

Finland’s current government pledged earlier this year to be climate neutral by 2035, one of the most aggressive environmental pledges by any world government and building on the agenda that Niinistö started a decade ago, and he’s now on the world stage pressing for biodiversity targets to complement.

“The main outcome is to achieve the 30 per cent global protection target for land and sea,” says Niinistö. “These numbers have to be in the deal because, in the history of biodiversity protection, numerical targets have been the best implemented because it's easy to follow whether they’re happening or not.”

“The main outcome is to achieve the 30 per cent global protection target for land and sea”

The state of affairs in Finland is a microcosm of why land protection is crucial: according to the government, 3m hectares of the country’s forests are protected or under restricted use, about 12.5 per cent of all forest area. That’s the highest protected share in Europe. Data released by Statistics Finland in May showed that the country’s forestry and other land use sector, for the first time, released more greenhouse gases than absorbed.

“That up to a million species could be lost with the current deterioration, which would be the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of this planet – we are not just talking human history, it’s a massive scale – has to do with how we use land, how we create emissions, and how we protect the existing wildlife and ecosystems,” Niinistö adds. Another key to the European Parliament delegation’s negotiating mandate is advocating for the restoration of 3bn hectares of land and 3bn hectares of ocean by 2030.

At a press conference with journalists the week before the conference, he expressed concern that the EU could roll back its targets during international negotiations, and that the European Greens worry about “erosion when it comes to implementation”.

If the world can agree on swift action, it won’t be the first time Niinistö was well ahead of his time. His Greens resigned from the Finnish government in 2014, meaning Niinistö gave up his ministerial post and put his career on the line, over the approval of a nuclear reactor that was scheduled to be built by Russian state-owned group Rosatom. (They were vindicated, in particular, earlier this year when the organising Fennovoima announced it was cancelling Rosatom’s contract to build the power plant, citing the Ukraine war.)

As a graduate student at the University of Turku, Niinistö studied Russian foreign policy as it relates to global power and was an academic researcher in the school’s history department. He cites this education as the background to his stance: “I had been vaccinated against Russian geopolitics because I did my master’s thesis and entered my doctorate, which unfortunately I didn’t get to finish because I was elected to parliament,” he says.

“I think it was very obvious that the Russian political elite still crave for empire,” he adds. “They couldn’t achieve that economically in the early 2000s, and so they turned back towards what they know, which is exploitation of resources, fossil fuels and using energy as an extension of an aggressive foreign policy. This is very obvious when you look back now, and we warned against it in 2014.”

Niinistö got that right. In years to come, the world might look back and wonder if it should also have paid more attention to his calls on biodiversity.

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