Suburban areas in California and the Nordics


9 minute read

Fire and Ice: How California and the Nordics are redefining sustainability

On opposite sides of the planet, California and the Nordics are now on the same side as leaders in the fight against climate change. How can they win?

alison bing - author profile picture

Alison Bing


Surfers in the sunshine. Reindeer pulling sleighs through snow. From Malibu to Lapland, climate shapes culture. So when white snow melts into grey slush and blue skies become smudged with orange smoke, it's not just the scenery that's changing – it's our way of life.

Starting from worlds apart, California beachcombers and Scandinavian snowshoers are arriving at the same conclusion: the climate crisis must stop here, now, with us. But how? 

Climate crossroads

After 26 years of annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences, political, social and scientific consensus is finally starting to emerge, according to Dr. Lewis Fulton, Director of the Energy Futures program at the University of California, Davis.

“After 26 years of annual UN Climate Change Conferences, political, social and scientific consensus is finally starting to emerge“

Dr. Lewis Fulton

"This year, the UN Secretary General called for a phaseout of petrol-powered, internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040," Fulton says. "This isn't just rhetoric. Norway is already proving that it's possible with nearly 80% of all new car sales electric, and California is also rapidly building the infrastructure needed to transition to electric vehicles."

But even among early EV adopters, he says, burning questions remain. "Where is that electricity coming from? Is it coal, natural gas or renewables? We still need to decarbonize our energy sources."

Meanwhile, the rising costs of fossil fuels to consumers and the planet are prompting drivers in Europe and the US to consider a lower-emission alternative: biofuel. Unlike electricity, biofuel can be used in compression ignition engines without any modification – and its growing use in trucking, shipping and aviation is driving marketplace demand. 

Total biofuel production has increased dramatically from 187 thousand barrels total in 2000 to 1,677 thousand barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2020. But to keep pace with sustainable energy demands, biofuel needs to continue to be produced from sustainably-sourced renewable raw materials.

The circular economy

This push for continuous sustainability in biofuels production hits home for energy industry insiders, including Neste US president Jeremy Baines. When he started working at Neste, the company's main business was fossil fuels.

"Then I was asked to start commercializing renewable diesel from our refinery in Singapore in 2011," he says. "Because I was a skeptic, I wanted to make sure it actually made sense for the environment – and because I'm a father, I needed to be able to explain my actions to my son and daughter, too. After all, it's their world we're powering."

“He's seen California become one of the world's biggest biofuel markets“

Over Baines' 20+ years with Neste, the company has pioneered new approaches to renewable fuels, starting with systems to track and trace renewable fuel back to its origins. He's also seen California become one of the world's biggest biofuel markets, with boosts from public/private initiatives like Neste's partnership with the City of Oakland. Since 2019, Neste has helped Oakland to recycle used cooking oil from neighborhood restaurants into renewable diesel for city fleets.

Baines says science supports this shift away from a single-use, petroleum-based economy. "We're exploring new types of lower carbon-intensity raw materials – including algae oil, forestry waste, municipal solid waste, even carbon dioxide –  into fuels, chemicals and materials.” 

Opportunities to fuel the circular economy are already on the horizon in California. During the COVID-19 pandemic as car and air travel dropped, air quality rose in 65% of cities worldwide – and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) quietly rolled out a plan to sustain the gains. By gradually blending sustainable aviation fuel into jet fuel for outbound flights over five years, SFO aims to achieve climate goals and help the aviation industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel is made from 100% renewable waste and residue raw materials," Baines says. "Once blended with fossil jet A fuel, it meets strict safety and quality standards for aviation fuels. So it's ready to use at SFO without any changes to jet engines, pipelines or storage systems." 

Yet he's quick to share credit with Californian voters, who continue to support policies accelerating the state’s transition to a more sustainable future.

Taking it to the streets

If sustainability begins not at the gas pump but at the ballot box, California has a historic advantage. "California started to reduce carbon emissions 50 years ago," Dr. Fulton says.

But California's headstart came with major headaches: "At that point, air quality issues had already plagued the state for decades." Smog spread beyond Southern California's urban industrial hotspots into San Joaquin Valley, a 27,478 square-mile basin that collects and compresses emissions from agriculture and trucking. Particularly in urban communities of color encircled by highways, emissions became a public health crisis.

Confronted with inland smog and coastal disasters like the 1970 Santa Monica oil spill, Californian voters successfully mobilized to set historic clean air and water standards in the 1970s. Despite continued challenges, Californian standards have stood the test of time, providing an environmental protection framework for other states like Washington and Oregon.

“Is California's fight against emissions a shining example or a cautionary tale? 'Let's say it's instructive'“

So is California's fight against emissions a shining example or a cautionary tale? "Let's say it's instructive," Dr. Fulton says. From Gold Rush devastation in the Sierra foothills through wartime shipping-boom waste dumps, he points out, California has often pursued economic gains at the cost of environmental protection.

But he believes Californians have reached a turning point, along with the rest of the planet. "Humans don't plan very well, but we do react to crises. And with the climate crisis, we've got all the motivation we need." 

Based on her teaching and research on consumption patterns at Finland's University of Jyväskylä, Professor Terhi-Anna Wilska agrees. "Today we have more fuel sources to choose from, and more ways to measure and control our energy consumption," she says.

While Norwegian oil and gas interests may try to weather the climate crisis atop the North Sea's massive, 1,549-feet-high Troll platform, tides of climate strikers are unsettling the status quo across Scandinavia.

“Tides of climate strikers are unsettling the status quo across Scandinavia.“

"The street protests are small by US standards, but our young people are finding ways to mobilize around climate change," Professor Wilska says. Through social media, the world is following Sweden's homegrown influencers, including outspoken environmental activist Greta Thunberg

Next door in Finland, youth climate activism is less visible. "We don’t have a long tradition of youth rebellion or contentious political debate in Finland," Professor Wilska explains. "We're a nation of 5 million people, quite homogenous and equal socioeconomically."

But when the pandemic hit home, Finnish consumers turned introspective – and selective. "In 2020, 40-50% of consumers reported that they're buying less products overall, even as they're buying more local products and shopping resale," Professor Wilska says. "Women have been the most environmentally conscientious consumers in Finland, but now male consumers under 20 are catching up."

For many Finnish elders, this pause for reflection stirs deep memories. Finnish Baby Boomers were raised to be self-sufficient, with limited access to consumer goods after the wars in the region.

“Reuse, foraging, buying local... in Finland these are traditions, not just trends“

Terhi-Anna Wilska

"Reuse, foraging, composting, buying local... in Finland these are traditions, not just trends," Professor Wilska says. She sees social media serving as an intergenerational platform for Finnish Boomers and Gen Z, connecting around shared values and old/new conservation strategies. 

But social media has its downsides. "Influencers sponsored by brands encourage consumption," she says. According to her research, even media-savvy Finnish Millennials who consider themselves immune to traditional advertising "have a blind spot when it comes to technology" – not only the environmental costs of producing new gadgets destined for landfill, but the energy required to keep servers across the global grid up and running.

"Social media has created echo chambers of disinformation online," she says, "so blind spots are often reinforced, and consumers may not see any need to change." Yet even as the pandemic ends and consumers indulge pent-up spending urges, she predicts, "sustainability concerns will continue to impact consumption."

Outside, looking in

The pandemic has proven that it doesn't take prior experience to make a historic impact. Across communities worldwide, changes of heart have led to small but significant shifts: wearing masks, social distancing, getting vaccinations, supporting essential workers.

If we take a similar approach to our climate crisis – and stop holding our collective breath, waiting for a magic silver bullet solution – we could make meaningful progress by adopting sustainable practices supported by scientific evidence.

“That deep connection with nature can be profound motivation for change“

Terhi-Anna Wilska

Where to begin? Start with a walk, suggests Professor Wilska. As we venture outside, we're reminded of what we've been missing lately, beyond malls and movies – those clear blue skies, and fresh white snow. "That deep connection with nature can be profound motivation for change," she says. 

But early adopters of renewables are already seeing the benefits. "California is scaling up renewables in the grid," says Neste US president Jeremy Baines. "That investment in renewable technology is already reducing emissions – and contributing to California's economic growth."

So who's ahead in the race to end the climate crisis: California or the Nordics? Everyone. Because whenever people combine the pull of fast-paced innovation for sustainability with the push of hard-won lessons in respecting nature, the planet wins. 

From first-hand experience, Californians and Scandinavians recognize that each passing season can no longer be marked only by fire or ice – it must be measured by meaningful change on the ground. 

How does Neste accelerate circularity in the US and the Nordics? Read more:

  • Neste is helping Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) reduce GHG emissions per passenger by 15% with a circular economy. Used cooking oil from DFW’s more than 200 concessionaires are collected by Mahoney Environmental, a Neste Subsidiary. Neste then turns this waste material into renewable fuels to help fight climate change.

  • Neste and Hesburger, a Finnish restaurant chain, will engage in a significant circular economy collaboration. Used cooking oil from more than 300 Hesburger restaurants in Finland and in the Baltics will be recycled to produce renewable diesel.

  • The City of Oakland, situated on the east side of San Francisco Bay in California, has a strong record in environmental leadership and is widely considered one of the greenest cities in the U.S. Using waste as a resource, Oakland is on track to meet its sustainability and climate goals.

Credits: Alison Bing, An award-winning writer on sustainability, design and travel for global outlets including BBC Worldwide, the Guardian, New York Times, Dagens Nyheter and Lonely Planet.