Meet the Board: EU Specialist Johanna Kentala-Lehtonen advocates for Finland in the EU when environmental issues are discussed

Johanna Kentala-Lehtonen, who works as an EU Specialist in the Prime Minister’s Office, has dedicated her career to reconciling the economy and the environment. Social justice and taking care of people in the sustainability transformation is just as important as taking care of the environment, Kentala-Lehtonen emphasises.

Johanna Kentala-Lehtonen coordinates the so-called EU Green Deal in the Prime Minister’s Office. It is a road map and legislative package set by the EU Commission for Europe’s climate and nature goals. The end goal is a carbon-neutral Europe in 2050, and before that, actions aim to reduce EU countries’ emissions by 55 per cent by 2030, improve the state of nature, create jobs and protect people’s health.

The Green Deal is a climate and environmental policy package that concerns all sectors of the economy. This package will reform a lot of EU legislation. Kentala-Lehtonen’s job involves coordinating the positions of different ministries for negotiations.

You are closely involved in implementing the legislative work related to the EU’s Green Deal. The EU is committed to making Europe climate neutral by 2050. Will the goal be reached?

The latest major step forward was taken in June when the Environment Council and the Energy Council approved the member states’ positions on the so-called Fit for 55 package, i.e. the legislation that will help the EU reduce its emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

I think it’s amazing that the package was completed, considering how difficult the current overall situation is in the EU. And yet an agreement was reached quickly, after less than a year of negotiations. The next step is the so-called tripartite negotiations where the EU Council, the Commission and the European Parliament reconcile their views on the package. Only after this will the legislation be complete and become enforceable in the member states.

The legislative package contains a total of 15 items, and an agreement has already been reached for 11 of them between the member states. It is the most globally ambitious and far-reaching climate legislation ever, and it applies to all sectors of the economy.

It is often said that nothing is done. This definitely does not apply to the EU. This ambitious legislation aims to implement the climate goals adopted in the summer of 2021 in the European Climate Act, which are currently binding legislation in the EU.

“For me, sustainable development means that the economy, environment and people’s well-being are realised in a fair way.”

You know a lot about coordinating EU legislation and Finnish legislation. What is the relationship like between the two?

Not all policies or legislations made in Finland are EU policies or based on EU legislation. However, the EU has jurisdiction over environmental policy. In other words, environmental matters are decided upon jointly in the European Union. The legislation is binding to the member states.

The current European Commission has issued many environmental legislations in the form of regulations rather than directives. The difference between these two is that a directive can be adapted in member states. Countries can, therefore, make their own legislation as long as it meets the conditions of the directive. A regulation, on the other hand, is legislation that must be implemented as such, and it applies to all member states. Practices around Europe are, therefore, constantly becoming more uniform.

This also creates challenges. For example, we in Finland have certain special features, such as the traditionally strong forestry industry, which do not apply to certain regions such as Central and Southern Europe. In addition, we already have strong legislation. The challenge in the negotiations is how we reconcile the already existing legislation and the special features of our country with the fact that we are a small minority in the EU.

One of my tasks is to ensure that the commission is aware of our special features when legislation is being made.

What kind of a background is required from an EU specialist?

I became interested in environmental issues already as a child growing up on a farm. Since upper secondary school and university, I have been especially interested in climate change and the concept of sustainable development.

I have studied political science and international politics. I also worked as a MEP assistant in the EU. In addition, one perspective in my dissertation concerned the European Union. Still, I would say that EU processes and legislative routes are best learned by doing. The process is quite complicated, which is why it is easier to understand if you are involved in it yourself.

My area of expertise involves understanding the entirety of the Green Deal. Different ministries look at things from their own perspective – the Ministry of the Environment focuses on environmental issues and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, for example, focuses on renewable natural resources. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, the Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Ministry of Finance are also responsible for Green Deal policies in Finland. My task is to understand the whole and reconcile different viewpoints into a unified Finnish position.

Niko Soininen has been a member of the Nessling Foundation Board since the beginning of 2022.

You consider social justice important in the sustainability transformation. What does it mean?

This is also related to the concept of sustainable development. For me, sustainable development means that the economy, environment and people’s well-being are realised in a fair way.

In the sustainability transformation, all the functions of our society must be quickly adapted to support human life within the limits of one planet. We can’t only consider the perspective of the environment, but we also have to take into account people’s well-being and ensure that people are taken care of. We need an economic framework for that.

This is also central to my work. I work in the Prime Minister’s Office, and not, for instance, in the Ministry of the Environment, so my task is to take widely different perspectives into account when I coordinate Finland’s positions for EU preparation.

Which environmental themes will be discussed next in the EU?

Climate-related legislation is already well under way. The member states are now starting to discuss the questions and legislation of restoration, that is, improving the state of nature, i.e. implementing the EU’s biodiversity strategy. It is on the agenda for the autumn of 2022, and Finland has just formed a common position on it.

I believe that the current energy crisis and material shortage will accelerate the circular economy because the EU wants to be more and more independent and self-sufficient. The action plan for the circular economy was presented in the EU already in spring 2020, but discussions on actual legislative proposals have taken until this year.

The circular economy has been talked about for a long time, but there has been a lack of concrete actions. The old saying “never let a good crisis go to waste” applies here, too. Now that natural resources are starting to become too expensive, people are starting to realise that we should recycle what already exists. In practice, the transition to a circular economy finally becomes financially profitable. This has not been the case before, and the enabling legislation has been missing as well. Therefore, companies have not adopted the circular economy on a large scale.

In your work, you get to influence matters on a European scale. What would you like to influence in the Nessling Foundation?

I consider the foundation to be a really important actor. I think it can have an impact much larger than its size. Basic research will always be needed, but we also need financiers to finance research that answers current questions. I want to be able to find those researchers and studies that can answer the burning issues of the day and speed up the sustainability transformation.

Thanks to my background, I bring to the foundation an understanding of the connection between the environment and society and what kind of research affects decision-making. In my work on the Board, I am also interested in how the foundation takes care of its employees because they are an asset that makes the foundation effective.

Get to know the other board members

Niina Bergring
Simo Honkanen
Timo Kairesalo
Johanna Kentala-Lehtonen
Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala
Pertti Lassila
Jari Niemelä
Niko Soininen
Ilari E. Sääksjärvi
Tuula Varis