“Green taxation and green accounting effective methods for driving sustainable practices”

Atte Moilanen, a Research Director at the University of Helsinki, calls for more resources and a stronger regulatory framework to protect the environment and maintain biodiversity around the world. His research group has created Zonation, a software tool to enable sustainable land use planning practices.

Asked to name an effective intervention for protecting the environment, Research Director Moilanen immediately brings up green taxation, a levy that would encourage both businesses and individual consumers to make more environmentally friendly choices.

Recently granted a Distinguished Service Award by the Society for Conservation Biology Europe Section, Professor Moilanen’s work focuses on conservation research and practice using mathematics and computer science.

Atte Moilanen, who has a twenty-year track record in environmental research, is a firm believer that the best way to effect meaningful change in society is through legislation and political decision-making. Individuals and the choices they make might result in gradual change over long periods of time but for a rapid change of course, high-level political leadership is needed.

“It is a ridiculous amount of effort for ordinary people, who are busy enough as it is with jobs and families, to try and figure out the environmental and climate impact of the things they’re buying, like food. That’s why we need legislation and proper political decision-making to fundamentally change the way we do things across society as a whole,” he says.

Taxes of raw materials

“Personally, I am in favour of introducing new green taxes across both raw materials and energy. A tax of that kind would encourage everyone to make more sustainable choices in terms of spending and consumption and also be an easy way to raise money that could then be used to fund conservation efforts and environmental protection activities.

In fact, there is already strong evidence to suggest that green taxes are an effective intervention as low emission vehicle sales saw a surge following the introduction of car tax rates linked to emissions.

Moilanen’s vision includes a staggered tax, where the rates levied are calculated on the basis of the warranty offered by the manufacturer: the longer the guarantee, the lower the tax. After all, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from producing goods that last longer and can be repaired.

“I would hazard a guess that, given the choice, most people would choose to work less. So if the cars, appliances and even houses that we buy lasted longer, we could all buy less, less often.”

In Moilanen’s vision, mechanisms similar to the progressive vehicle tax, where the rates payable are calculated on the basis of harm, would be applied to all economic activity.

Green accounting for a clearer picture

At the moment, public sector investment in the natural environment pales into insignificance when compared with the swathes of money being directed at stimulating private sector business activity. The relatively small sums spent on nature conservation and protection are reflected in the financial resources allocated to Finland’s Ministry of the Environment, which make up just 0.3% of the annual state budget. By contrast, subsidies and other forms of support offered to private sector businesses are anywhere between 20–50 times higher, depending on the exact method of calculation.

“When you consider that we only have one planet, 0.3% is pretty low. The way we are going, the natural environment will continue to deteriorate despite all the international conventions and protocols we have in place that are intended to halt ecological degradation and stop climate change. It seems that these have amounted to nothing more than empty rhetoric and, in reality, economic growth remains the top priority,” Moilanen says. The fact is that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources will always be an impossibility.

Moilanen’s solution is for governments to adopt an ”environmental balance sheet” alongside the GDP to account for the country’s environmental assets such as ancient forests, urban green spaces and endangered habitats.

The environmental balance sheet is intended as a similar metric to the GDP in that the onus would be on governments to deliver growth. To do so in environmental terms, they would need to identify ways to improve air quality, conserve urban natural habitats or promote wildlife-friendly ditch management practices on arable land.

“For something like this to be made into a reality, we would need a huge shift in both our attitudes and our practices. This is not something that a single country can instigate on their own and as things stand even the EU does not seem too keen to take the lead on this,” Moilanen admits.

Zonation for sustainable land use planning

In the course of his career, Atte Moilanen has developed a number of tools for use in environmental protection and conservation contexts. Zonation is his sustainable land use planning method and software, which has been adopted by Finland’s environmental administration and regional councils as well as similar bodies internationally.

In the 1990s, Atte Moilanen completed a PhD on population biology under the supervision of Academy Professor Ilkka Hanski. Alongside his doctoral studies, he also achieved a Licentiate in applied mathematics at the Helsinki University of Technology.

Zonation was first put into use by the Finnish authorities a decade ago, just a few years after the software was first released. In this instance, the transition from development to implementation was remarkably short.

“I wanted to lend my support to conservation in the broadest possible sense. The particular advantage Zonation offers is that it can process a huge volume of data on a number of topics like the natural environment, financial considerations and population pressures and do it in a balanced way,” Atte Moilanen explains.

Zonation is now freely available for anyone looking for a tool to guide their decision-making on sustainable land use planning issues. 

Ancient Chinese curse

Green taxes, green accounting and innovative new software programmes are just small details in the big picture, where Planet Earth is facing huge pressures from rising population and economic growth. Moilanen says change won’t come easily.

“I suspect that we might only see real change if we are subjected to an unprecedented catastrophe of global proportions, like if the polar ice caps melt away at a rate that exceeds even our most pessimistic predictions. But I sincerely hope it won’t come to that.”

“May you live in interesting times,” is a well-known Chinese curse, he points out.

“Most of us are happy with things as they are, and people usually prefer the status quo. When we’re faced with change and forced to adapt, that’s when things tend to get “interesting”. And that’s when our happiness is no longer a given. So I hope that things don’t get too interesting for us or for the generations after us.”


Atte Moilanen's publications
Learn about The Mas­ter's pro­gramme in En­vir­on­mental Change and Global Sus­tain­ab­il­ity


Zonation – prioritising biodiversity

How do we go about allocating space for housing, for food production and for transport whilst also protecting natural habitats? Where should the manufacturing plants be located? And which of our landscapes are most in need of protection?

The Zonation software programme has been created to provide an answer to these very questions. It is a free tool, developed by a research group led by Professor Atte Moilanen – research director with a split position between the Finnish Museum of Natural History and the Department of Geosciences and Geography at the University of Helsinki – to support sustainable decision-making on land use planning.

In simple terms, Zonation is designed to process large volumes of geographic data and to rank and prioritise areas of land in terms of their ecological value.

The sheer scale at which the software operates is best illustrated through practical examples: so far, Zonation has been used to analyse the entire Finnish landmass broken down to areas of 100 metres by 100 metres at a time as well as the landmass of the entire planet in sections of 1 by 1 km with data for 22,000 'biodiversity features'.

Biodiversity features comprise animal species, biological communities, habitats, ecosystem services and genes. The benefit of the software is that it can perform a priority analysis that accounts for all these different features simultaneously and in a balanced manner.

In practical terms this means that professionals responsible for designing nature reserves or national parks, for example, can choose areas of land that, within the constraints of the total area of land available, will optimise outcomes for all the features included in the analysis.

The programme will also identify areas that have no special value in terms of biodiversity. This allows industrial sites to be placed in areas where their environmental impact is minimised.

The analyses generated by Zonation can be used to steer the design of connected nature reserve networks, to minimise adverse biological effects, to support zoning activities and to target ecological compensation programmes.

Zonation has proved popular across the world. In New Zealand, for example, half of the country’s regions have adopted land use plans based on Zonation analyses and the remaining regions are in the process of completing them. The programme is also in use in Japan and Australia.

The most significant barrier to Zonation is access to comprehensive high-quality data. Creating such data sets requires significant investment and effort.

How reliable to results of the analysis are is ultimately down to the quality of the data used. The marine planning process currently underway in Finland is based on an exceptionally high quality data set collected as part of the Finnish Inventory Programme for the Underwater Marine Environment (VELMU). The programme comprises more than 150,000 sampling stations and carefully chosen background variables, which means that it is ideally set up to deliver analyses that will have a high degree of practical relevance.