After studying music at the Sibelius Academy, Kaarin Taipale has graduated in 1972 as an architect from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, came back to Finland to work as an architect, went to the US and got a Master of Science in Historic Preservation form the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture (New York) in 1983, and then got a PHD in Urban studies from the Helsinki University of technology in 2009.
She has not either the classical career of an architect, even if she has worked as a regular architect for several years. She has been editor of the Finnish Architectural Review, before working for the Helsinki City. But she has also an important international experience, as she has been Member of the Board and then President of a global network of cities, which is called ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, which represents all local governments in certain UN processes. She has worked then in Canada before coming back to Finland and working 5 years as a consultant for the Ministry of Environment.
How did you come into politics?
It’s a good point because I had been a civil servant and as a head of an organisation you cannot be in politics because you are too close to the decision makers so that was out of the question. And anyway my career until then had really been purely professional, I’d seen myself as a purely professional person, so I was fairly innocent in terms of politics.
But once you sit as the head of a local government organisation and sit every week or every second week in the commission meetings which are political meetings and present your issues, you start understanding how local politics works. I was at the time in the Helsinki city’s building department, and there were very substance-oriented issues discussed, and even if the decisions were mainly driven by the existing laws, there was an element of politics which interested me.
In addition, the ICLEI organisation had a kind of political atmosphere, with all those cities who were pushing sustainability and the green agenda, and I enjoyed it a lot, particular when I became president of this global organisation. It was giving me a taste of politics that I enjoyed.
So when I decided that I was not going back as a civil servant to Helsinki city, the local elections were coming and a friend of mine proposed me to run, it was like going to the other side of the table, and it came naturally.
And now you are running for the Parliament?
Yes, it came naturally. I was also a candidate for the EU elections last spring and now I’ve been asked because the Social Democratic Party is interested in having a diversity of experiences among the candidates, and my experience as an urban architect with a good knowledge of sustainability topics interests them.
If you had to present yourself, what kind of social democrat are you?
I’m very red and very green. I’m always saying to the Greens that I am much greener than you are because I have not come into sustainability issues through the environmental protection door through which most of you have come but I’ve come actually through the historic preservation door following my studies in New York. I studied also protection of the built environment, protection of societal values and that kind of stuff, so I think I have a much more comprehensive view than most of those who came through just purely nature preservation aspects.
I understand that you have been involved in environmental issues recently?
Yes, I have worked for the Ministry of Environment for the Marrakech Process, which is a UN process aiming at to assist countries in their efforts to green their economies, to help corporations develop greener business models and to encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. What was interesting was that there was a new focus on sustainable consumption and production, SCP, Sustainable Consumption and Production, and that there could be UN member countries that would voluntarily take a lead in a specific issue where they would sort of go deeper into the issue of sustainable consumption production.
On my suggestion, Finland took the leadership of sustainable construction, which is a huge; Sweden had sustainable lifestyles; Italy had sustainable education; France sustainable tourism… I ran this project, which I loved because already 10 years ago I said publicly that we should gfocus on the issue. Of course it was more or less preaching and spreading and making some publications, going to all kinds of conferences. I attended three of the climate conferences, making a panel discussion about those issues.
Being in the Parliament would be a good place to push for these issues in Finland, as a lot of people speak of green buildings, or green towns, or sustainable urban development, but not so many knows really what it would mean.
Why did you join the Social Democrats and not the Greens for example?
I was pretty innocent in those days, and I could have chosen the Greens, maybe. But now I must say that I’m much more at home in the SDP because my view of the Green Party has changed after my experience here in local politics: I see them as very conservative, extremely conservative. They’re very right wing, very close to Kokoomus, which I think most of the voters don’t understand.
And there’s the fact that I have a great admiration for Erkki Tuomioja. As long as he is in the SDP, I will stay there, because for me he represents the global values of the party.
What do you see as the main challenges for Finland and how would you answer to these challenges?
I think employment, consumption and production issue in the sense that after heavy industry has disappeared from most industrialised countries, after our first big industrialisation wave with Nokia has also gone bankrupt, there’s just the next step that we have to discover: how to find employment for people, how to find work which brings added value to whatever we do, to natural resources, to human resources. I am really counting on digitalisation, the next steps of digitalisation and on the next steps of using renewable resources, renewable energy…
Another important matter is education, if we want to find these higher value production methods and that’s why also I think it’s extremely important to keep supporting research and development, otherwise we’ll become a developing country again.
What about the Finnish debt and the way to face the deficit which is existing now?
I find the discussion pretty frustrating and as always I’m blaming the media. They’re just pushing this, this is the first question they ask everybody. To put it in extreme terms, I find that it is the base of the neoliberal right wing agenda, when they push this, because that would mean diminishing government. It’s the old story: less government more private sector and therefore the public sector has less means and collect less taxes. It has to diminish and so it’s the long term privatisation agenda mainly. Of course everybody knows from their private household that you cannot overspend indefinitely, but, as many who understand better macroeconomics say, national governments practically never pay back their debts. In addition, our 60% or whatever is far from other countries’ debt, when you think about it.
I’m not saying it’s not important to deal with money carefully, I don’t think it would be stupid to take additional loans if we invested wisely and that of course is then the question. I’m always stressing the research and development and anything that we will need for digitalisation. I’m not an expert there but I understand we need also better networks and better infrastructure not only for roads and cars but for those digital economy and I’m a firm believer also in renewable energy development, clean tech… Everybody is talking about it but I really believe in it, so we have to find solutions that can be exported because also the other thing that I’ve seen is that everybody has basically the same problems.
Looking at the cities, having in mind the big picture, I have seen that everywhere in the world the challenges are the same: every single city or village in the world needs clean water, clean energy, basic healthcare, special healthcare, basic education, waste management, it’s all the same challenges. So if we find solutions for these issues then we are back on the global market.
If you have a possibility to influence the government, what would you recommend them in your field?
First of all you would have to clean up our subsidies’ system: we have subsidies for unsustainable energy which should be cut. And in Finland we have this horrible, horrible thing, peat, turva, that is still consider OK, even by the Centre Party. They do not realise that peat is worse than coal and I think it’s a sin to keep supporting that. Again I’m not an expert in the details but there are definitely subsidies to unsustainable energy which would have to be analysed and moved to subsidies to clean energy. When people say “no, you shouldn’t be subsidising the renewable energies, it’s too expensive”, in fact they ignore that it’s becoming much cheaper all the time, and countries like Germany or Denmark have invested in these technologies and are doing well! China also is putting huge investments into it because they understand it’s the only way.
The shift doesn’t happen overnight but we have to do whatever we can do as soon as possible and there continues to be this crowd who’s been saying for the last 20 years “Finland is such a small country, our pollution doesn’t mean anything globally”. It’s a ridiculous argument because if we don’t show the example how to do it how can we expect Zimbabwe or whatever developing country to do it as we are asking them in the climate negotiations.
You have been involved quite a lot in your life in international affairs. What is your idea about where Europe is seen outside and what kind of revolution we should have in the EU?
That’s a huge question. In the sustainability debates which I have been attending, Europe until now has been as a forerunner and that has been understood also by the European Union that they have to push the agenda. Of course after the enlargement when countries like Poland with a huge coal production and other less developed, less industrialised countries became members, probably the pioneering position has been slowed down a little bit but the initial 2025 targets that were pushed in climate negotiations by the EU were in those days sort of pioneering.
Are you optimist about the Paris summit at the end of the year?
I think you can’t be optimist or pessimist, you have to be a realist. I’m sure they will come up with some kind of an agreement but there will be more and more sort of bilateral agreements like there was the one between the US and China where China has promised to halve the peak year of their CO2 production sometime. Every country is in fact playing a different game. They are setting different targets and comparing to different baselines and so it’s getting more and more difficult to actually follow with one look what is happening.
But I think there is more and more common understanding that something has to be done. And of course the bottom line in almost all global negotiations is how much the rich countries are going to support the poor countries. I remember that it was in Copenhagen when they established a fund to this effect, but I don’t think the money has been paid into that fund yet to finance the development of the poor countries.
I think also that developing countries should not count on the high technology to solve their problems because the attitude would often be yes we need to buy your high technology and that’s why we need money. I fact, many of the solutions are not high-tech, they’re more sort of behavioural patterns, how to save energy. First you have to save and then you have to develop.
In terms of coalition after the election do you see a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Centre Party?
Yes as they are the two main parties and then maybe the Greens. I’m surprised that in the press they are also talking about the three with the True Finns but we are not sol eager to have the True Finns because we see them as being very far away from us.
How is the campaign going for you?
I have some very nice people in my group who are so full of ideas and we’re trying to do some little crazy things like what everybody else is doing because it’s tough to be there where every party is together in the same place and people get annoyed with everybody offering something and harassing them. But I’m not revealing my secrets…
How do you like campaigning?
It puts adrenalin in your blood but it’s very tiring and sometimes very frustrating because you have also have to be competing against your fellow party members. There’s been not that much negative response on the street but of course with every 10 encounters there’s at least one who is very aggressive and reminds you of something terrible that your party has done 20 years ago. And people have their own personal concerns and that’s understandable, that’s why politicians are there even if many times they are local issues and not national government issues. Elderly care, healthcare, public transport they are absolutely by far the most frequently asked questions.
Are you using a lot of social media?
Yes. I’m using Facebook mainly. I’m quite proud of my little invention: at the end of last year I realised that I could do a little video every week about what’s happening in the city board, what’s on the agenda of the city board. First I started simply with the iPad video, I’m doing it now with a very simple camera and with a tripod at home, so every Saturday or Sunday I go through the city board agenda and pick one or two issues and talk about them and then I put it on Facebook