Renewable solutions

The Brave & the innovative: Guardian of integrity Asta Soininen

Dr. Eva Amsen
Photo: Marko Rantanen

As the pressure grows for businesses to mitigate carbon emissions, so does the demand for resourceful lifecycle analysts. For this Finnish sustainability researcher, her team is like a corporate Justice League, holding businesses to account on sustainability. Next, Asta Soininen wants more leaders to understand how data can judge whether ideas are sufficiently sustainable to be future-proof.

As thousands of fires ravaged the Amazon rainforest in 2019, a young girl half a world away made a life-altering decision.
“I will never eat meat again because of the fires in Brazil,” she stated to her mother in the kitchen of their cozy home in a wintery small town in Finland. Luckily, the girl’s mother, Asta Soininen, is very well educated in discussing these kinds of complex environmental issues.
Surprised, Soininen couldn’t help but ask her daughter: “Oh, do you understand how these things are connected?” And before she knew it, she was giving a lengthy kitchen lecture on the complex interactions between land use, food production and sustainability.
How all these things are linked is a concept that not even many adults fully grasp, but for Asta Soininen this sort of big picture, level-headed thinking is second nature – and essential to her work as a sustainability researcher specialized in the lifecycle analysis of renewable and circular solutions.

And what, exactly, is lifecycle analysis?

Lifecycle analysis is a methodology for weighing the different factors over the product’s life that affect the environmental impact of a certain product or service. For example, together with her colleagues, Soininen is responsible for doing the lifecycle calculations that make it possible to confidently state that in 2019 Neste’s customers reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 9.6 million tons, equalling to the annual carbon footprint of 1.5 million average EU citizens.


We stand up for science against the temptation of only highlighting the positive

It’s a complex world of data, Excel spreadsheets and calculations that’s growing in relevance, as companies are now forced to mitigate carbon emissions to meet the rapidly shifting demands of customers, employees, investors and policymakers – and most importantly, to save the planet. For more and more companies, including Neste, reductions in greenhouse gas  emissions are the very core of their whole product offering, making the lifecycle analysts calculating those reductions some of the most crucial professionals for the whole business.
But while sustainability researchers are in popular demand today, it’s not long ago that the whole field was an understated, or even disrespected, one in the corporate world. The U-turn in attitudes – which is still happening – is something Soininen has witnessed first-hand.

From underdog to superhero

Before she joined Neste, Asta Soininen was putting her studies in environmental sciences into use by conducting lifecycle assessment in the steel industry. At the time, sustainability wasn't widely discussed yet, and lifecycle assessment and environmental issues were treated more like a box-ticking exercise. "I felt like I was standing alone defending the facts,” Soininen says. Strikingly, the events Soininen recalls are not old, but from 2014 – which goes to show just how fast attitudes towards sustainability are now shifting in business.

Neste’s "superhero" team of sustainability researchers are treated with respect as they uphold scientific facts and reason, but it’s not like that everywhere.


Lifecycle analysis used to be treated like a box-ticking exercise

As soon as Soininen joined Neste, she encountered a world of difference. At Neste, sustainability researchers were treated with respect as they uphold scientific facts and reason. “Many  people already knew a lot about life cycle assessment and sustainability when I joined in 2016. Those values have been highlighted for a long time." And that's true across different levels of the organization. "Even if you talk to the CEO, he understands the facts behind Neste’s sustainability," she says. "It's just in the core of the strategy."

Lifecycle analysis itself, however, is not new: it has been around since the 1960s when people first began to calculate how consumer products affected the environment. During the global oil crisis in the 1970s, lifecycle analysis was widely used to figure out where resources were going, and how we could waste less.

But the real boost for lifecycle analysis came in the 1990s and 2000s when international standards for lifecycle analysis turned it into a systematic science and made it easier to combine different calculations.


When is a zero-emissions electric car actually zero-emissions?

While standardization may not sound radical, it’s what allowed lifecycle analysts to reliably answer tricky sustainability questions such as this one:
If your zero-emissions electric car is powered by electricity made from fossil raw materials, is it still zero-emissions?
Over video chat from her daughter's bedroom, from where she is working remotely due to the pandemic, surrounded by flower lamps and posters that show different species of birds and butterflies, Soininen leans in. Eyes sparkling, she begins to explain how a lifecycle analyst might approach the dilemma.

The lifecycle analyst’s dilemma

To find out how sustainable an electric car is, a lifecycle analyst would most likely start by calculating the vehicle’s carbon footprint. “You would do that by collecting information about the materials used to produce the car and the battery, how much emissions it causes to transport it from the factory to the car dealership, how much and what kind energy it consumes over its lifecycle, and how many years you can use the car,” Soininen explains.
That already sounds like a lot of moving parts, but the lifecycle analyst’s task is about to get even more complicated.
Soininen explains it by comparing fuel-burning cars with electric cars. "It's not only simply about electric car versus a car with combustion engine, but it's about how the energy is produced for your car," she says. "If you're using electric cars in a country where all the electricity is produced with coal or other high-emitting energy sources, then it may be better to rely on something else, like renewable fuels.” 
However, there’s something not quite right with Soininen’s hypothetical example: In reality, a single lifecycle analyst could never solve the dilemma alone. That’s where something Soininen calls the ‘Justice League of sustainability’ comes in.

Mission: keep the facts straight

Calculating the carbon footprint of a fuel requires knowledge of anything from methods of raw material production, to the chemical processes of fuel conversion, to the impact of transporting source materials. It's impossible for any one person to be an expert on all the different factors that affect a fuel's lifetime carbon footprint.
In the sustainability assessment team at Neste, everyone brings different skills and knowledge to the table. Among Soininen’s seven colleagues, some people know everything about regulations in different countries, while others are experts in calculating the sustainability of renewable plastics and chemicals – which is a very different practice from calculating the sustainability of fuels, for example. "We try to assure that there's science behind everything that we communicate.”


Our mission is to make sure we’re not greenwashing

When Soininen and the team can show that Neste's products really do result in decreased carbon emissions, it’s a time for celebration in the company. But other times, they have to deliver discouraging news. For example, their calculations might suggest that a new way of doing things isn't as promising as expected. The job involves assessing whether new ideas are sufficiently sustainable, and how to show that scientifically, using established lifecycle assessment methods. "Our mission is to keep the facts straight and make sure we're not greenwashing."

Soininen imagines her team as collectively fighting for integrity when they’re calculating and reporting the impact of renewable solutions — like the Justice League or Avengers of sustainable fuels. “We stand up for science against the temptation of only highlighting the positive,” Soininen says.

But discovering scientific evidence isn’t enough to advance sustainability. You also need to motivate real people in the real world to change their actions according to your findings.

Luckily, Soininen’s team of superheroes has an ace up their sleeves for that.  

From alarmism to positivity

“I'm kind of tired of all the negative messages on how we'll all be doomed," Asta Soininen says about sustainability communications. "That’s why I’m a fan of the carbon handprint as a communication tool: it’s something that shows how your impact can be positive."


The carbon handprint highlights the positive impact

The carbon handprint, a relatively new concept that Soininen’s group is working on, is a measure of indicating the environmental impact of switching to more sustainable methods. While the traditional carbon footprint shows the negative effect of a product, the carbon handprint shows the positive environmental effect of using a more sustainable alternative. "It basically aims to be a more positive communication tool about emissions, highlighting the positive impact," says Soininen.

Doctor Gregory Norris, who teaches lifecycle assessment at Harvard, first coined the term “handprint” in 2012 to describe the positive environmental effect of products. A few years later, the carbon handprint became the topic of a thorough research study at the LUT University and the VTT Technical Research of Finland. “They picked this up and started a research project with a lot of stakeholders involved, including Neste,” explains Soininen.

She returns to the car example to explain the tool in practice:

How do you calculate the positive impact of switching from a fossil-based fuel to a renewable one?

First, you would use lifecycle calculations to determine the carbon footprint of the traditional fuel. “And then you replace it with a new, better, less emitting product. We calculate the footprint for that as well, and the difference between the two, that's the handprint.”

Even though the carbon handprint is a simple shorthand to indicate the impact of a climate solution, lifecycle calculations such as this involve a lot of calculations and spreadsheets. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but Soininen thrives on sifting through the information hidden in the rows and columns of data. "I love spreadsheets", she says as she enthusiastically recalls one of her favourite calculations – that of the annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from Neste's products.

It's a complex calculation mainly because of the large amount of data that goes into it.


Calculating the final reduction in emissions is rewarding to me

The way Soininen tells it, it sounds like a scene from an action film: this intense sped-up montage of numbers and documents all leading up to a single number, putting a value to a complex web of calculations.
"When you do this work from day to day for two weeks and then calculate the final answer, that's rewarding to me."

For Neste, the end goal of Soininen’s work is both about helping clients towards profitable, sustainable business as well as reaching the company’s own goal of carbon-neutral production by 2035 – a highly ambitious goal that inspires Soininen in her work.

But it’s not all fireworks, of course. Most days, the job of a lifecycle analyst includes answering to a lot of criticism.

Exploration for carbon-neutrality

While much of the work of Soininen’s team involves coming to rescue when the sustainability of a product needs to be proved, they are also actively looking for completely new sustainable solutions.
Currently, Soininen and the team are exploring and scrutinizing new raw materials that could be refined into renewable fuels. That work is sometimes faced with criticism, as all the challenges related to decarbonizing traffic are hard to grasp.

"There are some critical comments against renewable liquid fuels, because it's suggested that we should mainly use electricity to replace fossil liquid fuels," Soininen explains. But as long as electric cars still tap into unsustainable sources of electricity generation in certain regions, EVs are far from a silver bullet solution. "Even in the long run, liquid fuels should remain in use where you need them the most; in regions where emissions from electricity are the highest, and in forms of transport where electricity- and hydrogen-based technologies won’t be feasible any time soon."

That means it's worth figuring out how to produce those liquid fuels in a more sustainable way, with new source materials. "We use a lot of waste and residues to develop the raw materials, but we are also aiming at finding new sustainable crop-based  oils, or vegetable oils."

The traditional problem with vegetable oils is that they're made from a potential food source. "A lot of questions about raw materials for vegetable oils are about global food security,” says Soininen. "So what we do is we look for additional sources on areas where the cultivation would not cause additional demand for land, for example marginal lands."


We could introduce oil-producing trees on degraded cattle lands

One example of this is growing winter crops on fields that are otherwise empty outside the main cultivation season. That way, no resources are taken away from food production. Another potential solution even helps to bring more food to the world's tables: "We could introduce oil-producing trees on degraded cattle lands. The gentle maintenance of the trees could then improve the soil, and we could get the cattle back to graze in the shadow offered by the trees."

Asta Soininen clearly enjoys the complexity and big picture thinking. In fact, she would love to fully devote her time to this type of explorative work.

"I sometimes miss that time when you're graduating university and you're preparing your thesis; when you were allowed to think about only this one thing,” Soininen muses. (In fact, Soininen loved that time so much she’s completed two Master’s degrees related to environmental sciences as well as a professional Master’s program in environmental management.)

The eternal balancing-act

When it comes to Soininen, she not only balances her time between responsive reporting and creative discovery at work but tries to find a suitable balance between work and home life. Luckily, it helps to live in a country that’s the world leader in flexible work, with a capital that offers the best work-life balance.


Soininen avoids reading climate change news at home

Even when working from home, Asta Soininen fences off time to spend with her family, play clarinet, or explore nature in the nearby nature conservation.

She loves reading as well. "I read a lot of different things: science and philosophy, fiction, children's books, poems and everything that makes me think."

There’s one thing she avoids reading about at home, though, and that is climate change news – although she can’t hide the fact that she's already looking forward to the 2022 publication of the next IPCC report. "That's one report I am very eager to read even in my free time."

When it comes to the future, Soininen is optimistic. "I dream of this kind of utopia where my kids can see that it's possible to achieve the two-degree target that we're aiming at with the Paris Agreement." That will also require more and more forerunning leaders equipping their organizations with science-based knowledge on how to measure sustainability.

Soininen also hopes that we'll find a suitable combination of different sorts of renewable raw materials for our future, for example for liquid fuels. But stepping back into her role as a level-headed big-picture thinker, she points out that these solutions aren't always clear cut. For example, she says, "there are places where you need plastics". Without plastics, it would be more difficult to cut back on food waste. "We don't live in a society where you can buy food directly from producers, so it needs to be packaged to stay edible long enough so that it doesn't have to be thrown away. We just need to find ways to produce and recycle the needed plastics more sustainably."

Lifecycle assessment is all about weighing these considerations and taking all the factors into account. Just like Soininen’s good life philosophy, it’s all about honesty and balance.

Dr Eva Amsen is a science writer and communicator whose work has appeared on Forbes, Nautilus and The Scientist.


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