Estonia needs to declare a climate crisis

Eestis asuvad elektrijaamad ja õlitehased töötasid maikuus täisvõimsusel ja kasutasid ära kaks miljonit tonni põlevkivi.

PHOTO: Matti Kämärä

We need to declare a climate crisis as we have lost too much time on recreating an unsustainable system, instead of systematically changing it, writes Sander Jahilo, head of sustainable production systems program at EIT Climate-KIC

It must be said to the credit of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas that he has not publicly called into question human-driven climate change – as a person of considerable political wit, Ratas realizes that when sailing strange waters, it pays to trust the locals. They are, in this case, scientists, environmental organizations and public agencies who all agree that human activity is the number one contributing factor in climate change and that the change itself is taking place at a ruinous pace, geologically speaking.

The time for pouring water over voices crying that “it is all a conspiracy of wind farm developers and scientists” is over. The public and the media should have concluded that a decade ago. We have also run out of time for cursing shortsighted decisions made in Estonian energy policy years ago. We need to declare a climate crisis as we have already lost too much time on trying to recreate an unsustainable system, instead of changing it.

Forward-thinking European countries and cities are already making efforts. What does a climate crisis stand for, where did it come from all of a sudden and why did no one say anything before? Adopting the symbol of “crisis” is fitting because we have reached the zenith of global inaction – no so-called wind farm racket or conspiracy by climate researchers has managed to curb global CO2 emissions so far. They keep growing, along with the rate at which glaciers are melting and global average temperatures.

The climate becoming warmer will not make life better even in a country as sheltered as Estonia. According to the “Future Climate Scenarios for Estonia 2100” report commissioned by the Estonian Environmental Board, Estonian winters will see no snow, while our summers are expected to become 19 percent wetter in the future.

We are not moving toward a Sicilian grapevine paradise but are rather looking at a suicidal slush. So what, it will happen somewhere far in the future; and besides, China…

Our prime minister’s veto for the EU climate neutrality agreement at a recent EU leaders’ summit lumped us together with populist-radical-conservative Visegrad heads of government. I understand why he did it. I’m sure he did not doubt that climate neutrality could be Estonia’s goal or that of the EU, but as an honest person and a man of his word, Ratas understood we have a big problem going along with such a target.

With all due respect to people who have turned Estonia into the world’s oil shale Mecca – they are not to blame for the fact that oil shale’s calorific value is so low than no one besides Estonia wants to mine it or that our energy policy has failed to organize a strategic shift to renewables over the past decades. But what are we to do with all those miners? Besides, China…

Yes, China has one thousand times our population, and yet it is 30 places below us when it comes to emissions per resident – Estonia has the 18th highest score in the world. But okay, the climate is becoming warmer not per capita, but per populum – let us talk about absolute figures. Our lovely forest-covered and temperate Estonia that is home to a little over one million people emits more fossil CO2 than Armenia, Uganda, Republic of the Congo and Madagascar all put together, whereas they are home to ta total of 156 million people.

While some of these countries are felling and burning a lot of forests which figures are not reflected in CO2 emissions data, our biomass-burning renewable energy isn’t all that different. Whatever the case, we are clearly polluting way more than our size would suggest – hundredfold. Countries that emit less CO2 than Estonia are home to a total of 859 million people. Our country is small but powerful! We’re like the Israel of polluters.

And once these figures have left everyone speechless and a guilty conscience, with reservations, is owned up to (and the facts checked), what are we going to do with those miners? Power does not grow on trees; shall we move back into caves? Welcome to the second decade of the 21st century! We have all the tools and technologies needed to make a systemic change – the most important of which is located between our ears.

That someone expected to solve a potential socioeconomic problem in East Viru County is not the prime minister but a plethora of specialists, lawyers, scientists, NGOs, entrepreneurs and politicians working toward a common goal.

As if the government did not know this – closing oil shale power plants and replacing them with renewable energy is a task neither simple nor popular, but it’s a challenge like any other, simply with a narrower comfort zone and greater responsibility.

Turning to system change theory, a just transition – finding miners new purpose – is not utopian but simply an organic part of progress. One vital element in researching complex systems is the identification and effects analysis of so-called leverage points.

The system called Estonia has several leverage points that have stood in the way of climate neutrality: environmental tax carve-out clauses for the oil shale industry, capital support for Eesti Energia, modest environmental awareness in both the private and public sectors, weak civic activism, poor R&D funding, low innovation readiness in industry, educational uniformity, poor level of involvement in legislative drafting, tax environment that is hostile toward small businesses, poor Estonian-Russian integration, destructive alcohol policy, general lack of vision on the state level etc.

Were all these problem corrected, our country would be much better prepared to abandon oil shale, while making it possible for miners to continue living and working outside of the industry without succumbing to alcohol or pro-Kremlin propaganda, without bankrupting their micro companies or failing to show up for job interviews due to poor level of retraining and lack of support mechanisms.

Today, our country is not in a place where the oil shale industry could be shut down painlessly, even if it is technologically possible. But we still have 30 years and six months to go until 2050. We have spent 28 years building up our country and gotten quite far – achieving climate neutrality in the next 30 years is not an insurmountable task.

The role of a politician in changing such a complex system is not knowing all the answers but making the right decisions so these answers could be found.

There are a number of states, hundreds of cities and industrial sectors that have made it their goal to achieve climate neutrality in the next two to 31 years (i.e. Costa Rica – 2021, Copenhagen – 2025, Finland – 2035, Berlin – 2050, Heidelberg Cement – 2050, 137 European airports by 2050 etc.)

Others, like the United Kingdom and Ireland, have declared a climate crisis and taken the first step by adopting political responsibility. What happens next is a question of strategy and vision.

Solving the climate crisis will benefit the environment and mankind, voters of both the Reform Party and Center Party because in order to change the system, we need to change education, research, business, civil society, the environment, legislative drafting and state administration.

One of the most important leverage points can be found in Stenbock House and requires extraordinary responsibility and vision. The system will keep recreating itself until we change it. To paint a picture: if we fail to make retraining available to a miner today, we cannot hope they will get a new job instead of heading for the nearest liquor store when we lay him off ten years down the line. The system can and needs to be changed starting from today.

Climate neutrality is the best vision for a country that wants to be happier, wealthier, more innovative, inclusive and sustainable. I believe that Estonia has the potential to be such a country. Let us show 859 million people how it’s done and train China to boot if necessary.