Can Estonia achieve the goals of the EU’s Green Deal?

Maili Vilson
Ph.D. Research Fellow
Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies / Centre for Eurasian and Russian Studies, University of Tartu

As part of the European Union’s (EU) Green Deal – an ambitious goal to become a climate-neutral continent by 2050 – Estonia has committed to reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. While Estonia’s CO2 emission has decreased 64% since 1990, this change is mostly attributed to the restructuring of the economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, Estonia’s economy is still the most carbon-intensive among OECD members, which is mainly due to the reliance on fossil fuels in domestic energy production. According to a recent study, achieving carbon neutrality in Estonia by 2050 is feasible, if a comprehensive set of cross-sectorial measures is implemented, while the estimated cost of this would amount to a substantial 17.3 billion EUR. Looking at the current domestic debates, Estonia’s path towards the 2050 goal remains questionable.

Above all, the issue requires strategic vision and strong political commitment to take unpopular decisions that will influence the lives of many. Throughout the past 30 years, Estonian governments have not demonstrated a convincing track record regarding climate and environmental issues. A long-term plan concerning climate and energy policies has not been a political priority for several reasons, three of which – security considerations, socioeconomic implications, and lack of public demand – will be discussed below.

First, concerns over energy security have led Estonia to increase its energy independence by decoupling from Russian power grid. Estonia has long been producing energy from oil shale, which guarantees sufficient energy supply but, as a fossil fuel, is not a sustainable strategy in light of the Green Deal. Even if the decision to stop using shale oil for energy production will be enforced in the coming years, it will remain an important resource for the chemical industry.

Estonia’s progress in adopting renewable energy solutions has been gradual and successive governments’ approach mostly passive. The Green Deal has propelled discussions on alternative energy resources, especially regarding renewables, hydrogen and nuclear energy, but without tangible outcomes so far. Concrete steps in this direction will be required; however, as Estonia will continue to prioritise energy security, it cannot follow the example of some EU member states who seek to rely on full-scale energy imports from third countries.

Second, there are compelling socioeconomic implications to the “green” transition. This affects the north-east part of Estonia in particular, which is the most industrialised region, inhabited largely by Russian-speaking minority employed primarily in energy and manufacturing sectors. Significant restructuring of the economy would leave the local communities in a heightened risk of poverty and inequality (a trend already present), and significant compensation packages and alternative employment opportunities would have to be provided. This is one of the key elements in Estonia’s recovery and resilience plan, funded from the NextGenerationEU initiative.

Socioeconomic concerns have raised alarm among the population and mobilised political parties seeking to extend their voter base. The right-wing populist Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) has been vocally opposed to the Green Deal, denying the anthropogenic causes of climate change and claiming ideological motivations behind the initiative. Given that EKRE is one of the three most popular political parties in Estonia, it is likely that green transition will emerge as one of the main topics ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2023.

Third, it is noteworthy that while nature is highly valued by Estonians, climate change is not perceived as a crucial issue by the majority, and substantial discussions have arisen only because of the Green Deal. Estonians are yet to experience serious consequences of climate change and thus find its global effects hard to grasp. Waste management, where the predominant treatment option is still landfilling instead of recycling, is one of the sectors where Estonia is lagging behind in Europe, but public awareness is growing. Recently, environmental NGOs have mobilised over sustainable forest management, claiming that logging volumes should be reduced, while the government sees biomass as a potential renewable energy source, given the high forestation of the country.

In sum, the lack of wider public discussion in the Estonian society on effective and appropriate measures to achieve carbon neutrality, coupled with security, political and socioeconomic implications outlined above, have led successive governments to prefer short-term political gains over uncomfortable decisions regarding climate and energy. Estonia can achieve carbon neutrality if the goals and resources provided through the Green Deal are backed up by local political commitment and strategic vision to change the status quo.


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