Lemmit Kaplinski: Of the crisis, pulp mill and oil plant

Lemmit Kaplinski.
Lemmit Kaplinski. Source: Pimik

While the crisis at hand is an extreme example, it works to illustrate the realization that tangible well-being is more important for people than the abstract concept of the environment and its protection, Lemmit Kaplinski writes.

Two signs on the wall of a major gas station chain restroom. The first tastefully designed sticker tells customers how an electronic hand drier is better for the environment. The other larger sign that has clearly not felt a designer's touch reads in two languages that hand driers have been switched off due to the coronavirus situation and asks people to use disposable paper towels instead.

This real-life example from a gas station can be used to symbolically sum up questions of energy, wood chemistry and environmental protection in Estonia. I would criticize, in this light, both past and recent strategic mistakes made in these matters.

The relationship of environmental protection and people's well-being

The crisis focuses attention and draws a clear picture of the relationship between environmental protection and a person's well-being. In a situation where people's health is at stake, all other matters become secondary.

Instead of worrying about plastic pollution, we are now concerned for the availability of disposable microfiber respirators and protective masks, trying to secure deliveries from China and looking for ways to make them locally.

While it's what we should be doing, what happened to the outcries protesting ordering cheap plastic products from China and the industry as such? Nothing – these matters are still out there, while they just aren't important anymore. People are willing to accept things they used to protest for the sake of themselves and their loved ones.

While a crisis serves as an extreme example, it still illustrates this basic principle – that tangible well-being is more important for people than the rather abstract notion of the environment and its protection. However shortsighted we consider this to be, it is an unchanging realization any environmental activist must keep in mind if they want lasting results. In summary – only environmental policies that do not impact people's quality of life are viable.

In this light, Estonia has made two very foolish decisions in the long term with long-lasting negative effects both for the environment and the economy.

Over the past two years, the government has had the opportunity to both support future-oriented investments and untie our economy from the past. While what was decided was just the opposite – not to support future technology and invest in yesterday. Naturally, I'm talking about the pulp mill and the shale oil retorting plant respectively.

More than toilet paper

The output of Est-For's planned pulp mill would not have been anything out of the ordinary – chemical wood pulp or very pure cellulose. The very material used to manufacture eco-friendly alternatives for plastic dishes, bags and straws, not to mention its uses in the pharmaceutical industry and elsewhere.

Considering that sector know-how in Estonia is modest at best, every new job in the wood chemistry sector would have a broader effect on the entire field. In the search for more environmentally friendly materials, wood chemistry will no doubt offer an alternative to non-renewable materials, with its significance only forecast to grow in the future.

We can only guess at what could have been the next startup in this field. Whether we could have competed with Finnish researchers and developed an even more eco-friendly viscous fabric. The kind sold in shops as skin- and environmentally friendly bamboo fabric.

Or perhaps Estonia could have found a way to replace synthetic resins used in plywood manufacturing with lignin-based natural materials as is being attempted in Latvia and elsewhere today? Perhaps it would have been possible to use surplus materials to develop a strong and durable biodegradable plastic, such as what is being tried in USA. The list goes on.

All these technologies have one thing in common – they are environmentally friendly alternatives to existing ones. In other words – knowledge-based future technologies.

Those who can contribute to development, implementation and production today are the ones who will be creating new jobs for generations to come, while helping save the planet's resources and contain pollution. Innovation, employment and environmental conservation working together.

None of those things will be done in Estonia in the near future. This is the result of a series of erroneous and hesitant decisions that began with an unsuitable location and ended in shamefully going back on promises already made.

The damage from missing the investment is almost matched by damage done to the quality of public debate. The government's uncertainty caused a situation where almost the entire wood chemistry and industry discussion boiled down to a base opposition to any and all forestry-related debate dictated by a vociferous minority.

Forests are Estonia's national wealth, while forestry is among the country's primary employers that indirectly feeds a tenth of Estonians, more in rural areas. I am convinced that every single person working in forestry thinks ahead more than one election cycle. Rather, the perspective stretches to 80 years or more than two generations regarding forest economics. While today, it is acceptable to refer to these people as ravagers and criminals…

That is the agenda we've been offered instead of a future-oriented enterprise and new jobs. No solutions have been offered either in terms of new jobs or protecting the forest as an ecosystem.

Shale oil plant and straw fire

But the government took an even worse step recently. The decision to build a new Enefit shale oil retorting facility not only gives up on new future-oriented and environmentally sustainable jobs, it also chains us to a huge inherently pollutive industrial investment that will not, nor could it ever bring lasting jobs or profit.

Turning oil shale into energy, either by burning it directly or turning it into shale oil first, is by far the most CO2-intensive way to use fossil fuels. The plant's entire business model is based on CO2 quota scheming, while that cannot last long. The taps will be closed as CO2 quota prices will continue to increase and the plant will never be able to produce and sell on the free market. It will be left idle a couple of years after it's completed at the latest.

The need for a couple of security guards to keep an eye on the empty colossus cannot serve as a solution for Ida-Viru County's employment problem, contrary to what the government's press releases seem to suggest. A straw fire cannot keep one warm for long.

A polluting oil plant is not financially feasible without continued subsidies and, therefore, constitutes a non-solution in terms of labor problems. The only serious consideration for such an investment could be ensuring Estonia's energy security. But even in the worst-case scenario of losing all links to the outside world, energy production would still require oil shale instead of shale oil.

The alleged environmental aspect of the plant simply reflects the completely unrelated process of shutting down old oil shale power plants due to amortization and rising CO2 prices. Oil shale's environmental impact remains considerable also for shale oil through mining and CO2 emissions. Serving as a testament to this are endless square kilometers of ash mountains on the backdrop of mines in Ida-Viru County.

The investment holds no benefit for Estonia in the long run and will only serve to deepen Ida-Viru County's problems if promised production capacity will never be reached. If the investment will be made in the first place – in a situation where the European financial sector has clearly communicated that no more loans will be granted for fossil fuel investments, the plant's entire investment model, in which the Estonian state is only one of the participants, remains confusing at best. The major investment increasingly comes off as an attempt to keep a dying whale from sinking to the bottom.

The Estonian state has miscalculated twice, yet we still need long-term solutions for energy security, sustainable jobs in Ida-Viru County and elsewhere as well as non-fossil alternatives for oil shale.

Our entire region produces less energy than it consumes. Once our link to Russia is severed five or six years from now, capacity that is missing today must exist locally.

Renewable solutions form one part of the equation, every one of which has its place and role in local, national and regional grids. Wider use of hydrogen will help store energy produced during windier days and render the entire transport sector more eco-friendly.

Even though the state can accelerate or at the very least not impede processes here, relatively modest investment needs of individual renewable projects can ensure necessary flexibility in virtually free competition. Wind turbines and solar panels are so cheap that an investor can always be found.

There can be no doubt, however, that unmanageable energy sources are not enough to ensure a functional power grid and stable while environmentally friendly power sources are necessary. Let us be honest – there is no alternative for nuclear energy today that is used to a great degree by all European countries sporting low energy sector emissions, including France, Sweden, Finland…

Whether the reactor could be constructed in Ida-Viru County or elsewhere is up to the state or a special plan to determine. However, I wish the state would have enough courage this time to finish what it starts and what Estonia needs. Keeping the e-state running requires electrons which we can and must also generate here in e-Estonia.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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