Opinion: Trials and tribulations of Estonia's green movement

Dario Cavegn.
Dario Cavegn. Source: ERR News

In an era of undeniable evidence of global warming, the green movement in Estonia has gotten nowhere in terms of seats in the parliament as it seems to be too busy challenging the Rail Baltic project and unable to effectively participate in the broader political debate, writes Dario Cavegn, former managing editor of ERR News.

It's the era of undeniable evidence of global warming, but there isn't a single Greens MP in Estonia's parliament. The Fukushima nuclear disaster took place less than a decade ago, and while other EU member states are working on putting an end to nuclear energy production, the discussion to build a new power plant is gaining momentum and has, so far, been met with no substantial opposition in Estonia. Most puzzling of all, while all of this is happening, is that what the Estonian environmentalists are actually busy with is protesting against a railway project.

A few days ago, a call for a new green party by journalist Rainer Kerge led to considerable chatter on social media. Kerge feels (link in Estonian-ed.) that any green movement out to actually score seats in local and national elections would need to be able to "take itself seriously" and also come up with a platform that is "understandable" to the public.

There is an obvious lack of coherence in the Estonian green movement. Interest groups typically form not around demands for new legislation but to protest against state projects, ranging from street intersections to supposed deforestation and, currently the most prominent, the Rail Baltica project.

After Interior Minister Mart Helme (EKRE) ever so elegantly made the latter a topic again a few days back by saying that his party has been working toward halting it, this planned high-speed railway connection to Tallinn and, eventually, hopefully, Warsaw seems as good a point to start with as any, seeing as objections to it on environmental grounds are as plentiful as they are spurious.

The Rail Baltica project (usually referred to as "Rail Baltic" in Estonia, due to the name of the company in charge here) has become something of a bone of contention among more ecologically minded locals. Emotions run high, but for some strange reason never high enough for the project's opponents to make the effort necessary to play a decisive role in the debate surrounding it.

And not for lack of evidence. The protesters, among them renowned scientists and environmental experts, have made their objections as well as their reasoning accessible (link in Estonian-ed.), providing plenty of fuel for debate. But somehow, they don't manage to get the appropriate attention.

Past PR fiascos might provide a clue as to why nobody is listening. In 2017, green activists occupied a willow tree in Tallinn's Haabersti borough. The tree, to be cut down to make way for the extension of an intersection, was supposedly more than 300 years old, a "mother tree", as the slogans echoed through the scene and the Estonian media. The noise kicked up by the activists was enough to make mainstream politicians, such as then-MP Eerik-Niiles Kross (Reform), carefully align themselves with the cause.

Until it all came to a sudden end, namely when an arborist explained that willows of the kind in question rarely lived beyond 75 years, incidentally the rough age of the tree so heatedly defended. The green scene grew very quiet very quickly.

The environmentalists' opposition to the Rail Baltica project comes across as a similarly bizarre phenomenon, as activists would be fine with railway construction virtually anywhere except along the project's chosen route. As of right now, this makes the local Greens potentially the only green party on this continent to oppose a substantive alternative to the development of road traffic.

Opposition to Rail Baltica comes in many guises. A popular one is opposition to its designated route between Tallinn and Pärnu, as the latter deviates from an already existing railway line between the two cities. The arguments on the side of the state and RB Estonia are actually quite straightforward: the existing route couldn't handle the Rail Baltica trains in terms of weight, speed, and electrification. It would need to be straightened, its corridor widened, and the railway bed literally dug up and replaced. All in all, while 40 percent of that route would still need to be renewed from the ground up, a whopping 60 percent would need to be replaced entirely.

On top of this, the existing connection runs through several nature reserves, which would suffer substantially from the extent of reconstruction necessary.

Another popular topic is the perceived lack of transparency of the project, ranging from its financials right down to its economic and environmental feasibility. This is where the protests of the green movement go far beyond just the choice of route, as a popular demand of activists is to see proof that the projected freight volumes will actually materialize in the future.

As the future can neither be accurately predicted nor guaranteed, this is a clash of ideologies, as any planning of a major infrastructure project necessarily has to work with certain unknowns. The activists won't accept this stance, and with it reject Rail Baltica wholesale.

Which is a shame, because beyond trees cut down and habitats affected, Rail Baltica would actually present ample opportunity to discuss the organization of Estonia's infrastructure and economy on the whole.

One of these points is that connections bring economic growth, interrupting connections takes growth away. A local express train from Tallinn to Haapsalu, for instance, could do the distance in 40 minutes and would soon see people buying houses on the west coast rather than in the Tallinn area. And with the commuters, there would be a development boost to the local economy. Pärnu, on the Rail Baltica line, will experience a similar effect. Chances are that as soon as construction starts along the new route, real estate prices there will begin to rise.

Rail Baltica-related PR work in the past, arguably, has been sloppy, focusing on the pointless comparison of the train and the airplane for travel to Western Europe rather than on the development potential for the local economy. A discussion about the development of Estonia's infrastructure and the better inclusion of the country's more remote areas could have taken place here but didn't. Instead, the country haggled over the price of tickets for a train that doesn't exist yet.

In fact, this single railway project could provide ample opportunity to a green political movement to enter the mainstream in discussions surrounding the economy, tourism, planning, even regional foreign policy. But like others, this opportunity has been given a miss. Instead, the green end of Estonian politics has allowed virtually everyone else with a dog in this fight to dictate both the topics and the direction of the debate.

Which is how, beyond environmental damage, activists have come to zero in almost exclusively on freight volumes, since that has been one of the dominant issues of the debate surrounding Rail Baltica's commercial viability.

That these freight volumes already exist is undeniable, but oddly the debate has focused on their supposed expansion rather than regulating the way in which they move through the country. The reason for this sort of stiffness in the arguments here is that none of the parties has so far tried to imagine any change outside the Rail Baltica project.

Take the Estonian tax system, for example, where a company's spending on tax beyond VAT is almost entirely tied to its payroll. There is no corporate gains tax, only a limited road tax, and no general tax on company-owned vehicles either. Except for a flat-rate tax on heavy vehicles, businesses contribute near to nothing to Estonia's infrastructure and its maintenance. And even this tax, though pegged to weight and emissions, isn't tied to the extent of a company's road use. This means that there is only little incentive for shippers to consider the railway as an option to move goods along the north-south route.

But the government is facing increasing difficulty in terms of raising enough tax revenue to keep the country running. A shift in the tax system, though not imminent, isn't all that far-fetched. As small a change as raising the road tax for trucks has the power to completely change the playing field, as far as logistics is concerned. Yet, virtually all of these lateral topics, each one of which could provide a green party with inroads into party politics beyond the 5 percent election threshold, have gone almost completely ignored.

Ideologically driven misunderstandings, such as the environmentalists demand for absolute proof, are really unfortunate, seeing as the other parties evidently have enough to work with, and don't need to wait around for the greens to catch up.

This has left the various movements and associations of politically minded environmentalists in this country without a solid basis of argument. They have been talking about the issue almost entirely removed from the decision-making mainstream and are at least at this time making the impression of grumbling malcontents rather than candidates to be taken seriously in the next elections.

Any green movement serious about actual political participation will first need to overcome this point. There are people both in the Estonian Greens as well as in other places that have been perfectly able to argue substantive political points, but, unfortunately, consolidation so far has not been sufficient.

And so it has happened that amidst rising awareness of global warming, environmental catastrophes such as Fukushima, drought, intensive animal farming, the borderline extinction of small farms in Estonia and a wealth of other environmental challenges directly tied to day-to-day politics, the green movement is quite actually nowhere.

Dario Cavegn is a former managing editor of ERR News.


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