Survey: Estonia's wealthy third-highest polluters in Europe

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A Porsche Cayenne Turbo, one of many models of SUV favored by some of Estonia's wealthy. Source: AFP

The wealthy in Estonia are among Europe's biggest polluters, according to a recent survey, which highlights a growing rift between rich and poor.

Estonia is also following a trend for rising CO2 rates among the economic elite, while emissions from the middle-income and poorest sectors of society have been falling.

The research, carried out jointly by the Stockholm Environment Institute and U.K. anti-poverty charity Oxfam, found that Estonia ranked third in Europe in terms of CO2 pollution by its wealthiest sectors of society, behind only Luxembourg and Belgium.

Luxembourg topped the table by some margin, however, with its richest 10 percent emitting around 100 GtCO2 per year, compared with Belgium's wealthiest at 40 GtCO2. Estonia's richest 10 percent emit around 35 GtCO2 in a year, the survey said.

Estonia's population is around 1.3 million, Luxembourg's around half that.

Malta, Germany and Estonia's northern neighbor, Finland, were next in the list, emitting about 30 GtCO2 each.

Lithuania and Latvia were significantly lower down the list, however.

Estonia also displays the phenomenon where the wealthiest 10 percent of the population emits more CO2 than the poorest 50 percent, the report claims.

The news comes at a time when Estonia's government has pledged to follow the EU's carbon emissions long-term goals, aimed at making Europe carbon-neutral by 2050. Conversations about how this would be achieved have tended to focus on the Ida-Viru County-based shale oil mining and refining sector.

Ida-Viru County is one of Estonia's least wealthy regions; Time Gore, head of climate policy at Oxfam and a co-author of the report told independent EU policy news site EurActiv that carbon emissions cuts have tended to fall on the poor, at least so far.

He said: "EU carbon reductions have been delivered by poorer Europeans, while the richest have had a free ride. But now everyone must pull their weight to achieve the deeper emission cuts needed over the next decade."

How this might be done would include measures towards curbing those activities engaged in primarily by the wealthy, he went on.

"It's time to ban SUVs, tax aviation fuel, and invest in housing renovation and public transport to end fuel poverty, create millions of decent jobs, and cleaner air for all," Gore said.

SUVs on Estonia's roads, many of them purchased via a leasehold agreement including via a company car set-up, are not an uncommon sight, making up around a quarter of new models purchased.

The government cut diesel excise duties earlier in the year, leading to prices at pump under a euro per liter through the summer and autumn.

Tallinn City Government has, however, pledged to phase out diesel-fuelled buses in the next few years.

In general CO2 emissions from the richest 10 percent of European countries rose by 3 percent between 1990 and 2015, while for the middle-income and poorer sectors, emissions fell, by 13 percent and 24 percent respectively, the report said.

Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, highlighted this phenomenon, saying: "It is mind-boggling that even though emissions have modestly declined over the last 30 years, the emissions of its richest residents have stubbornly continued to rise. The climate problem can't be solved if luxury consumption continues to grow and if poverty remains unaddressed."

Flights, presumably less so during the pandemic, also account for the wealthiest citizens' CO2 emissions, while poorer sections of society tend to pollute mainly by cooking food and heating their dwellings, the report said.

Around a third of Estonia's residents are estimated to be at risk of poverty, or even living below the poverty line.

Statistics based on per capita pollution do not paint a more favorable picture for Estonia's wealthiest either, where Estonia ties with Germany in second place, again behind Luxembourg.

The Paris Climate Agreement has set a target of keeping climate change to within an average increase of 1.5C, with the ending of fossil fuel subsidies, better building insulation and banning the sale of vehicles using the internal combustion engine by 2035 among the proposed methods of achieving this.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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