New environment minister: Heads of European powers waving climate slogans

Erki Savisaar.
Erki Savisaar. Source: ERR/ Hege-Lee Paiste

Incoming environment minister Erki Savisaar (Center) believes that not all climate goals the European Union expects from Estonia are realistic. He highlights among the weaknesses of the Commission's climate package involving maritime trade in the carbon emissions trading system.

What is the biggest environmental problem in need of an immediate solution?

Tõnis [Mölder – outgoing environment minister] has done good work on the forestry development plan and I hope that it will culminate in a constructive document that can be discussed with interest groups in the near future. The other problem that requires debate and hopefully a solution concerns waste treatment. Estonia has set various circular economy targets that we are nowhere near hitting.

Do you agree with the ministry in that garbage collection needs to become more expensive for those who do not recycle?

Rather, I would say that waste treatment should be given to those who can and want to pursue it. We have a rather unique situation today where those with the capacity are not allowed to, while those with the right have failed to move in the desired direction for over a decade.

Please explain in terms of who is not allowed to handle waste?

Looking at other European countries, local governments play a role in waste collection and conditioning. Estonian local governments have no such option. Local authorities can hold a single tender in which few conditions can be specified and that is all. They completely lack an overview of where and how much waste is created and where it ends up.

Do we need municipal waste handlers?

No, that is definitely not the solution. However, someone needs to coordinate and control, lead the troops so to speak. Waste treatment is a volume business. The situation today allows handlers to decide behind which gate they unload their trucks. This is not an environment in which investments for moving toward circular economy can be made.

If local governments had an overview of how much waste is created, they could first hold one tender on where to process or recycle waste, followed by another concerning collection and transport.

Therefore, you would have two procurements instead of one, with private contractors qualifying for both.

Is climate change man-made?

A difficult question. I am definitely not a climate expert, while I believe people do have a hand in changes. To what extent is very difficult to gauge.

There is also no consensus on whether Man can realistically reverse this warming or what it would take.

Debates are ongoing, while I am convinced that a cleaner environment is in everyone's interests and moving in that direction is the right thing to do. I'm sure scientists will get to the bottom of whether and how much of it we can control.

The European Commission presented its "Fit for 55" package of major changes in mid-July. It aims to reduce the European Union's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990. The recent goal was 40 percent. Do you hold the goal of 55 percent to be realistic?

Politicians of major countries like to recite slogans instead of getting bogged down in details. It is both a problem and virtue of Estonia that we always try to have an activity plan for reaching these goals and get all of it done.

I must say Estonia has done relatively well. We are very close to the 2030 targets outlined by the previous agreement of reducing emissions by 40 percent. I'm sure we can do a little more.

It is not a little but a lot more.

However, I believe not all of it is realistic in Estonia in the form expected by Europe. I see transport as a very problematic field where fundamental change is difficult to conjure inside ten years. The same goes for energy and, of course, housing.

A crucial aspect of this package is to have every member state hit the target separately that will then culminate in Europe hitting it. As opposed to western countries sticking to their status quo, with Eastern Europe that lacks major industry expected to hit their climate targets for them. That is not how it works.

What are the other weaknesses of the climate package?

There are quite a few question marks. One cluster of problems has to do with shipping that is an international business, with the competitive ability of ports at the heart of it.

You mean the proposal to include shipping in the emissions quota trading system?

Yes. Both in terms of passenger and cargo traffic. Looking at where Estonia is and remembering that we are next to Kaliningrad and Ust-Luga where the rules are different.

If we want goods to move through Estonia and for it to benefit the Estonian economy, jobs in the logistics sector and port services, our competitive ability stands to lose big because it makes little difference to big ships whether they dock at Muuga or continue to Ust-Luga. The same goes for passenger traffic at sea. The rules as they have been proposed today are not favorable for Estonia.

Every country has something it does not like in the package. Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said this summer that if a member state says something is not a good fit, it should propose other ways of reducing carbon emissions.

It's fun to wave around slogans like that. The goal is to render shipping climate neutral so to speak and it is the right direction. Looking at land transport, we have energy-efficiency alternatives that work today. And while they are perhaps not exactly affordable yet, they exist and can be used.

When it comes to shipping, using LNG is the most environmentally friendly option. No other types of engines or power generators are available for ships. And overburdening the sector with environmental fees today would rob it of the capacity to make investments. We cannot introduce limitations before we have a tangible alternative for what exists today.

We can compare it to the adoption of the light bulb. Candles were not banned as soon as the light bulb was invented. The situation in shipping today looks like an attempt to ban candles before the light bulb is even invented.

You said heads of major countries use slogans when phrasing climate targets. Care to give an example?

Let us say that there are populists in every country, while we can clearly see that things have not been thought all the way through in Germany, France and Spain that are in charge of the game in Europe.

Should you meet French President Emmanuel Macron, are you willing to tell him that his words come across as slogans and that he should take more time to think about things?

Definitely. There would be no sense in accepting the position [of environment minister] without enough courage to do that.

Finally, allow me to repeat my question on whether you agree waste collection should be more expensive for those who do not recycle?

There are various ways to handle recycling, while today, people really are urged to sort everything themselves to make it easier for the next link in the chain.

There is another solution where garbage is sorted in recycling centers as well as chemical reprocessing. I would like to go over these choices before I say which is the right path.

However, it is true that my predecessor has agreed on a slight hike of garbage drop-off and burning fees.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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