Environment minister: No one in Estonia knows the price of the green turn

Minister of the Environment Erki Savisaar.
Minister of the Environment Erki Savisaar. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia cannot yet participate in EU climate neutrality negotiations because the Riigikogu has not approved the country's positions, Minister of the Environment Erki Savisaar (Center) said. He added that it is already clear that Estonia will not be able to hit its carbon capture target as it would cost tens of thousands of jobs in forestry.

Someone who is obviously worried about the environment wrote on Twitter the day you took office: "Status quo retained at the industrial lobby ministry." Are you simply repeating the industrial lobby's talking points as claimed by your green opponents?

It is difficult to gauge from the inside. I leave that judgment up to the public. However, I meet with everyone, both conservationists and those consuming or attaching value to natural resources. And I am looking for a balance between protection and consumption so life could continue and the environment remain intact.

Have you met with representatives of the Estonian Greens during your time as minister?

Not yet, while I did meet with them when I chaired the Riigikogu Environment Committee. I think I will meet with someone from there next week. At least that is what my calendar tells me. I meet with those who want to meet.

Have you found clarity in terms of whether climate change is man-made?

No, while it is clear mankind plays a role. Disputes are primarily over the extent of that role. And how quickly we will be able to change things.

For example, what will happen to our climate should we succeed in bringing carbon emissions to zero? Will it continue to get warmer for just 50 years or 100 years? Or will things cool down immediately? We don't know. However, it is clear Man has left his mark on climate change.

Has the ministry really kept from you reports on how CO2 emissions and felling have a negative effect on the atmosphere?

There are all sorts of reports. Rather, it is a matter of analysis. There are myriad studies, their conclusions can be very different, while they need to act as a basis for balanced decisions – on how to move on.

It is a very complex topic, especially as concerns our forests.

Your predecessor Tõnis Mölder revealed that the European Commission expects Estonia to capture 2.5 million tons of CO2. Mölder described it as beyond our capacity, with the current level at 0.7 million tons. Does this mean felling will have to be considerably dialed back?

Our carbon capture capacity has been changeable in the past, while it is currently at 0.7 million tons, which seems optimal looking at the situation in agriculture.

Yes, we could do better, while there is no sensible way to improve our performance fourfold!

An increase of 1.8 million tons is theoretically possible, while it would have severe socioeconomic consequences.

What will happen in, for example, ten year's time?

It is very difficult to predict anything before that time. All these rules coming from Europe could go in many ways. We will initially try to get it done no matter the cost.

The other possibility is to pay for the carbon we cannot capture. This means buying quota. The price today is around €80 per ton. You can make your own calculations [Estonia would have to pay €144 million annually at the current quota price].

The carbon capture obligation can be split between land use in several sectors. We also have farmland and peat fields, in addition to forests. It is insensible to try and predict relevant volumes a decade from now.

Will you tell the Commission that Estonia will not agree to losing tens of thousands of jobs?

No, we will say that it is disproportionate [laughs].

We will say that rules need to be feasible. Because if we force the change and put all of the burden on forestry, it would cost tens of thousands of jobs and billions in value added that is neither sustainable nor sensible in terms of Estonia's development.

How much should we dial back felling?

A reduction of one half has been suggested. Maybe less if we can place some of that burden on agriculture.

We have 60,000 forestry sector jobs. Meeting the carbon capture target would require us to find new work for 30,000 people and see us lose a big chunk of our exports and upset that balance.

Your term will last until the next Riigikogu elections, provided no other developments occur. Therefore, you will not be the one to have to tell timber companies that they can pack up their sawmills and move them to Belarus or Africa because they're done felling here…

Forestry development plan discussions are ongoing, and I sincerely hope that the draft plan that was finished at the end of last year will eventually reach the Riigikogu. MPs will then be able to decide whether to take the plan forward. There is no point in taking drastic steps for as long as that discussion is ongoing.

However, the 2.5 million ton carbon capture obligation has the potential to obliterate the development plan.

There are other ways to capture carbon in land use.

It might impact agriculture instead. We do not know how it will turn out.

That is why we need to protect Estonia's interests at negotiations. Our agriculture will have to be able to feed the nation at the very least.

We do not want a situation where people only live in Tallinn and Tartu, with the rest of Estonia merely a reservation for carbon capture.

We want to strike a balance where it would be possible to live everywhere in Estonia and where we could consume sensibly. When it comes to carbon capture, the European-level agreement is that long-life products, such as wooden houses and furniture, are a better way of capturing carbon than trees in the forest.

Is there anyone able to say how much the climate package will cost Estonia?


But we at least have an estimate. Estonia stands out among other EU countries in that we have at least tried to analyze the future.

The Tallinn center of the Stockholm Environmental Institute found in a 2019 analysis that reaching climate neutrality would cost Estonia €17.3 billion over 30 years. It has since then been decided to speed up the transition. Does that mean costs will balloon further?

Most of it is private investments and some public sector things. The study has a lot of question marks associated with it, while it does provide some sort of a heading.

The turn is incredibly capital-intensive. We all need to change our habits and it will come at a cost. However, it is impossible to calculate that cost today.

Whatever figure we might come up with, it will be wrong. But the longer we wait, the more expensive the green turn will be. We will no longer be competitive if we get stuck with our old technology.

Why has the Riigikogu European Union Affairs Committee (ELAK) failed to approve Estonia's "Fit for 55" positions?

I couldn't tell you.

But I believe that for the first time in a long while MPs really want to look inside those documents to shape a position before deciding whether the text proposed by the government is suitable and reflects what we have sought during negotiations or whether some things need to be changed. And the Riigikogu has every right to do that.

There is a plan to have the CO2 quota trading system apply to all dwellings. How would that work?

It is insensible to disclose all the details today. They will become apparent in time. But 60 percent of dwellings use district heating where the quota economy is already applied in Estonia.

Taxing those who do not use district heating would still happen through producers. An individual cannot decide the carbon footprint of heating their dwelling as it is up to the fuel manufacturer.

We will try to put pressure on producers and importers to opt for solutions with a lower carbon footprint.

When will it be applied?

Difficult to say. First, we will need to agree whether it will be applied at all. Details of how to implement it will follow.

However, you cannot take it to next week's EU environment ministers meeting because ELAK won't give you a mandate?

I cannot take it there because Estonia lacks an official position. But I can talk about where I perceive things to be headed.

But I cannot answer questions regarding Estonia's position or how we will vote. The position does not exist yet.

When will it be decided?

I cannot say. The Riigikogu has the right to discuss things for as long as they see fit.

ELAK members say they are still talking to ministries. Has the Ministry of the Environment made all necessary proposals to allow MPs to decide?

I believe we have answered all of their questions.

Rather, the problem is that they are asking questions for which no answers exist today and that will be subject to negotiation. And we don't know what will be agreed.

It is impossible to agree on a step-by-step action plan until 2050 and calculate the cost today!

Looking back, was the decision to support the EU 2050 climate neutrality target the right one to make in the first place? Did we make a promise we now regret?

No. Estonia will manage the 2050 goal. We will also have reduced emissions by 70 percent by 2030 compared to 1990.

The question concerns the Europe-wide goal and the fact countries are not equally capable of reaching it. Therefore, there are attempts to share the load with those who seem to be better at it.

But it is unfair toward Estonia, which is what we want to say at negotiations. That countries should first look to their own obligations.

Will switching to climate neutrality require a specific piece of legislation? We cannot proceed based on a few auditor's assessments when faced with colossal change?

The Constitution is clear in that changes that affect people's lives need to be introduced through legislation.

Whether it is a single act or whether these things will exist in various acts in different walks of life is another question – one that requires a political decision. The process so far does not prescribe a special act for the transition.

We will move forward through acts in different fields where things will be adjusted based on what we will agree. It is clear that these things will change over time.

Do you agree with your colleague [Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure] Taavi Aas in that the quota trading system should have a price ceiling? Can the environment ministry, tasked with conserving the national environment, agree to something like that?

We have not discussed it from this perspective.

Then there is the question of whether we are talking about an absolute ceiling or one for private consumers or those in Estonia.

Taavi Aas is looking to make electricity cheaper for people. However, I agree with the economy ministry in that we need incentives for investments to happen. It seems the ice might be moving today, while virtually nothing has been invested in energy in the last decade!

Was a shock of this magnitude really needed for things to get moving?

It seems that way. We have not erected a single wind turbine in the last decade because we have failed to agree among ourselves. We will continue to pay through the nose if we do not start building.

The Estonian GDP is roughly €30 billion. How much of it will have to be spent on the climate turn?

For every euro invested, we need to ask what it can do for the environment, so we might say all of it will have to go toward the green turn.

But should it be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 10 percent of GDP annually?

We do not know or, rather, we only have a faint idea.

We all understand what benefits the environment and what doesn't in the grand scheme of things. We will need to consider whether to plot a course for greater use of resources or try to reduce it in all things. And whether we need all of it in the first place.

I'm unclear on whether you prioritize the prosperity of people in Estonia or a pristine natural environment and the future of the planet?

Both are important. Or let us say that all of it is important. I think that I do not have to choose.

You do in reality. You are the minister for the environment after all!

No, I don't think I do. We need a balance where the economy keeps working while the environment is protected. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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