Environment minister seeking balance, won't let Forest Council fight

Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas (SDE).
Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas (SDE). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In an interview with ERR, Minister of the Environment Madis Kallas (SDE) discussed how logging further away from people's routes could help resolve the dispute surrounding logging. He also believes that the building exclusion zone on Estonia's islands could be reduced, and that pollution abatement needs work as well.

ERR: You told daily Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) that it upsets you to see what has happened to the forests in Saaremaa, your home county, over the past 15 years. What do you see there that causes you heartache?

Madis Kallas: This is the landscape that many Estonians see as they travel the country's roadways. There are clear-cuts in areas where I had seen a forest thicket my entire life. The mind and heart simply cannot accept this, which is what causes the pain. 

However, when I fly over Saaremaa, I can see that Estonia has a lot of forest. Managing forests closer to road infrastructure is clearly more cost-effective, and entrepreneurs are not to blame for doing so. It's just that the imagery we see as we drive by is so distressing. That is why I think it could be done differently. Perhaps buffer zones or permanent forest areas along major roads and travel routes could be established.

ERR: Are you sure that this image you're taking to heart is the result of excessive clear-cutting?

Kallas: Those who have delved deep into the issue, or even studied forestry, will undoubtedly be aware of the woodlands that are otherwise visible only from planes and helicopters. So people who are not in touch with the issue on a daily basis see one picture, while those who are more familiar with it, understand it from a different perspective as well. I wouldn't want to generalize.

ERR: Various specialists have devoted tens of thousands of hours to determining optimal logging volumes for Estonia. Recently, yet another report costing about €100,000 was made available for public review. This is the environmental impact assessment of the Estonian Forestry Development Plan, which indicated that around 10 million cubic meters per year of timber harvesting would be the wisest course of action. Is this a document that we can now rely on, or do we need to commission another $100,000 in-depth analysis?

Kallas: I would say that, in a sense, we're stuck on this logging volume estimation, and all of our discussions are revolving around this number. Rather, the question is how we can strike a balance. It's one thing to decide on a logging volume, but quite another to decide where we are logging and when are we doing that: much has been said about the relation between urban clearance and the proximity of socially and culturally significant sites to communities. Perhaps we should focus on the latter issue and shift our attention away from the topic of logging as such. This discussion has, in some ways, veered off course.

ERR: How should these two or five sides be brought around the same table together? I've lost track of how many environment ministers have tried to do that.

Kallas: I haven't tried.

ERR: So what should we do differently?

Kallas: Our administrative reform began in 1999. It was completed in 2018. Some processes are complex, and some processes require even more time and mapping out.

ERR: But despite all of this, you intend to get the Forestry Development Plan passed in the Riigikogu?

Kallas: I'm not obsessed with the idea that the Forestry Development Plan will solve all of our problems. We need to generate debate in which parties can amicably and peacefully discuss how and in what way we can go forward. It would be great if this resulted in the Forestry Development Plan. If it doesn't, then I can't say that we shouldn't press ahead with this process. We should not get stuck on one single document.

ERR: Would you not consider it a failure if the Forestry Development Plan hasn't been approved by Riigikogu in eight months?

Kallas: It all depends on what's behind that. If parties have agreed that some additional rounds of discussions and studies are necessary, then so be it.

Madis Kallas. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

ERR: What purpose does the Forestry Council serve?

Kallas: The coalition has approved the Forestry Council, which will convene to discuss various bottlenecks once more.

ERR: They come and yell at each other.

Kallas: Such meetings cannot be held then. My principle is that if we're having a meeting, then everyone's time is valuable. We're definitely not going to start having meetings like that; in that case, the Forestry Council may only be able to convene just once. This can

Then, such meetings should not take place. My principle is that everyone's time is valuable during meetings. We are not going to hold such kind of meetings; in this case, the forestry council may only be able to assemble just this once. This type of meeting is only possible if the discussions are constructive and peaceful. This kind of thing can only work if these discussions are constructive and peaceful.

ERR: Is the goal to have a common document and unified communication plan?

Kallas: The goal is for the parties to confirm that they understand that concessions should be made in this situation.

ERR: Is global warming caused by humans?

Kallas: Yes.

ERR: Have you been informed by how many degrees we will be able to reduce global warming if these "Fit for 55" objectives are met?

Kallas: Again, different calculations are used. Personally, I believe that whatever goal we set for 2030 or 2050, we must act now. Even if the climate does warm by 0.5 or 1.5 degrees Celsius, the important thing is that, looking back, we can say that we did everything we could to ensure that it did not warm by 0.7°C instead of 0.5°C, or 1.7°C instead of 1.5°C Every day, we should make an effort.

ERR: Are the goals set for Estonia attainable?

Kallas: I believe it is. But if you consider the current circumstances in Estonia and Europe, with the war, the energy crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that these do not help to achieve the climate goals. However, there are opponents who argue that this is the ideal time to make quick decisions. Personally, I believe that the war in Ukraine has somewhat slowed down the process, making it a little more difficult to fulfill these goals.

ERR: Utilitas, Tallinn's heating company, has asked for the option of using shale oil instead of natural gas, as has Eesti Energia in Narva. The Environmental Board is likely to respond positively. However, the legislation and the Environmental Board stipulate that if the gas supply is restored, gas must be used again. If, one day, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal docks in our harbor and we can purchase gas, but it is extremely expensive, would it be prudent for a district heating boiler to burn natural gas when it has shale oil barrels waiting in the shed?

Kallas: If natural gas is available at a price that the Estonian people find unacceptable, this is not the solution.We should find alternatives in this situation.

ERR: A change in the law will probably be required at that point.

Kallas: In this case, indeed, certain exceptions and rewriting will be necessary. I am very well aware of this problem. Companies can work with the competition authority to coordinate the price of their raw materials; they are also authorized to raise the price of heat, which is then reflected in people's monthly bills. And the people in Estonia are not prepared to put up with that.

ERR: Neither is the national budget, if it's paid for.

Kallas: Indeed, neither is the national budget.That is why these exceptions regarding the transition to shale oil are inevitable, even though being detrimental to the environment.

ERR: Is there any legislative change in the works to address this issue?

Kallas: A lot of effort is being put into developing different approaches to this problem.

ERR: Help us to figure out why the inhabitants of the Sõrve Peninsula (Saaremaa) are concerned about wind turbines ten kilometers off the coast.

Kallas: There are several counter-arguments. One is that if hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines the height of the Tallinn TV Tower were placed in the ocean, they would indeed resemble very much the Tallinn TV Tower.

ERR: And that's terrific!

Kallas: This is exactly as this would look like. The construction process that is planned there is immense. And if we are speaking of the little Sõrve säär, where perhaps a couple hundred people live year-round, then this will definitely have a significant effect on their environment.

ERR: How does the construction impact people who are 10 kilometers away?

Kallas: They must be placed on the seafloor in some way and that's where the fish live and where birds soar. I understand their concerns. But on my approach, as within the forestry sector, I believe, a middle ground has to be found somewhere. We can't do without wind turbines. They will have to be built somewhere, but first we will discuss the volumes and the distance. If it is 10 kilometers, we will add a few kilometers, for example, and the disturbance will be reduced slightly.

We should reach a compromise. We will observe the development of the electricity price. But we should also understand the people who live there on a daily basis. From Tallinn's vantage point, it is easy to allocate wind turbines somewhere.

ERR: And we finally have a special marine plan, the process for obtaining a building permit for a wind farm at the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority has gotten off to a flying start. Will the Ministry of the Environment have a say in the building permit process, instructing that a wind farm be built 12 or 15 kilometers away rather than 10 kilometers away?

Kallas: Saaremaa municipality, as the representative of the local community, has a say in the building permit procedure, as does the Ministry of the Environment. We will search for the balance point and, hopefully, find it.

Madis Kallas. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

ERR: Could you explain why the rest of Estonia's coastline has a 100-meter no-build zone but the islands have a 200-meter zone?

Kallas: I don't understand it any longer. I can see why it was done that way in the past. I believe that it should be equal. However, there are locations on Saaremaa where both 200-meters is not justified and where I would not authorize construction even within 300 meters of the shore. This could be reviewed.

ERR: Who has to put this bill together?

Kallas: In fact, the draft law already exists and provides a sort of template. It now merely requires a revision of the statistics.

ERR: This draft has been introduced in the Riigikogu. Could the government initiate discussion of this bill? I'm still looking for your political initiative, or whether it's looming somewhere.

Kallas: After all, there are many topics of my concern. I am the Environment Minister for the entire nation. Obviously, the infrastructure of the Väinatamm  (the largest causeway in Estonia that connects the island of Muhu with Saaremaa, -ed.), as almost every Estonian crosses it at least once a year, I cross it every week. This also concerns building-exclusion zones, as we have rural schools that are getting emptier and smaller, and perhaps we could boost housing development a little bit. This holds true in all fields.

I'd like to be a member of a government who looks at the big picture; I don't want to take my own, very linear course, e.g., that I have to necessarily achieve this or that. Obviously, some things cause my heart beat faster. However, today, on the ninth day of my employment, I am not prepared to state by which factor I would determine my success or failure in this job.

As the mayor of a municipality, however, I have gained some experience with pollution control that affects Hiiumaa, Vormsi, Läänemaa, Saaremaa, and the northern shore.

ERR: It is very badly organized.

Kallas: Exactly.

ERR: Who will come to Saaremaa to clear up the pollution if a storm develops somewhere to the north-west of the island?

Kallas: This is poorly managed. Yes, certain chains are in place: but at what point is the environment authority responsible, to which extent is the rescue authority responsible, or at which stage must the municipality intervene, these are the questions. In Hiiumaa, for instance, we have seen that the incident was ultimately dealt with by volunteers under the direction of the Hiiumaa municipality. The Environmental Board has already said that this may be an issue that requires immediate action.

ERR: According to one of the analyses, two more ships would be required.

Kallas: Decontamination should be taken care of. Estonia's national navy consists of over 300 ships. Perhaps we should simply look at how we can better cross-utilize them and ensure that ships that lack anti-pollution capabilities now will have them in the future, at least to some extent. A comprehensive study is necessary in this case.

ERR: Kalle Laanet bounced back your idea of having either Estonian Defence Forces or allied units permanently stationed in Saaremaa. Will you make an attempt to explain the situation to Hanno Pevkur?

Kallas: We've taken a close look at what Gotland is doing. We have considered where we are located, how active the shipping traffic is, also from the Russian side, and that what we are talking about is building confidence in Saaremaa. Saaremaa is in a strategically critical position, and everything that happens off our coasts could be much better organized.

ERR: Who heats the sauna in Kärla on Sundays now?

Kallas: I switched to a biweekly schedule at the beginning of summer because I simply lacked the time to do so weekly. But for the sake of my health and well-being, I hope to be able to visit the sauna every two weeks and then I always heat it up myself.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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