Analysis: Parties' green visions in electoral programs

Forest. Source: Laura Raudnagel/ERR

The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Tallinn evaluated the environmental, climate and energy commitments of political parties in relation to recent sector-specific research and found, with a few exceptions, that the promises were evidence-based. However, there is a lack of specific timetables for projects related to green policy.

Climate and environmental issues are receiving unprecedented attention in this year's election. Increasing energy costs, as well as climate and environmental concerns, have undoubtedly played a larger role (the discussions show that understanding of these issues has also improved).

The current energy crisis, which has led to high electricity prices, and the climate crisis, which is causing increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, are both the result of our slow transitioning away from fossil fuels.

To avoid future economic, geopolitical and other shocks, we must immediately seek alternatives to fossil fuels. We must also make our transportation system more sustainable and people-friendly, use materials more sustainably and circularly, and halt biodiversity loss alongside the climate change. 

Each party has its own theme

The Reform Party consistently provides the most in-depth analysis of major green policy issues, with a number of thorough and research-based proposals for each subtopic.

The Social Democrats have the most comprehensive and robust electoral platform in energy, transportation and forestry. They do not, however, mention biodiversity or waste management in their agenda, unlike the Reform Party.

Eesti 200 and the Greens' sector-specific promises are a little more jumpy. Their electoral promises make it harder to identify their vision for Estonia's future compared to those of larger and more established parties. Nevertheless, their electoral platforms include a number of important, evidence-based and sound environmental and climatic policies.

Isamaa, Parempoolsed, and EKRE stand out for their less rigorous environmental commitments.

Isamaa's pledges are mostly repetitive and vague, promising to support, encourage and promote a variety of activities without specifying how. Forestry, biodiversity, the circular economy and waste management are hardly mentioned in their program.

Isamaa, however, provides a detailed description of transportation and energy sectors, but its vision for the future is not as clear as that of the parties listed above.

For example, it is unclear whether Isamaa believes Estonia's future should be based on renewable or fossil energy (although they recommend maintaining oil shale capacity), or whether the primary emphasis should be on developing car transportation or public transportation (although they offer a range of public transport solutions, they say that people are expected to travel predominantly by car anyway).

The Parempoolsed's vision of Estonia's environmental future is also fragmented.

The most distinctive green policy agenda is EKRE's: environmental and climate issues are glaringly absent from their platform. The few promises made are either harmful to the environment or unattainable. EKRE is the only political party whose electoral platform is strongly anti-environmental.

Do we need climate law?

Except for EKRE, Isamaa, and Parempoolsed, all major parties have pledged to pass a climate law, demonstrating the unprecedented focus on climate change mitigation measures.

In addition to the climate law, the Social Democrats and the Center Party intend to establish a scientific and authoritative climate council. The Reform Party even promises a new ministry dedicated to environmental reform.

While Estonia has a climate policy framework in place until 2050, the need for a climate law has received a lot of attention in the run-up to the elections. Proponents of the law argue that the current framework lacks the legal force that could provide companies with the investment certainty they have so far lacked for renewable energy development, as well as a clear framework for the phase-out of the oil shale industry. However, if legislation is enacted, it is critical that it does not stall other decisions that must be made quickly during the green revolution.

Unfortunately, we have seen in Estonia how major documents or legislation, such as the Waste Act and the Forestry Development Plan (MAC2030), can be delayed for extended periods of time, leaving stakeholders in the field in the dark. We need meaningful, ambitious, and timely climate legislation, not just any legislation.

The emergence of new policies reflects public perception of the gravity of the climate problem. For example, the Reform Party's platform states that all budget investments must contribute to climate neutrality and the party pledges must develop green funding and budgeting principles to that end.

They write, "In line with the EU's guidelines on sustainable financing, all public spending must contribute to the attainment of one of the green objectives without undermining the achievement of another." This is an important and ambitious ideal that every future administration should adhere to.

Not looking much at the calendar

Although the importance of environmental issues has been emphasized in election campaigns, no timetable for politicians to deliver on their promises has been established. Perhaps it is a matter of personal preference how specific election platforms should be and how much they should explain the party's broader principles. Unfortunately, as previously stated, time is of the essence when it comes to environmental and energy issues; thus, the lack of a clear time dimension is one of the most serious flaws of this year's election promises.

In their electoral manifestos, the Reform Party, the Social Democrats, Eesti 200, and the Greens tackle environmental and climatic issues most fully. Because the parties' emphasis, themes and level of detail differ, let's look at their commitments by sector-by-sector: energy, transportation, forestry and biodiversity, waste and the circular economy.

Energy has been a pressing topic in this year's election, due to high energy prices that are straining the budgets of voters. It is clear that Estonia needs to diversify its energy production portfolio as a matter of urgency to avoid such situations. A study by SEI Tallinn, Trinomics, TalTech and E3M on climate-neutral electricity generation in Estonia showed that the most cost-effective and sensible way forward is to invest in solar and onshore wind farms, consumption management solutions and battery storage.

There is a need to quickly expand the electricity grid, streamline the planning process and engage local populations in renewable energy planning so that they see themselves as beneficiaries of the green revolution. Offshore wind farm planning must begin quickly because construction takes time.

Social Democrats for a more comprehensive climate plan

The Reform Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Center Party, Estonia 200, Parempoolsed and the Greens have all agreed to support the expansion of renewable energy.

The first three guarantee that renewable energy generation and storage capacity will be sufficient to meet Estonia's annual demand by 2030. Isamaa also promises that all electricity needs will be met by domestic sources by 2030, but does not specify which ones.

The Social Democrats' plan to build offshore wind farms and promote small-scale distributed solar generation is the most comprehensive renewable energy transition strategy. They commit to creating a long-term, technology-neutral energy plan for Estonia that will determine the best balance of controlled and uncontrolled electricity generation. They also promise to gradually replace oil shale with renewable energy and to use oil shale exclusively for regulated transitional electricity without opening new mines, as well as to support a just economic transition for Ida-Viru County.

All of these commitments are broadly consistent with the findings of the climate neutral power study, which found that a portfolio of tech-neutral power generation was the most advantageous option for Estonia. According to the study, oil shale is not required for base load power capacity; biomass could be used in place of it in existing facilities to reduce carbon emissions.

This scale of biomass use may also be incompatible with biodiversity and sustainable forest management, so long-term, these capacities could be replaced by such as offshore wind and storage.

A significant omission from the Social Democrats' promise is a timetable for completely eliminating oil shale.

The shale saga goes on

According to a report by Kaja Kallas' Green Policy Expert Group, which has advised governments, it is important to define the legal framework for phasing out the use of oil shale in the energy sector.

A law defining the content, goal, supporting steps and timeframe of a just transition would give clarity and certainty to both the people of the region and the businesses in the sector.

The report says that there needs to be a clear time limit on how long oil shale energy can be used; otherwise, the technology will discourage investment in new clean capacity. No political party has put such a timeline in their campaign plan.

The Reform Party platform, for example, makes no mention of oil shale energy; it is only mentioned in relation to the circular economy. As a result, it is unclear what role, if any, oil shale will play in Estonia's future.

The Center Party promises to continue producing electricity from shale as long as other regulated capacity ensures energy independence and supply security.

Also, Eesti 200 is committed to keeping its current reserve capacity and looking for new ways to utilize oil shale.

Isamaa told daily "Postimees" that oil shale mining in Estonia could still go on, but that the future is in oil shale chemistry, not in thermal power generation. Isamaa believes that it is critical to preserve and expand the oil shale energy potential until other technologies can ensure Estonia's energy and supply security.

EKRE intends to boost oil shale electricity generation by reactivating "three idle units at Eesti Energia Narva stations," which will add 500 megawatt to the market and meet Estonia's peak demand. However, it is unclear how these capabilities will enter the market and compete with renewable energy sources that cost less.

EKRE's 3 cents

EKRE promises to bring back electricity prices to pre-crisis levels by eliminating CO2 quotas from the cost of production, lowering environmental and mining fees, and eliminating renewable energy levies. By implementing these changes, they intend to lower electricity rates to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Current carbon trading laws do not allow for exceptions, and removing existing subsidies would be extremely difficult from a legal standpoint.

According to the SEI Tallinn's analysis of the electricity economy, continuing with shale power was the worst option for Estonia because no new clean capacity investments were made, the GDP impact was the only negative of the eight examined scenarios, and it was the only option that left Estonia heavily reliant on electricity imports.

EKRE, the most vocal supporter of nuclear energy, has pledged to start planning for a nuclear power plant. The right-wingers support nuclear power as "the most viable alternative to shale oil." The report on climate-neutral power generation, produced with the assistance of SEI Tallinn, identified nuclear energy's realism in Estonia as the plan's most serious flaw.

Our study identified risks associated with the implementation of the nuclear scenario in Estonia due to the absence of a regulatory framework and administrative capacity. There are also risks associated with the duration and cost of constructing a nuclear power plant.

Since 2004, for example, 75 percent of nuclear power plant construction has been postponed. Nuclear plants have an average incremental cost of 117 percent of the project's planned cost, while onshore wind farms have an incremental cost of 0.8 percent, offshore wind farms have a cost of 9.6 percent, and solar parks have a cost of 1.3 percent.

If the final report on nuclear energy deployment is positive, the Reform Party says it will support the construction of a nuclear power plant in Estonia. "We will begin to develop the necessary competencies and legal environment after the report is completed. Nuclear energy carries significant risks that must be acknowledged and mitigated," they write.

In addition, the Center Party and Isamaa commit to studying the use of nuclear energy.

Although Eesti 200 supports nuclear energy, the decision to build a nuclear power plant in Estonia is subject to energy market prices and private funding.

The Social Democrats are the only political party whose platform does not mention nuclear power.

Underground and aboveground infrastructure systems

The Greens are the only party to state in their election platform that they oppose the construction of nuclear power plants based on existing available technologies due to their security risks and high costs.

In addition, there are currently no secure options for long-term nuclear waste storage.

"If this technology proves to be viable in the future, we are willing to investigate the construction of a passively safe Generation VI nuclear power plant using current nuclear waste."

Several political parties have pledged to expand the grid system while diversifying the energy portfolio. The Socialists have considered the necessary development of both transmission and distribution networks, but they also promise to promote micro-generation by allowing domestic consumers to connect to the grid for free up to 30 kW. The Center Party promises to speed up the undergrounding of power lines across Estonia in order to improve supply security. Eesti 200 proposes strengthening the network and getting rid of excess capacity.

The Reform Party pledges to separate the distribution network from Eesti Energia as a point of differentiation. Isamaa's network development claims are thin: they guarantee increased network capacity in brackets, but the focus is on replacing overhead lines with land lines and synchronizing Estonia with continental Europe, both of which are already planned and will take place by the beginning of 2026.

The Greens promise to improve and clean up the power grid. They plan to modify the system so that it can connect as many renewable energy generators as possible.

Cooling requires energy too

In the heating and cooling industry, it is critical to renovate buildings as soon as possible and on a much larger scale than previously.

The Reform Party promises a five fold increase in renovation, the Estonian 200 a tenfold increase, and the Social Democrats promise to renovate the entire housing stock within 30 years and switch to fully renewable heat production.

The Center Party mentioned "the establishment of co-generation plants for heat and electricity across Estonia" in one sentence.

Isamaa promises to continue prioritizing district heating in urban areas and to support making Estonia's housing stock more energy-efficient.

The Greens, for example, support the renovation of heating systems in apartment buildings so that room temperatures can be easily controlled, as well as the use of wood for energy production only in local combined heat and power (CHP) plants.

The Eesti 200 intend to use low-quality wood in co-generation plants, but their plans are not specific.

Car-centric planning does not promise climate efficiency

According to the state's Green transition expert group, Estonia's biggest transportation and mobility challenge is the current car-centric infrastructure investment policy. The paper suggests that investment decisions have not always been based on data and that a spatial planning system centered on a single local authority does not support  long-term mobility.

Furthermore, the study emphasizes that the development of the public transportation system has primarily been strategic, and that free public transportation has not resulted in qualitative improvements.Independent expert analyses, the National Audit Office of Estonia (Riigikontroll) and the OECD-ITF have cast doubt on the viability of a free transport system.

The majority of political parties commit to improving  the integration of the public transport network in cities and regions, as well as the various modes of public transportation, so that people can switch from one mode of transportation to another and avoid using a car for daily commutes.

The majority of these promises lack a detailed explanation of how they will be accomplished.

Almost all political parties favor demand-based public transportation, but this support is also lacking in specifics. The Social Democrats promise to provide public transportation throughout Estonia, whereas the Center Party will start focusing on rural areas. Most specifically, Eesti 200 pledges that public transportation will be available at least four times per day from each settlement.

Growing importance of railways

The Reform Party focuses on real estate development that is centered around public transportation. The party wants to help local governments and developers build houses close to train stations. This can help build denser cities and and develop settlements so that living in the country does not necessitate a car.

The Center Party is the only party that has promised to keep  the much-criticized free regional public transportation. Isamaa and Parempoolsed, on the other hand, are the only parties who explicitly pledge to eliminate it. Many political parties (SDE, Isamaa, Eesti 200 and Greens) commit to supporting the purchase of electric vehicles and electric light transport, as well as the construction of infrastructure for walking and cycling.

The social democrats are perhaps the most generous in this regard, promising to support the use of electric vehicles, develop a user-friendly national infrastructure for electric transport, require developers to install charging stations for electric cars in new buildings, encourage the purchase of electric bicycles, etc.

Only Estonia 200 makes sure that there is a national plan for cycling.

Greening of lands also cause loss in biodiversity

At the landscape, ecological, and species levels, there are indications that Estonia's natural environment is degrading.

Nature is in poor condition outside of protected areas, while protected areas cannot assure biodiversity conservation and the benefits of nature on their own. The report recommends developing a nature recovery action plan and establishing a network of protected areas covering 30 percent of the land and 30 percent of the sea.

The research recommends establishing a LULUCF sequestration target that is beneficial for the climate, biodiversity and economics, as well as increasing the carbon stock in the land use sector relative to its current level.

At the same time, experts recommend avoiding afforestation of natural grasslands and meadows, which is not an appropriate mitigation measure as it threatens biodiversity.

The Reform Party's manifesto has the most details regarding biodiversity and forests. Some of their pledges were taken directly from the Green Policy Report (e.g. every budget investment must contribute to achieving climate neutrality; we will stop the deterioration of biodiversity indicators by supporting conservation land use and restoring habitats).

As proposed by the report, the party pledges to establish a spatially coherent network of protected areas spanning 30 percent of the land and 30 percent of the sea.

SDE and forests

The Social Democrats' platform also includes a lengthy section on forests. They promise, among other things, to gradually reduce the annual volume of felling in Estonia's woods to eight million cubic meters, thereby "raising the added value of the timber business and preserving jobs."

The party pledges to limit raw timber exports from Estonia as well as the flow of high-quality wood to inefficient European energy facilities and boilers. Rather, the party promises to increase the capacity of the Estonian timber industry to recycle wood for furniture, construction, and other long-term carbon sequestration and revenue-generating applications.

The Reform Party, Social Democrats, Center and Eesti 200 all want the State Forest Management Center (RMK) to play a larger role in forest conservation.

The Center Party and the Social Democrats agree that a larger portion of the RMK's revenue should go toward forest protection. The Socialists want to experiment with preserving and managing state-owned forests as community forests, as well as increasing recreational activities in RMK. They, like the Eesti 200, want permanent forest management in both public and private forests.

To promote biodiversity, Estonia 200 intends to use natural landscapes for climate-neutral economic activities that do not harm the environment or its ecosystems, such as various forms of nature and experience tourism, naturally regenerating nurseries, businesses with innovative business plans for nature conservation, etc.

The report also suggests promoting mixed land use and preserving biodiversity outside of protected zones. Mixed-use land use, or the integration of commercial activity, biodiversity, and climate objectives, is possible in all land use sectors (agriculture, forestry, housing, mining, infrastructure and building design, renewable energy solutions in the landscape, urban design, etc.).

100-year strategy

The Greens, who seek to limit deforestation in Estonia to five million cubic meters per year in the coming years "to compensate for over-cutting during the past decade," are the most willing to reduce logging. In order to limit biodiversity loss, they also pledge to protect one-third of land and sea areas and set aside an additional 20 percent of land area for restoration.

Eesti 200 intends to develop a long-term vision for forestry, promising to launch the development of a forestry strategy for the next 100 years. "On the basis of this plan, the industry can also plan its long-term investments," they write. They claim that a condition of the short-term forestry development plan is that forest reserves must not be reduced in the long term.

The Center Party promises to manage forests while not reducing their stock. They also pledge to expand Estonia's forest area by 75 000 hectares by planting new forests on low-value land. Trees should be planted on low-value farmland, according to the right.

Nearly all political parties agree that more wood should be recycled, but the programs are imprecise. According to the Reform Party, SDE, Centre and Parempoolsed, private landowners should be appropriately compensated for protecting biodiversity.

Is 'Circular Economy' still a buzzword?

Almost all political parties consider it important to move towards a circular economy, but the Reform Party's election platform is again the most comprehensive and concrete.

As a more general principle, the party states that by 2050, all waste material generated by human activity in Estonia must be transformed into raw materials for re-use.

Specifically, they promise to create waste sorting solutions tailored to the place of residence, to start collecting packaging predominantly at people's homes instead of in public containers, i.e., to create better collection solutions for packaging generated at home and to create opportunities for bio-waste.

The party's pledges go as far as reducing food waste by a third in three years, reusing oil shale mining waste and setting up a digital waste reduction program for public authorities and municipalities.

The Center Party believes that municipalities should be given the opportunity and means to better sort and recycle waste, without specifying what opportunities and means they have in mind. The party believes it is important to separate waste and to give priority to home recycling at major events. They also want to reduce food waste by making it more cost-effective and easier to donate surplus food in shops and restaurants.

Isamaa supports a shift to weight-based waste management charges, together with the introduction of technological solutions to facilitate the sorting of waste at source. In general terms, and without giving a clearer idea of future plans, they promise to follow the principle of a circular economy in the use of resources and to increase the motivation of waste producers to sort waste sensibly.

Is indifference politics?

Eesti 200 promises to focus on the sectors of the economy that will have the biggest impact on developing circular solutions. It also promises to make targeted plans and programs to improve efficiency and develop solutions to upgrade materials.

They promise to establish national waste management standards for private consumers. They promise that local governments would then collaborate more effectively establishing separate waste collection infrastructure and acquire appropriate tools (waste collection stations, sorting houses, home composters, containers, means of transport, scales, etc.).

The Greens promise to support bio-waste separation and the circular economy so that valuable bio-fertilizer can be returned to soil and food. The program of the Right is also short. It promises to make Estonia an exporter of green technology and to triple the tax on landfills to make circular economy technologies profitable.

The Social Democrats have no plan for getting rid of trash. The results of this year's elections show that most political parties understand how serious the situation is and how important it is to do something about it.

The only exception is the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), whose election platform only says that they "disagree with the insane green revolution that is making our people and businesses poor." The party has made no environmental promises, while their energy promises are directly harmful to the environment and climate.

EKRE's positions don't take into account that climate change is caused by humans. This makes them the most dangerous choice for people who care about the environment in this election.

Evelin Kütt, master's student in green energy technologies at the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), helped to analyze the environmental credentials of the programs during her internship.


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Editor: Kaupo Meiel, Kristina Kersa

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