Study: North Estonian residents leave smallest environmental footprint

District heating infrastructure (photo is illustrative).
District heating infrastructure (photo is illustrative). Source: ERR

While an Estonian resident's average environmental footprint exceeds the planetary boundary – a measure of human impact on the environment – by 3.8 times, there is great variation by region and also socio-economic group, independent think-tank the Foresight Center says.

Residents in the Northeast of Estonia, despite living in the region which is home to the country's oil shale energy sector, exert the smallest environmental footprint, the study, entitled "The Environmental footprint of Estonian residents by social groups and regions", states.

Part of the reason for this is the wider-spread use of district heating, which has a smaller environmental footprint, the Foresight Center says.

In North Estonia, including Tallinn, 80 percent of households use district heating also, and consequently this is another area where the environmental footprint is below the national average.

District heating is as its name suggests, centrally controlled hot water, piped into many apartment blocks in larger population centers, for heating purposes only. District heating plants (see image) often burned natural gas, though with the soaring prices from late 2021, alternatives have also been used.

Regions with above average environmental footprint are often more dependent on stove heating, for example burning wood, which has a larger environmental footprint, due to the emission of fine particles.

Magnus Piirits, an expert at the Foresight Center, noted home heating solutions and also mobility as the main factors behind differences between the environmental footprints of various Estonian residents.

These ultimately come down to wealth and social demographic issues.

Piirits said: "Lower earners use more stove heating, which emits more fine particles into the air. As wealth grows, the environmental footprint of heating tends to fall, while the environmental impact of mobility instead rises," Piirits said.

The larger a household income, the more motor vehicles owned, as one might expect; the same applies to air flights taken, another area which brings a higher environmental footprint.

This has to be offset against the lower environmental burden which more well-off households exert from their heating sources, which tend to be more efficient and cleaner, the study found.

By region, the environmental footprint is the smallest for households in North East (2.8 planetary boundaries) and North Estonia (3.4 planetary boundaries), and above average in West (4.2), South (4.3), and Central Estonia (4.6), the Foresight Center says.

Other demographic conditions include the average age of households – for instance, families with children cover on average twice the distance in a year that members of more elderly households do, the study found, though the elderly leave more of an environmental footprint when it comes to heating.

Planetary boundaries are a posited framework which describe limits to the impacts of human activities on the Earth's system, beyond which, it is argued, the environment may not be able to self-regulate further.

The EU has an environmental footprint calculator, which you can use here.

The Foresight Center is an independent think-tank, based at the Riigikogu. It analyses socio-economic trends, builds future scenarios and researches a range of topics, in order to anticipate emerging trends and potential disruption, the organization says.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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