Estonia's peat industry seeking emissions reduction clarity from state

Peat field.
Peat field. Source: ERR

Estonia's peat industry makes up one-tenth of the world's production and businesses are seeking advice from the government about how to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, which make up a substantial amount of the country's total.

Estonia has signed the European Union's agreement to make reductions by 2030. The country's CO2 emissions are high and several sectors are discussing how to proceed.

Peat mining makes up 10 percent of the total. The industry emitted almost 1,450 kilotons of greenhouse gases in 2021 which is approximately the same amount as every passenger car in Estonia combined.

At the end of September, the Ministry of Climate's top official Keit Kasemets told Vikerradio's "Uudis+" program that discussions need to be held about issuing new peat mining permits. The alternative option would be to stick with the number already allocated.

Erki Niitlaan, environmental advisor at the Estonian Peat Association, said the sector is not currently preparing to limit operations. Additionally, the state has not yet indicated it wants to take such a step.

"As a sector we have not, at least today, been presented with any concrete proposals. It has simply been said that these are issues that will be looked at, so there is certainly no reason to speculate today. We would rather hope that we can get sensible rules of the game in place for the long term so that companies have investment security and we can add as much value as possible locally before we send products out onto the world market," he said.

Ene Jürjens, head of the mineral resources department of the Ministry of Climate, said the future of peat mining, along with several other areas, is currently being reviewed in light of Estonia's climate commitments.

The future of these sectors will depend on analysis commissioned by the ministry. The research will map which parts of the peatlands generate the most carbon emissions.

"There are places that are currently being mined and areas that have been abandoned. Then we also have certain lists of places where it is actually possible to mine at all. We have the specific names of the places where you can apply in the first place, then we have the annual quotas, how much can be mined in the first place – it's quite an undertaking to analyze all that and calculate it," she explained.

Jürjens said the ministry will not discuss the suspension of new permits until legislation is passed, such as the Climate Act.

Reducing peat production will be painful for companies

Marko Kohv, an applied geology research fellow at the University of Tartu, said the best way to reduce the peat industry's carbon emissions is to reduce peat production.

There are a few techniques that can be used to clean up used peat areas faster or that create less waste, he said. But in the big picture, they make little difference, Kohv added.

The researcher said it would be reasonable to stop mining in less valuable areas or where the is a greater chance of restoring them.

At the moment, the state does not have an overview of the state of peat production areas in Estonia, he said.

"It will certainly lead to economic issues, to lawsuits, because if the state has already given a company a permit and has allowed it to have some reserves, then the companies will immediately have a legitimate expectation and that peat will have to be minned from those companies. But if we do not buy it, then in a sense we are paying for it through these carbon quotas, and probably for a very long time. I do not see a very good solution here that will leave the industry intact," he said.

Ene Jürjens said the ministry will develop its peat policy alongside the forthcoming climate law, which could be passed at the end of 2024.

One tenth of the world's peat production comes from Estonia

A tenth of the world's peat production comes from Estonia and the three Baltic countries outputs total a third.

Niitlaan said peat products, such as various soils, are exported from Estonia primarily to central and southern European countries. They are also sent to China.

"We get the vegetables we don't grow ourselves, and they get the soil to grow vegetables for themselves and others. If they didn't have the growing soil, vegetable production would stop there. There is no soil there to produce food on such a large scale," he explained.

Researcher Marko Kohv said approximately half of the peat exported abroad is used to grow flowers not food. He said the data is hard to find.

Kohv said the peat industry is a bad example of globalization. This is because the majority of the products transported abroad are unvalued raw peat.

"It's mainly foreign companies that extract raw materials, export them, refine them elsewhere, and we're left with emissions and depleted peat fields, which we don't have good examples of what to do with," he said.

Kohv explained that many countries have also begun to abandon the use of peat.

"The United Kingdom is one of the major countries to phase out peat in the hobby sector initially, and later to phase it out in the professional sector. One-third is hobby farming and two-thirds is professional farming. The rest of Central Europe is also moving in this direction and peat producers of course understand that this trend is not to their advantage," he said.

Currently, there are about 30 companies in Estonia that are involved in peat production or mining. Niitlaan said the peat industry employs about 1,000 people, who are mostly located in rural areas.

Kohv said that these jobs are mostly seasonal, where intensive production lasts for about three months.


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Helen Wright

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