Minister of the Environment Rene Kokk (EKRE) believes climate warming is partially anthropogenic but does not think highly of electric cars, is skeptical of Rail Baltic, vows to reduce the size of clearcut areas, is against a green tax on airline tickets but in favor of bio-additives in motor fuel, wants nesting peace for birds in conservation areas and is not planning to replace the ministry's secretary general.
How would you explain to the people of Lokuta or Eidapere what is climate neutrality and why we need it?
If we accept that our climate has warmed as much as we're being told in recent centuries, and that this change has been anthropogenic, Europe is making efforts to contain CO2 emissions.
How to explain that to Auntie Maali or Uncle Oskar? To put it very simply, we need to find ways to bind as much CO2 than we produce. That is the direction we are moving in. It can be done by planting forests but also with the help of developing technologies that can catch CO2 in the chimneys of factories and put it to good use…
It seems to me that we should view CO2 not just as a major problem, which it undoubtedly is, but also as a way to develop technologies, find solutions in terms of how to turn it into an advantage for mankind.
Turn what into an advantage, CO2?
Catching and turning it into something useful. Relevant technologies are bound to come along inside the next few decades.
A lot of EU countries want to have climate neutral economies by 2050. Is it a feasible and necessary goal also for Estonia?
The former part of the question is easier to ask than it is to answer. Studies suggest it would cost nearly €17 billion.
It seems to me that politicians tend to treat faraway goals more airily than those that are looming. Allow me to give the example of refuse. We knew in 2018 that we will have to recycle 50 percent of waste by 2020, while we are still tackling this problem today.
Estonia only recycles 32 percent of waste today.
Depending on one's methodology, it's between 28 and 44 percent.
Reaching climate neutrality in 30 years would cost a total of €16.7 billion, but the lion's share, or €12.2 million, should come from the private sector. How do you plan to get the money from our businesses?
This narrative of the state squeezing entrepreneurs has taken on a life of its own in the media. Let us look at what is happening around us every day. The state has been constructing pedestrian and bicycle roads for years, we have different measures for promoting energy efficiency, from insulation of buildings to programs to help entrepreneurs use more sparing equipment…
The process is daily, and entrepreneurs are looking to save energy, adopt more economical processes anyway… It is not as drastic and frightening as it is made out to be.
€12 billion is a lot of money
It is, but entrepreneurs are doing a lot of these things anyway. If only in that people buy electric vehicles, which we are promoting.
Very good. Does that mean Estonia will restore state support for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
We have an upcoming measure for it.
I just talked to a car dealership and learned that state support for EVs is currently zero.
It will come. A measure is about to open up through the Environmental Investments Center where we will support buying an electric vehicle with €5,000.
Support used to be bigger.
I suppose times were better, fiscally speaking.
It's a matter of choice – climate neutrality vs state budget saving
Steps need to be taken sensibly. While electric vehicles are one way to curb CO2 emissions, people tend to talk less about what it costs to manufacture and recycle them. Conditioning a totaled electric vehicle as waste costs a lot of money. I'm not saying we shouldn't move forward here, but steps need to be taken wisely.
You are not a fan of electric vehicles I take it?
I must admit that personally – as Rene Kokk – I would skip it [the electric vehicle stage] and wait for hydrogen-powered cars. I have created a so-called hydrogen working group at the ministry to look into hydrogen technologies together with other ministries by involving our scientists and looking at best practices in Europe. Rather, I'm a fan of hydrogen.
Climate neutrality in Estonia – would that mean completely stopping energy production in its current form?
Time will tell what will happen. But I am definitely in favor of the state retaining the possibility to generate power using oil shale.
I always say that you should not fill in your old well before you've finished the new one. Therefore, I believe that before we are ready to completely abandon oil shale energy, alternatives need to be tangible, whether we're talking about hydrogen solutions, wind farms, solar power, wave energy or a nuclear power plant. I'm not a big fan of nuclear power, but we need energy, and modern nuclear energy deserves a seat at the table as one possible option.
Are you prepared to go against all these naysayers for whom the term nuclear plant conjures up images of Chernobyl and explain to them that it is nuclear energy than can give us supply security?
I'm willing to find the people qualified to say these things. We need to talk, discuss matters. We often get bogged down in taboos, are reluctant to talk about things. We do not want new factories and poultry farms and become very nervous even before we get to talking. We need to discuss things more as a society.
When was the last time you visited Hiiumaa?
You should return and take with you people who want to construct an offshore wind farm close to the island but whose impact assessments are not heeded in Kärdla.
Here we are at another junction where things aren't black and white. If we say that oil shale energy is bad and that we need to shut it down immediately and switch to wind power, the latter needs locations that make economic sense and are acceptable for residents.
I'm not saying that the wind farm must be built there. We have other potential locations in Estonia. I do not support steamrolling people. Whether we're talking about wind farms or quarries, developers must come to an understanding with [local] people.
And if they cannot? As happened with the Tartu pulp mill where, in the end, no one cared about environmental impact assessments and the plan died away in emotional opposition.
It is very unfortunate and frightening that we do not even discuss things but tend to say "no" right off the bat. As concerns Tartu, looming local elections made the situation worse. We tend to crucify things before we get a chance to discuss them. Unfortunately, that cannot take us forward.
Will oil shale power generation come to an end in Estonia eventually?
I cannot give you a window, but I believe it will eventually. What I don't believe is that we'll stop using oil shale altogether in the foreseeable future; for example, in the chemical industry where its use is very sensible.
And the future of power generation will boil down to the simple question of "renewable versus nuclear?"
Yes, time will tell.
We will not be shoving our forests into the furnaces of power plants?
Definitely not wood that could be used to make something else. It's different if we're talking about branches.
What do you think about Kunda and Linnamäe hydroelectric plants?
That's a complicated topic. I find myself here [the Ministry of the Environment] during a time when certain questions cannot be postponed any longer. Linnamäe has been one such topic for years and years.
What will you decide?
I tend to believe that it would be insensible to tear it down, while we need to consider compensation mechanisms for fish populations.
In your understanding, why have the climate debate and environmental topics become so important lately?
A generational shift is underway, and younger generations see things differently from those who hail from the post-industrial revolution era. That said, we cannot deny climate policy is of global significance. Thirdly, and equally importantly, we have the business side of things.
However, people everywhere have realized that climate policy cannot be avoided any longer. It is an inseparable part of life now, and we need to keep it in mind.
Why did the Estonian Greens and Richness of Life fail at Riigikogu elections – were they weak as parties or did voters not find their topics compelling?
I'm sure they're all very good people and generally support their worldview. But I believe it is difficult to engage voters in a very narrow spectrum, meet elections with a single topic.
Is British sustainability professor Jem Bendell exaggerating when he says that the deterioration of the global environmental situation has reached a point where society collapsing cannot be helped, disaster is likely and human extinction possibility?
Heated statements like that tend to have reasons. We need to look at who wants to make the front page, is making such more or less morbid utterances.
That said, it is a fact the human population has nearly quadrupled in the past 100 years – from two billion to eight billion soon. It heralds very serious challenges, also in terms of energy and food consumption in light of population increase. Serious topics all.
I recently read that Estonia is responsible for 0.05 percent of the world's CO2 emissions. Meaning that nothing really depends on whether we do anything here or not.
It is important to show the way. To be honest, I don't judge people who say that not much depends on Estonia. However, we tell our kids that it's not nice to lie, steal and hurt other people. The same should apply to the environment and saying that nothing depends on us. It does.
If we do not set a good example for the next generation, we are not doing the right thing as they must also understand it is important to care for and spare nature. It is not right to say that so little depends on us, meaning we don't have to do anything.
Green is more expensive than black. Many Europeans feel their energy costs will grow, while 50 million people in the EU already have trouble paying their utility bills. Is this movement toward climate neutrality affordable for everyone in Estonia?
The move toward climate neutrality needs to be sensible, take place step-by-step and must not be based just on slogans. It [climate neutrality] is sensible as a goal, but we must make sure Estonia does not paint itself into a corner trying to comply. Surrender its energy independence, overtax its people.
When will waste management be put in order in Estonia?
That is a good question. When will it be in order? Things are quite sensible and on a good level in Estonia, and we have no reason to say all is lost, looking at the global picture.
You recalled how Estonia has agreed to recycle 50 percent of waste by 2020, while we're only at 32 percent. When will we hit 50 percent?
By 2025 at the latest, 2021-2022 the earliest.
Management of biodegradable waste is a major problem for us. Separate biodegradable waste collection will be launched next year, with biodegradable containers installed near buildings…
We already have such a container at our building.
But many places don't, and it's a problem because a lot of people don't want them. We also want to install composters near private residences so they wouldn't need separate containers.
You have lived through one round of state budget talks and realize that if you propose state support for composters next year, the cabinet will very likely not support it.
To answer your question through the prism of humor, I can put on the government's table the potential fine Estonia would be looking at for failure to comply with the target. Perhaps that would motivate the other ministers. (Laughs.)
It is said the German government is discussing a green tax to hike the price of airline tickets. Would you be in favor of such an instrument?
I would not be too quick to support it. We live in the periphery in Europe, and decisions to tax air traffic would require very serious analysis.
What about a personal CO2 quota?
It is too soon for that. New initiatives are popular; Finland has also proposed hitting climate neutrality by 2035 as the current EU presidency. Such goals sound good, but achieving them is another matter entirely.
Are biocomponents in motor fuel greenwashing?
A black and white answer cannot be given here. However, we need to look at specific biocomponents the production of which might end up even more harmful for the environment, such as palm oil. We need to be smart when it comes to bioadditives. We produce ethanol in Estonia; perhaps we should develop biocomponents we can produce ourselves.
Do I understand correctly that Estonia is about to abandon the biocomponent requirement?
No, not as such. We are looking for ways to move forward with it, so that fuel would be usable.
Estonia is among the last, if not the very last country to comply with the EU's motor fuel bioadditive requirement. Finland, as a Nordic country, has managed it, as have many others. Bioadditives are not wrong, while their use needs to be sensible in terms of not putting strain on the environment, greenwashing and clogging vehicles' filters.
We are cutting down rain forests, leaving animals homeless to produce biocomponent out of palm oil.
I do not support that. I support, for example, producing ethanol from our cereals and using it as biocomponent.
Should we reduce felling volumes?
We will have the answer once the new forestry development plan is finished. Information I have today suggests we are not felling more than is our increment.
What about the relative importance of clearcutting?
The size limit for clearcut areas was recently hiked to seven hectares, but it seems to me we will go back to five hectares.
On the subject of forestry, we plan to introduce felling truce in protected areas and also ban chipping during the nesting period.
The World Health Organization has found the herbicide Glyphosate carcinogenic and harmful for the environment. Austria has banned its use, while the chemical can be used elsewhere in the EU until 2022. Why isn't Estonia joining Austria?
Having a sensible transitional period is good. Farmers are also looking for ways to use less Glyphosate.
Therefore, it will be possible to use Glyphosate in Estonia until 2022?
I believe alternatives safe for the environment will be found by then.
You recalled the forestry development plan for the next decade designated MAK2030. Member of its management committee and chairman of the Estonian Fund for Nature Tarmo Tüür criticized the ministry for "opting for a closed doors policy instead of discussions, transparency and broader cooperation." Why so?
I have done my best. During my time as minister, we have added NGO For Estonian Forests to the managing committee. I do not feel I'm about to shut down the process or lead it astray.
You said in early April that in order to liven up the economy, we need measures for adding value to timber instead of just exporting it as raw material. Coming back to the Emajõgi, do you believe we should have constructed a pulp mill there?
As far as I kept an eye on the media, I was bothered by how this thing was initially communicated. Also, we were heading into elections, which is usually when things grind to a halt.
I'm not against having a debate over the problem of Estonia exporting timber as raw material… That said, I know of developments.
Are there ideas for a new pulp mill?
Work is being done on a smaller scale. We shall see.
I will not disclose the location at this time. But I have gathered that forestry businessmen who were behind the previous grand project are planning a smaller-scale operation to lend Estonian timber value.
Have they talked to the locals?
I believe so; otherwise, we would have read about it in the media.
You support carrying out mineral surveys, regarding phosphate rock for example, while it should be handled by the state and not entrepreneurs. When will the state launch these analyses?
The Estonian Geological Service that is in charge of surveys was recreated a little while ago. I've always said that I have nothing against surveys because Estonia needs to know its mineral reserves. It cannot be taboo. What happens once we have that knowledge is another matter entirely.
Should the state then determine what mining or exploiting different resources would entail?
I believe so. Once we know what we have in the ground, we should work with scientists to determine how to use it. I have not said the state has such a plan; there have been no relevant discussions during my time in the ministry. However, it would make sense to know of possible scenarios for exploitation. It cannot be something the environment minister gets crucified over, I'll tell you that much.
You have never supported Rail Baltic, especially its current route.
That is true. I would still like to see it follow the existing Tallinn-Pärnu route should the railroad be constructed.
Will you be blocking the creation of sand and gravel quarries necessary for construction?
I have said before that we need to keep an eye on why and where permits for quarries are sought. Material for Rail Baltic cannot be the sole reason for someone to open a quarry. We need to look at how many quarries we have now and their stockpiles. I still believe new quarries and mines should not be created long before existing ones have been exhausted, turned into recreation areas or forests.
You will not be obstinate on purpose?
Like I said, I will seriously consider reasons for opening mines. I will not issue permits lightly. But if the local government and local people agree, I will not be standing in the way of entrepreneurial freedom either.
Do we need a fast train connection with Europe?
It will reduce the number of trucks on our roads.
I'm not entirely sure this technology meets modern needs; for example, with hyperloop technology in mind. Having a fast rail connections is good, but perhaps we should consider alternatives.
Time will tell whether Rail Baltic will materialize.
Right now, the project joins countries from Finland to Poland; the Estonian government has also pledged allegiance to Rail Baltic.
The coalition agreement reads that the government supports Rail Baltic if 81 percent of funding comes from the European Union. Those are the terms under which EKRE formed the government. Whether I like it or not, agreements must be honored.
When you were elected chairman of the Rapla rural municipality council two years ago, you promised to propose moving the Road Administration to Rapla. You are a member of the government today. Will it happen?
I have tested the waters with this idea in the cabinet, but the fact is that Rapla has nowhere to house the administration at this time.
People at the Road Administration just breathed a sigh of relief.
The media suggests that you want to replace your secretary general. That does not sound good. Secretary General Meelis Münt used to be in charge of climate topics at the ministry and discussions during Estonia's EU presidency.
The person who wrote that seems to know more about what I'm thinking than I do.
So, what is going on in your head?
You will need to ask the journalist where they got that message. It did not come from me.
This means the secretary general knows they will stay on next year and…
The only things we can really count on are death and taxes. Everything else is constantly changing. However, I'm not aware of being about to replace my secretary general, so it is all pure speculation or a spin.
I was surprised to learn you used to work as a ship guard in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. How did you end up there?
I had just finished a venture and my private life afforded me the opportunity to go and see the world.
Did you manage to see pirates?
Yes, I've seen them on several occasions.
Have you fired on them?
I have fired warning shots.
Were you scared of being boarded?
There is no glamour involved. It was interesting work, but the chance of being boarded was always there. Such risks need to be considered.
Which job entails more risk, that of a ship guard or the environment minister of Estonia?
They are very different positions and cannot be compared. In one, you are risking your own person, while you are in charge of major decisions that concern an entire country and people in the other.
Editor: Marcus Turovski