Keit Pentus-Rosimannus: Estonia could be a climate neutrality trailblazer
While the government took its sweet time giving the EU climate neutrality target the green light, the move is very welcome, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus writes.
The decision has been made after what has been a long road. When I first started taking climate topics to the government as environment minister eight years ago, the general reactions they sparked ranged from indifferent shrugs to recommendations by older colleagues to "pursue real things instead."
Climate change seemed a faraway and unimportant topic for most. "Who cares about something that will hit in 40 years' time," a member of the cabinet asked me back then. To me, it seemed nothing was more important.
Warnings by the scientific community were grave already then. The World Bank, IMF, OECD said, one after the other, that climate change would be the most serious topic of this century. The world would be looking at a disaster if we carried on as usual.
Anthropogenic carbon emissions had never been this high, while Estonians were still joking along the lines of climate change being a good thing in terms of warmer summers.
Exclamations by more serious people, saying that the climate has always been changing and asking whether the solution would be to go extinct, ultimately fell into the same category.
We worked with the European Commission to bring to Estonia experts from the OECD, the EU climate directorate, more climate-conscious neighbors and held a major climate policy debate in Tallinn to get the ball rolling.
Gradually, people emerged for whom the topic no longer seemed like a joke. The government was ready to write an Estonian climate policy development paper for the first time.
When I took Estonia to be a member of Connie Hedegaard's Green Growth Group, the number of those on whom it begun to dawn what an opportunity new clean and smart solutions could be for the already tech savvy Estonia started growing.
Suddenly, climate change became the number one topic guest speakers were expected to cover when visiting schools.
How exactly is it possible for any adult who has not spent the last several years walking with a bag on their head to seriously claim in 2019 that climate neutrality and corresponding goals have cropped up suddenly, I'll never understand.
All we can do is hope that population aging and the need to rework policies to that effect will not hit anyone as a "rather unexpected question" next.
What does climate neutrality mean? This somewhat awkward concept stands for a future where we do not emit more pollution than we can catch. Where there is less pollution in energy, transport and the economy as a whole. In other words, an economy lacking a negative environmental impact.
Why do we need one? Because to the best of our knowledge and based on a scientific consensus, we know how much more greenhouse gas emissions our atmosphere can handle before it becomes impossible to contain anthropogenic climate change. By then, it will be overflowing.
How quickly will crossing that line render entire regions uninhabitable — whether it will take years one just one year — is something no one dares predict.
What we know is that if we fail to contain carbon emissions, the generation that started first grade this year will no longer be able to live normally on planet Earth. This makes representatives of older generations taking it out on young climate protesters sound especially cynical.
But next to this dark and sooty future, there is an opportunity for a far more tempting alternative. I often hark back to the early days of the Estonian e-state when talking about the switch to climate neutrality. We did not know how all the digital services would look in the second half of the 1990s, but we knew we wanted business to be modern, convenient and secure — digital — in the future.
We do not have all the detailed answers and solutions for switching to climate neutrality today, but we know where the number one issue lies, and we want to make our energy sector sustainable and clean.
The European Union is planning to lead the way in global climate measures, so why couldn't Estonia adopt the goal of being a trailblazer in the EU?
We are known for our dirty oil shale that almost proved fatal to incoming European energy commissioner Kadri Simson during her European Parliament hearing.
If we can break out of this list of dirty countries, it will be a new success story to support Estonia in constant global competition for new smart jobs and investments. Not to mention cleaner air, less refuse and better public health.
What could be Estonia's next three steps in moving toward the climate neutrality goal?
1. An investment and research support plan for the most difficult fields in terms of climate neutrality in Estonia. Putting together the necessary toolbox as suggested on ERR's Otse uudistemajast program on October 2.
In a situation where 77 percent of Estonia's greenhouse gas emissions comes from power generation and burning of fuels, while we can make changes elsewhere, the big picture will not change unless we solve the energy question.
Currently stalling development of renewable energy capacity and the nuclear energy debate, also regarding safe storage of nuclear waste, need to be tackled sooner rather than later.
2. Policy needs to be integral and consistent. A climate neutral economy also means that the state does not make investments to push achieving the goal further away or work against it. Burying taxpayer money in a shale oil pre-refinery would definitely qualify as just such an investment.
3. The social measures plan for Ida-Viru County must be given more substance. The European Union's planned Just Transition Fund can provide the financial backing. The important thing is for Estonia to be ready on its end once the fund opens.
Climate neutrality is little else than a smarter and more environmentally sparing future sporting huge growth potential. It could be the only future for Estonia.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski