Estonia: A Paradox of Actions on Energy6 min read

Estonia is consistently ranked as one of the least religious countries in the world, with low rates of worship attendance and affiliation with a religious institution. Yet, all Estonians seem to have an intensely spiritual relationship with Mother Nature. From the decision by the Forest Brothers to seek refuge in the forest to modern-day traipsing through bogs, Estonians demonstrate a peaceful respect for the environment. It would not be an understatement to say that local ecosystems and land play an important role in defining Estonian identity, a source of national pride.

On paper, Estonia appears primed to model effective climate action, with high levels of environmental awareness in the political sphere and ostensible progress in environmental policies in the past few years. The country boasts ongoing green tax reform efforts and extensive national parks and nationally-protected areas. Over 50% of its habitats and species assessments are reported as favourable, an impressive achievement according to the European Commission, and Estonia is considered one of the pioneers of the ecological network model and forward-thinking spatial planning. In 2007, Estonia introduced an ambitious long-term Environmental Strategy for 2030, and in 2014, the state agreed to meet the EU energy and climate goals for 2030.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that the small country of 1.3 million people is the most carbon-intensive, and the third most energy-intensive, economy of all the OECD member states. How do I reconcile the fact that Estonia is one of the greenest countries in the world (in terms of square footage of forest) and admirably protective of their native species, yet Estonia is the second largest emitter of CO2 per capita in the European Union? Estonia’s per capita emissions are even higher than those of Russia, their oil-rich neighbor.

The shocking numbers, which seem to obscure any progress Estonia has made in other sustainable energy goals, are mostly the result of Estonia’s robust reliance on oil shale mining. The industry, which began in Estonia as early as 1916, has immense impact on the economy of the country. Over 90% of Estonian power stems from oil shale, and the oil shale energy sector accounts for 4% of Estonian GDP. It is estimated that surrendering oil shale mining would cost Estonia one billion euros per year, as well as 13,000 jobs in an Ida-Viru County already plagued by poverty and isolation. The industry is referred to as “Estonia’s dirty secret” by some local environmental campaigners, and for good reasons: oil shale mining has received little attention in English-language mainstream news media.

National calls to move away from oil shale seem to be growing, but very slowly and with little momentum. The government announced a new national energy strategy that expects the share of renewables in final energy consumption by Estonia to rise to nearly 50% by 2030. Then, in 2018, the Estonian Green Movement presented the Riigikogu with a proposal for a strategic oil shale exit plan, signed by 1079 Estonians. Additionally, any verbal or legislative push by the government towards alternative energy sources seems counteracted by the expansion of oil shale mining carried out by state-owned Eesti Energia.

Eesti Energia recently piloted a new generation of shale oil power plants and started to increase their exports of mining technology to the world. For example, Enefit, the international arm of Eesti Energia, is currently in the process of opening the United States’ first commercial production of oil shale in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin. The U.S. project is one of a handful of other projects taking place in Jordan, Morocco, Israel, and Ethiopia, where Eesti Energia is spearheading the global expansion of oil shale mining. In 2018, Eesti Energia claimed in a press release that oil shale mining projects will “put Estonia on the map of the world by working together.” The actions of state-owned Eesti Energia seem out of line with the policies and visions espoused by the former governments in Tallinn, an inherent contradiction on energy moving forward.

Estonia is at a crossroads, having made headway since 1991 on issues ranging from species conservation to public transportation, but currently unwilling to let go of the security blanket provided by oil shale mining, especially given the current geopolitical atmosphere. Estonia is almost wholly energy self-sufficient, an important claim to fame when many of the state’s neighbors are dependent on Russian gas. Given Russia’s history of using energy as a political weapon, it is understandable that Estonia may perceive the continuance of the oil shale industry as a matter of security. The development of Aidu Wind Farm, a set of 30 wind turbines in northeast Estonia, has faced constant barriers and delays since the project was initiated in 2013. Most recently, in April of this year, state authorities issued an injunction demanding a halt to any further development of the wind turbines, concerned that the height of the turbines would interfere with military radars. The situation in Aidu is a microcosmic example of how environmental progress is starting to come to a screeching head with national security.

Estonia’s position on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a ranking of 180 countries based on how the countries score in ten issue categories, including environmental health and ecosystem vitality, has dropped significantly in just two years. In 2016, the country was in the top ten, which precipitated a sharp decrease to a 2018 ranking of 48. Given that the EPI is intended to gauge “how close countries are to established environmental policy goals,” the metrics would seem to suggest that Estonia is regressing, and regressing quickly. The EPI index parallels an even more worrying trend: the steep decline in support for the Estonian Green Party, which fell from 7.1% of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections to 1.8% of the vote in 2019, a longer-term drop that signifies how the climate may be losing its status as a priority for the greater Estonian public as well.

Bringing the conflict of interests to light is more important than ever given the recent political developments in Estonia. The increasing power of EKRE, a party consumed by the threat posed by Russia and often described as skeptical of climate change, dashes any hope that the government will rein in oil shale mining. In late May, as state budget negotiations raged on between government coalition partners and ministers inside the isolated Vihula Manor in Tallinn, a group of Estonian high schoolers gathered two hours away in Tartu to march for climate action. It was a brazen show of activism, undeterred by drizzling rain, that took place while Vihula Manor was full of discussions about alcohol excise duties and raising tuition fees. There is a disquieting symbolism to the pairing, foreshadowing discordance between generations and raising questions about whether or not the environment will receive the attention it justly deserves from the new government.

Anna Blue graduated with honors from the International Relations program at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. After working for a small think tank in Los Angeles for two years, she arrived in Tartu, Estonia to pursue her Fulbright grant for a year. As a Fulbright researcher, she studies and investigates the policy and security impacts of Estonian e-residency.