Estonia faces toughest challenge to cut emissions

Lithuania and Latvia will have an easier route to meeting the EU emissions-cutting agreement than Estonia. Photo by Nathan Greenhalgh.

Lithuania and Latvia will have an easier route to meeting the EU emissions-cutting agreement than Estonia. Photo by Nathan Greenhalgh.

TALLINN — Despite their similarities and geographic proximity, the three Baltic states will go down three very different roads in order to meet the EU’s climate change agreement made in Copenhagen last week.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference concluded last Friday in Copenhagen, yielding neither a substantial victory or a crushing blow to environmental activists. While United States President Barack Obama called the Copenhagen conference an “important breakthrough,” leaders from the European Union and developing nations grouse that the lack of a binding agreement leaves any accord unenforceable.

On Tuesday, the EU’s Environmental Council held a meeting to discuss the outcome of what is already being referred to as the Copenhagen Accord. But the views of each of the 27 EU members states is already known, as well as that of the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who represented that transnational body: the outcome did not go far enough. And even with the EU’s ambitious 20-20-20 agreement, which will drastically reduce carbon emissions over the next ten years, the Baltic states are still facing unique environmental problems that could be exacerbated in the near future.

As member states, each country bargains collectively under the aegis of the EU. So, even if there are specific concerns that affect one state over another, any deviations were muted at Copenhagen in an attempt to, as Allan Gromov, deputy secretary general at the Estonia’s environmental ministry said, “speak in one voice.”

Despite any perceived failings of the Copenhagen conference, EU member states, who produce about 22 percent of all emissions in the world, signed an agreement in 2008 to cut energy greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, and increase renewable energy and energy efficiency levels by 20 percent by 2020 (the 20 percent refers to 1990 levels of the respective categories.) Emissions from transport, housing, waste and agriculture are set to be reduced by ten percent in the next ten years. While the EU tried to lead by example at the Copenhagen conference, the major players were the United States, China and India — the three countries with the highest levels of carbon emissions.

“With regard to both emissions reduction and financial contributions, we have set a good example for other partners,” Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip told Baltic Reports. “Regardless of the great efforts, we only reached the intermediary stage this time, but it is still better than interruption and allows us to continue to work to reach a legally binding agreement.”

Ansip’s sentiment was also expressed by Lithuania and Latvia.

“The EU behaved very actively and tried to persuade the parties and took a lot of efforts to negotiate,” said Stasilė Znutienė, head of the climate change division at Lithuania’s environmental ministry. “We expected more ambitious results from the conference.”

But EU member states are still planning to lead by example, and are talking about increasing the emissions cuts to 30 percent.

“Nothing is finished in Copenhagen,” said Linas Balsys, spokesman for Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė. “If we have something after Kyoto, it depends on what we have. Is it legally binding or voluntary? In Copenhagen we did not yet come to this stage. It’s simply not the case.”

Carbon-cutting confusion

There is little uniformity in how each of the Baltic states will tackle these requirements or foreseeable roadblocks in the coming decade. While everyone agrees that the Copenhagen Accord was not a complete failure, the lack of a legal, binding document signed by the 127 countries in attendance essentially means that each country has agreed to try and agree on something at a later date.

Of the three states, Latvia is the most capable of meeting the ambitious EU requirements. According to Latvia’s Renewable Energy Fact Sheet, which was published by the European Commission for Energy and Transport in 2008, almost half of the country’s electricity consumption was provided by renewables in 2004, with the largest share coming from hydro-electric power. The report credits this to graduated tariffs that were fazed out earlier this decade and replaced with a quota system.

Lithuania is currently well ahead of the EU restrictions, but how the next decade will look is uncertain. Znutienė said that the country of nearly 4 million has reduced emissions to 50 percent of what they were in 1990, and will meet the strict Kyoto targets that were set earlier this decade.

But Lithuania is looking at a number of problematic situations in the next ten years. The most prominent is the closing of the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which produces almost 70 percent of the nation’s energy. In 2004, as a precondition for joining the EU, Lithuania agreed to shut down the plant because other EU members were worried about its similarities to the Chernobyl reactor that melted down in the late 1980s. No one had foreseen that its closure would coincide with Lithuania’s worst economic downturn ever, and this will force the country to import electricity and fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, rather than try to develop more expensive, sustainable sources.

“We worry a lot about the closing of the nuclear energy plant,” Znutienė said.

Kęstutis Navickas, project manager for the Baltic Environmental Forum, an environmental group, said that he expects a rise in emissions, and is “not sure if it will be for a short time.” But those in the government were more optimistic about the country’s environmental impact over the next ten years.

“I can not tell you now the extent to which it will increase emissions,” Balsys said. “With modern technology, when you burn gas, it’s not that much of a waste if you do it the right way.”

Balsys said that plans to increase the level of windpower are in the works.

Navickas applauded efforts by the government to increase building efficiency standards for energy consumption, but said that the economy will likely stymie much dramatic movement.

“I think it could improve the situation, but still it depends on what they agree on and financial rules for refurbishing buildings,” he said. “The rules for getting financial support are very difficult.”

Should these new restrictions on building emissions go through, they will be through the Seimas some time next year. “Mainly we think we will be able to implement all these ambitious requirements through legislation,” Znutienė said.

For Estonia, underlying problems are mostly related to the current infrastructure. According to the 2008 European Commission Renewable Energy Fact Sheet, 91 percent of their energy comes from coal, one of the least emission-friendly energy sources.

Potential problems with emissions standards in Estonia “means the deep discussion for the future of electricity production,” Gromav said.  But, he said, the 20-20-20 standards “will be implemented,” and that the financial crisis has made the cost of construction cheaper, meaning that wind farms might be easier to implement soon.

“Our prob will be how we will negotiate our burden when the EU will move from the 20 to 30 percent target,” Gromav told Baltic Reports. “It will depend on two key principles: how we are able to pay and who is responsible for the emissions.”

Although Estonia is working on an agreement with the Netherlands to import more electricity and reduce their share of emissions, Gromov said Estonia is looking for wind energy and biomass sources “to compensate for power” in the long term.

“We’re missing completely this kind of regulation that could allow enter into the windpark as offshore business,” he said.  “Wind is an unstable source of energy. Competitive energy production should also be established.”

Trouble at sea

The environmental problem that unites the Baltic countries is the pollution of the adjoining sea. The Baltic Sea has always been relied upon for its access to Western Europe. Vikings used it during the Middle Ages for their trade routes. It connected Lithuania to Egypt, creating what was called the Amber Road, and Baltic amber, which is found in abundance near the sea, has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.

The unique ecology of the Baltic sea allows for dense nutrient and plant life. But when those plants breaks down, it creates a process called eutrophication, where the decomposition of the plants deprives animals from receiving enough oxygen and could wipe out entire species of marine life. The trigger for the breakdown of plant life almost always comes from man-made sources.

The Baltic Sea is in the process of eutrophication. During World War II, the sea became a dumping ground for thousands of airplanes, thousands of tons of chemical weapons and untold numbers of other munitions. It is also a mass grave, where the Soviet Union dumped bodies of retreating German soldiers, and where thousands of the dead remain after naval battles.

According to the Helsinki Commission or HELCOM, a group of countries that surround the Baltic Sea, the sea remained a dumping ground for surrounding countries, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. HELCOM estimates 13,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard and laughing gasses, lying on the bottom of the sea. Although, over time, some chemicals break down and become water soluble, others do not and retain their poisonous qualities for extended periods of time.

This environment poses significant environmental and political problems. Vast swaths of the sea are oxygen dead zones, and unearthing the chemical weapons and ordinances could unleash even more toxic material from these watery graves. It is also expensive. HELCOM has been struggling with how it will be able to pay for the cleanup since the 1970s, and according to a 2007 report, the last available, there are still significant amounts of hazardous materials still lying on the bottom of the sea. Although each country has reduced their nutrient input into the sea — to favorable results, with some areas seeing a rise in water visibility — HELCOM acknowledges that there is still significant amounts of work to be done.

“If we just speak purely of environmental concerns, the sea is priority number one,” said Balsys.

“Never ever before have we spent so much on water protection than now,” said Gromov. Under the EU’s Baltic Sea strategy, member states will receive €50 billion altogether from 2007 to 2013 for cleanup costs.

“But there is a common problem for the Baltics and the EU, implementing the Baltic Sea strategy,” he added. “How can we ensure that those works can not be so implemented in this way that chemicals can be released tomorrow?”

A major exacerbating factor in the Baltic Sea strategy is the new Nord Stream pipeline, which will connect Germany directly to Russian natural gas sources via the Baltic Sea and Finland. The pipeline, which is projected to be finished in 2012, will import 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Western Europe, bypassing current transit countries like Ukraine and Belarus.

Although the oil and gas companies involved in the pipeline say that the pipeline will have a neutral environmental impact on the sea, environmentalists say that the new pipeline will disturb the munitions  buried there, potentially setting back the cleanup strategy.

“The potential for a catastrophe is quite big,” said Navickas. “No one is actually sure if it will be safe.”

The Baltic governments are also wary of the pipeline’s impact. Nord Stream is scheduled to cross at least one area where ordinances are known to be buried. But, they say, since it does not cross their territorial waters, it is outside of their jurisdiction.

“We can do nothing because it doesn’t affect us legally, territorially,” Balsys said. “What I hear from Swedish and Finnish experts is that they don’t see that big of threat. But the principle of our philosphy is environment first and business after. If there would be some chemical — if they’re disturbed and spread, it could really be a disaster. Every meter and mililmeter needs to be searched and tackled.”

“For us it’s important that it won’t in any way harm the Baltic Sea,” said Kersti Luha, spokeswoman for the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Luha said that plans to influence the direction of the pipeline hinge on reports that could have a graver environmental assessment of the pipeline’s construction.

“The sea is not such a rich environment because it is so small and unites all the countries that are around the sea,” she said. “It should be our united effort to keep the sea as healthy as it could.”

1 Response for “Estonia faces toughest challenge to cut emissions”

  1. Figaro008 says:

    I am confident that Danish, Swedish and Finnish scientists have done a good job while assessing the impacts of Nord Stream to the Baltic marine environment. All these countries are known for being environmentally well aware and also transparent democracies, thus objective in their evaluation. It’s a pity the author failed to ask their comments. I am afraid the Lithuanian and Estonian reaction is based on fears and emotions rather than environmental science.

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