15. May 2023Climate change researcher Annela Anger-Kraavi: A sharp green U-turn is the wrong approach. We are letting ourselves down socio-economically

CINTRAN team member Annela Anger-Kraavi recently published an article in Eesti Ekspress on the Estonian transition process. Coaltransitions.org presents an English language version here.

Published in Eesti Ekspress on 1st March 2023 and online Kliimamuutuste uurija Annela Anger-Kraavi: järsk rohepööre on vale lähenemine. Laseme end sotsiaalmajanduslikult põhja – Eesti Ekspress (delfi.ee)

It is an urgent matter for Estonia to understand that the climate crisis is a global problem, not a local debate to serve personal interests. Instead of a sudden green U-turn, we should learn from larger countries that put people at the centre of the transition to a climate-friendly economy, thus avoiding a socio-economic crash.

Environmental protection in Estonia is focusing on the wrong things, without understanding the underlying problems and cause-and-effect relationships. The scientific basis is completely ignored, and instead the green U-turn is driven by personal ambitions and ideology, and the media is captivated by shiny spokespeople and populist slogans rather than substance.

A simple example of this is the widespread belief among Estonian environmentalists that protecting biodiversity will stop climate change. Scientifically, however, (the most reliable reports are those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and on Biodiversity), the causality is the opposite – climate change is one of the main causes of both local and global biodiversity loss. As long as we fail to curb climate change, we have no hope of preserving biodiversity, at least not as we are used to seeing it.

The climate crisis will not be solved within our borders

But the climate crisis is real, and scientists’ projections of the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly bleak. However, it seems that in Estonia it has not yet been realised that the climate crisis is a global problem and that it is something entirely different from litter that is dumped by the sea and in the forest. Because climate change is caused by heat-trapping molecules, such as carbon dioxide molecules, which are invisible to the eye, it is difficult to understand the problem. However, the consequences of the problem are visible, such as changes in species habitats and more frequent droughts and warm winters.

How and why is this a global problem? Carbon dioxide molecules are distributed evenly around the globe and affect the climate system as a whole. The number of such molecules has increased by 1.5 times since we started using coal for energy about 150 years ago. This is why it is surprising that local climate debates are held before elections, such as the 15 February cross-party debate on “Who decides in Estonia what happens to our climate?”. How can such a question even be asked? Estonia is a small country with no isolated climate system. Nobody here decides what happens to our climate. It is other, much larger countries that do.

Two crises instead of one

The myth that we can decide what happens to the climate in Estonia has led to the perception that the consequences of climate change are probably worse than the effects on people and the economy of the climate policies themselves. So there is no need to make impact assessments one way or the other, and the only option is to make a swift and sharp turnaround. Where to? Probably upside-down into a ditch.

For example, there are those who believe that everyone should be able to manage the green U-turn, and that businesses and people who fail to adapt are themselves to blame. But the green U-turn is by its very nature a large-scale state intervention with a free market economy, so normal competition rules do not apply.

Without understanding who is affected by green policy, how they are affected, and what to do about the consequences, we are approaching a situation where we will soon have to face two crises – the global climate crisis and Estonia’s ruined social economy. According to the OECD, relative poverty in Estonia stands at 25%. In other words, one in four families live in relative poverty, and the number of people struggling to make ends meet is growing. This is particularly the case in rural areas where economic activities and opportunities are limited.

The rest of the world puts people at the centre

For the rest of the world, the concept of a green U-turn is unknown. Instead, they talk about transition as a process. Large countries, for example, have realised that the transition to a climate-friendly economy must put people at its centre. ‘Leaving no one behind’ is one of the guiding principles of the process, and that is precisely why they talk about a just transition. A just transition is an integral part of the EU Green Deal.

Changes must be made so that people can keep their jobs, their income, and their dignity. In Estonia, however, the reverse logic is used. In the rush to meet the EU’s climate targets, more and more constraints are being placed on people’s shoulders, with the greatest burden being borne by rural people. At the same time, there is no socio-economic assessment, let alone listening to people’s own opinions. At the moment, the concept of green turn is, fortunately, still a distant and abstract concept for people in Estonia. Soon enough, the understanding of its nature and implications will reach the people, and those who carry out a rapid green U-turn will feel a strong backlash against every green move.

A stable plan and strategy helps

All this does not mean that we shouldn’t think about how to stop burning fossil fuels, which is at the root cause of climate change. Of course, everyone has to play their part here. In addition, nature must be preserved and protected from the effects of climate change so that it can help us to sequester carbon dioxide molecules. This is essential until we can finally replace the burning of oil shale, oil, and other fuels that have been in the ground for a long time with clean energy.

All this requires a well thought-through, stable plan and a strategy. In addition, there has to be an understanding that scientific literature must not be used for selecting individual articles that support vested interests, nor to select researchers on the basis of how they fit in with popular politics. On the contrary, climate policy should be built on science, the credibility of which is valued. Nor does the climate belong to one political party or another, any more than the lives of the Estonian people or our national colours do. It must not be a bargaining chip before elections.

So many political parties are promising their voters a climate law, but we have actually already had one since 2017. This is the climate policy framework until 2050, the latest version of which entered into force on 9th February this year. The goal is to become a competitive, climate-neutral economy by 2050, and there is a section for each sector in there. Interestingly, the word ‘oil shale’ has disappeared from latest version of the document. Instead of drafting a new law, we should look at the existing one, supplement it with necessary information and figures, and then start to think about how we are going to reach the targets we have set. We should also hurry, because we have already accepted the targets proposed to us by the European Union. Now we need to create legal certainty and legal clarity. And there is no time to waste on talking.

The English mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), with whom I have had the privilege of working at the same university, said in 1950: “All who are not lunatics are agreed about certain things. That it is better to be alive than dead, better to be adequately fed than starved, better to be free than a slave. Many people desire those things only for themselves and their friends; they are quite content that their enemies should suffer. These people can only be refuted by science: Humankind has become so much one family that we cannot ensure our own prosperity except by ensuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy.”  Perhaps it is time for Estonia to understand that we can only solve the climate crisis together, not by sacrificing other people, especially Estonia’s own people.




Annela Anger-Kraavi
Director | University of Cambridge
Climate Change Policy Group (CCPG)



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