Is it possible to reach climate neutral economy by 2050? The European Commission asked the same question from all of its member states. The Estonian government did not give a firm answer and ordered a climate report from Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) Tallinn – an International think tank with over 250 different environment specialists from all over the world. Is climate neutrality achievable, how much will it cost and what needs to be done to live in a climate neutral country in 30 years? Director of SEI Tallinn Lauri Tammiste explained their findings.
How did you compose your research to find out if climate neutrality is achievable?
In this research one of the fundamental starting points was the inventory of greenhouse gases. There is a pan-European agreement on how greenhouse gas emissions are calculated and this includes emission inventory. The results and trends of these calculations are reported to the European Commission. So using the inventory method is very important to ensure that the report would be comparable and trustworthy.
A very positive example of this research project was that the workgroup from the government’s side was very diverse. There were representatives from Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Economics, Ministry of Rural Affairs, Ministry of Education as well as from Ministry of Defence. I myself have been researching environment and energetics for a long time in Estonia and I now saw that a change has happened: different parties acknowledge that it’s a broad question and not a problem of just a few people in Ministry of Environment.
The first main question from the government was whether it is at all possible to reach climate neutrality? Can we see steps that would make the picture come together? The other question was that if the goal is reachable, what would then be the steps needed and how much do we need to invest?
How would you answer these questions now?
In short, our conclusion is that, yes, climate neutrality is achievable. If we take a look at the year 2050 – what is the energy consumption, needs and demands, then it is possible to form a functioning economy with far fewer emissions.
What is also important about climate neutrality is that we’re not talking about bringing all emissions down to zero. In some areas, in agriculture for example, it’s very difficult to bring emissions to zero because there will always be some emissions related to livestock. Climate neutrality actually means that the ratio between emissions and capturing is at least in balance, or the rate of capturing is slightly higher. The more we can enhance natural capturing, the better chance to get the picture together by 2050.
How bad is the current picture in Estonia?
In the recent past, our greenhouse gas emissions have been 6-7 times above the level that they should be in the year 2050. This year some emissions have lowered due to electricity production but nevertheless our goal includes many times fewer emissions by the year 2050. If we look at today’s CO2 emissions per capita then Estonia is clearly in the frontline of Europe. This means that the structural change must be quite big. However, we can say that this is concentrated mainly in the energetics sector where the saving potential is the highest. And I think that the next in terms of difficulty is the transportation sector.
How can we reach emission rates that are 6-7 times lower?
I would say that there are three main steps. The first step is energy efficiency. If we would be more efficient in house construction, production industry and transport, then a big plus is that the emissions are lowering. Another advantage is that we need less investments in production capacity to satisfy the energy demand. Many energy efficiency solutions provide financial saving and make achieving climate neutrality more favourable for the society.
The second step is to make energy carriers climate neutral – that’s electricity and heat production and transportation fuels. All these sectors need changes. The third step is capturing. It’s probably most reasonable to invest in afforesting out of use lands and turn peat soil areas into natural grasslands. There’s a new forestry development plan in the works. We should agree there which capturing rates are desirable and then target cutting capacity according to that.
These are roughly the three directions. Which exact actions to take and to what extent – that’s a decision of the government. But we need to keep in mind that the tempo needs to be quite fast. We cannot agree that we will do just a little bit.
So it means prioritising this topic and taking fast action?
Yes. We created one possible scenario for reaching climate neutrality and one of our conclusions was that it needs to be a made priority. If the government makes a positive decision to take that ambition as our goal, then it means that all future actions must support this goal. It means that with every investment the state makes, we need to question whether it contributes to climate neutrality or not. I think that all ministries should have a clear action plan about what are the next 1-5 things in coming 3 years that bring fast effect.
There has been a leak from the report to media that your estimated volume of investment to achieve climate neutrality is close to 17 billion euros? Is it so?
Yes, the investment volume is around 17 billion euros if we want to provide energy supply security with domestic capacity. But we are talking about 30 years and among that technologies which’s exact future prices we do not know yet. This estimation is given based on today’s best known information. The need for investments is probably bigger in the beginning and then gradually gets smaller. So in the next 10 years we are actually talking about 4% of GDP, then in the years 2030-2040 about 2% and in the end of the period about 1%. So the financial evaluation just shows the volume of these actions. If you think about investing a few percents of GDP to provide a cleaner, more resource efficient and more competitive future economy and environment, then it seems like a reasonable investment.
In addition to the analysis we also created a modelling tool where ministries can continually renew information. For example, when analysing the best information in five years, the tool creates a new scenario regarding CO2 emissions as well as costs and savings. An important message of the report is that we don’t have to set all activities until 2050 at this moment, it would be silly. It’s just clear that we cannot avoid some activities and we need to do them in the coming decade.
What are the most critical steps that we should tackle first in the coming decade?
There are many cost-efficient measures in energy efficiency. These need to be done because it’s purely saved money in the future. For example, wind parks and solar panels in energetics, electrification in transportation – these are the things that need to happen. If not, then reaching climate neutrality can get more and more difficult or also more expensive.
What could be different in people’s practical life in 30 years?
The practical life would not be too different really. I think that maybe it would be noticeable in everyday decision-making – that it would have become normal to think about, what are the environmentally-friendly choices. I see the change in attitudes already today but not so much in behaviour yet. Behaviour just needs more time to catch up. It seems to me that people are afraid that the change is going to be very big and we need to give up everything because of that. Actually, we do not need to give up everything, we just need to manage our resources wisely and not waste them.
If we think about the year 1991 when Estonia regained its independence – there has been less time since that to date than there is until 2050. What a change! I think that it seems quite crazy, what kind of changes can be executed during one generation. Why should we then think that Estonia has lost its innovativeness, adaptability and ability to change. I would rather take the last 25 years as a positive example of how we can be very fast and flexible changers. We are a very innovative country and nation and I see no reason why we couldn’t tackle this challenge. We could rather think that if we move in the front line, we’ll have a chance to create a competitive advantage for our economy and make our own lives and environment better.