Two weeks ago we held the Friends of the Earth Europe AGM. Instead of being together in Croatia as we had planned, representatives of 27 countries took part remotely. As well as signing off workplans, accounts and budgets, we heard about success stories from around our European network.

The report from our Estonian group was particularly interesting, in a one step forward, two steps back sort of way.

Energy in Estonia

Estonia has the second highest level of climate change emissions per person in Europe, most of it from the energy sector. The transition to a market economy in the 1990s led to a big drop in emissions, but in an uncontrolled, socially-disastrous way as factories closed down almost overnight.

Emissions have increased again over the last two decades, with three-quarters of the country’s primary energy coming from burning oil shale, a dirty, inefficient fossil fuel extracted from beds of oily rock.

On the positive side, Friends of the Earth Estonia has used increasing concern about climate change and future energy plans to start a serious discussion about a Just Transition out of fossil fuels, something which would have been impossible just a year or two ago. This has included convening large round-table meetings attended by unions, the government and the European Commission.

On the negative side, just as Europe was going into lockdown, the Estonian government gave the go ahead to a new fossil fuel plant with a promise of support of €125m, nearly half the estimated total cost.

The plant, due to be in full operation in 2025, will be run by the state-owned national energy company Eesti Energia and will produce liquid fuels from oil shale. Most of the output will be fuel to be used by international shipping because that is the only industry still allowed to use such dirty fuel.

The Estonian oil shale industry is facing decline as it becomes cheaper to invest in renewable electricity generation than new oil shale capacity. In what might be a coronavirus crisis last roll of the dice, Eesti Energia, has announced proposals for three more new oil shale plants.

Shale oil plans are incompatible with climate action

Last year Estonia signed up to an EU’s aim of being net-zero emissions by 2050 but building any one of these plants would make that impossible.

The government and industry may have thought that the COVID-19 lockdown would distract attention from the plans and prevent protest, but youth climate activists from the Fridays For Future movement are planning to take their government to court to because building the plant is not consistent with the country’s obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement from 2015.

The EU Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, is from Estonian and in a TV interview she suggested that the fuel produced by the plant might be so dirty that it would be illegal to sell in the EU and would only be for export. Friends of the Earth Estonia are helping bring together a civil society coalition to oppose the plant.

Estonia’s finance minister has tried to justify the plans as good for the climate and just what the country needs to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

From fossil fuel plants in Estonia to rainforest destruction in Brazil (last week’s column), the COVID-19 crisis is being used as cover to push through destructive mega-projects. We can see the same pressures here with oil industry claims that carbon capture and storage and fossil hydrogen are the ideal investments for the UK Government to make in its supposedly-green recovery spending plans.

Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.  A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 16 June 2020.