A little before the UN countries gathered in Sharm el Sheik for a climate conference, specialists, activists, and companies contributing towards green transition met in Tallinn at the largest green technology conference in the Nordic and Baltic countries to find new ways to solve the climate crisis faster. One of the concerns raised on the stage of GreenEst Summit was that the technologies are ready for the green transition and are developing extremely quickly, but the regulations get in the way of changes and the current economic system is outdated.
Conference was opened by Riina Sikkut, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Communications, who set out the beliefs which hold us back from continuing with the green transition. First, the myth that the current energy crisis jeopardises solving the climate crisis when actually, the best solution to the energy crisis are renewable energy sources and they need fast investments. Second, ignorance – in reality, the calculations have been completed and we know the necessary steps; we simply must take action and do it fast because the planet is running out of time. Third, she listed questions, such as ‘Is there a market for it?’, ‘Is it profitable?’, and ‘Do we have the right technology?’ as obstacles. The minister emphasised that real obstacles are political risks of each consecutive government changing the direction of development. She promised that all power needed in Estonia is going to come from renewable sources in seven years. It is clear, however, that the minister is not going to build wind farms personally because she deals with regulations, licenses, and restrictions. ‘When we are moving towards climate neutrality, then we do it as a whole, not as a sector or a segment,’ she stated and added that if we are the forerunners and do not second-guess ourselves, we can gain a lot from this situation.
Economy in theory and in practice
Anders Wijkman, one of the keynote speakers of the conference and a Swedish politician and opinion leader, stated that Europe with its current actions is not on the pathway to 1.5 °C* and we can already witness extreme weather events globally. According to Wijkman, we focus too much on energy when material and land use are equally important and we need to change our economic model. ‘In market economy, human capital is undervalued, product capital is overvalued, and natural capital is not valued at all,’ he summarised the issues of the current economic model.
He recalled how the report of a study commissioned by the Club of Rome entitled ‘The Limits of Growth’ indicated as early as in 1972 that the global and industrial development continuing at the same fast pace would soon cause us to hit a wall. The majority of the economic experts and world leaders dismissed this idea, which has led us to a dead end 50 years down the road. ‘Conventional economic scientists do not understand nature and the living environment; they did not comprehend it then and do not understand it now,’ Wijkman said. Managing the state with Excel tables has been criticised in Estonia as well.
Wijkman said that the current economic system destabilises societies and the planet and completely ignores the value of the future. He provided a vivid example: very poor countries and communities have a tiny environmental footprint and increasing the living standard is vital for them; however, the planet cannot handle all people living a middle-class lifestyle. At least not what it has been so far. For example, what would be the environmental footprint of constructing steel and concrete houses for two billion people? What if we built these houses of timber?
Wijkman introduced the Earth4All initiative, which outlines policies for a more equitable redistribution of wealth and empowering women, more people eating healthy food, measuring the well-being score of countries instead of GDP, higher taxes for wasting resources, and a transition from linear to circular economy as necessary steps.
Over the next two days, speakers focused mainly on policies, regulations, and transforming the economic system. Tõnis Vaiksaar, Member of the Management Board of Timbeco Woodhouse, gave a great example: about half of carbon emissions are caused by built environment, which means that rules of construction must be changed radically. We need to prefer solutions with a smaller environmental impact, taking into account the entire life cycle of materials and buildings. This concerns more than just new buildings; renovating the already existing edifices to be environmentally friendly is equally important. Mihkel Tamm from SEB Pank stated that a bank as an organisation can contribute only a little when moving towards zero emissions, but its influence is huge when it acts as a financier of ventures.
Energy analyst Keith Everhart from the International Energy Agency said that even if we were to accomplish all our current goals, zero emissions by 2050 would still be a journey of 20 gigatonnes. ‘Today, we only have about a quarter of the necessary investment into essential systems,’ Everhart stated. Arnaud Castaignet from Skeleton Technologies noted that energy transition without a long-term storage technology is unthinkable and this technology is still being developed. The discussion of energy also included hydrogen, which is a chicken and egg situation: energy is needed for producing hydrogen and hydrogen can then be used for storing energy. Therefore, it would be reasonable to produce hydrogen in an area with a lot of available free renewable energy, such as under African sun, and then transport the stored energy to the regions that need it. Tobias Block from eFuel Alliance pointed out that we need a political and legal framework to implement such plans.
Cities for people; cars for the society
Mobility discussion mostly revolved around cars or to be more precise, avoiding cars. We need to focus on CO2 emissions standards and provide tax incentives to renewable energy, and that is not all. Swapping cars with internal combustion engines for electric cars is not enough because the burden on the environment is still too great. Mobility that does not include cars has a much bigger impact: walking, cycling, using public transportation, and only when a car is truly necessary – resorting to mobility as a service. Startling figures were listed: a passenger car in Europe stands still 92% of the time, travels 5% of the time, and looks for a parking space for 1.6% of the time; a car has five seats on the average but carries only 1.5 people per trip. In the light of these figures, a company like Bolt satisfies most of the vehicle demand in the cities by providing ride sharing services and micro-vehicles. The tiny share that is left would require less roads; pedestrians and biodiversity could consequently return to the cities.
Welmoed Neijmeijer from Bolt demonstrated how the main street of Brussels with very dense traffic was transformed into a pedestrian area. She explained that after this experience, she wishes to participate in the metamorphosis of giving cities back to the people, but this is not always easy – the cities oppose this. We need to strive towards reducing the number of cars, which requires a shared effort of politicians, urban planners, ride-sharing operators, public transportation companies, logisticians, bicycle organisation, people with special needs – everyone living in the cities and all their communities.
When discussing this topic, it was again repeated that the technology is ready and developing quickly but innovation and a major change are hindered by legislation and missing regulations. For example, Thea-Liis Pae from Magnetic Group described how drones are used for delivering necessities and medications to hard-to-reach places but the infrastructure for landing is still missing. According to Pae, future traffic between airport and the city centre could rely on airborne electrical drones, for example.
Naturally, less populated areas will always need private vehicles and there will always be people who simply prefer a personal car but we do not have enough room on our planet for this option to be available for everyone. Habits and acting on autopilot also have a huge role. If we were to ask ourselves every time we get into a car whether the trip could be completed by walking or with an electrical scooter, public transportation or a rental car, many car trips would not be made. Argo Verk from Ridango gave a personal example: he took his car to be serviced and needed to get back to his office, which was about two kilometres away. First, he automatically took out his phone to find the nearest rental car. But then, he noticed that the weather was nice and a 20-minute walk would be excellent. So he walked back, but more often than not, we simply act out of habit. Thea-Liis Pae gave advice on how to change your attitude: if you think about your trip as a journey and do not focus on arrival, you will also consider more alternative modes of transportation. In other words, if you goal is not simply arriving at your destination as quickly as possible, you will also notice fine weather for a walk and enjoyable trails in a park as well as an opportunity to read a book or meditate on public transportation. A more straightforward idea was also mentioned: if owning a car becomes more expensive, people will own less cars.
Let us transform linear economy into a circular one
Anders Wijkman pointed out that there is an increasing number of entrepreneurs who are working on decreasing their environmental footprint; however, policies could lead to greater strides here as well. ‘We talk about buying less, but purchases make the biggest contribution towards the profits of companies. We need a higher tax on goods with a larger environmental impact,’ he explains. He emphasised that the role of politicians is to look further than the energy sector because climate regulations do not have an effect without limiting the use of materials. The global effect of a single country is too small; however, the European Union is a large enough market and society and any changes in it would have a world-wide effect. ‘We should take a leap of faith, set out regulations, and the majority of the world would follow,’ Wijkman called for action.
During the discussion on circular economy, it was pointed out that the consumer societies of the western countries strongly affect poorer communities in a number of ways in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
One of the aspects is underpaying workers – if the miners in Africa were paid fair wages for their labour, then a smart phone would cost 15,000 euros. If this is the price that we would have to pay, then we would be highly motivated to use our phones longer and remove all elements from the devices after we are done using them. Einar Karu from UpCatalyst remarked that while manufacturing new devices is easier and cheaper than recycling old ones, production of new devices is going to continue. By the way, UpCatalyst uses greenhouse gases for producing carbon nanomaterials and won the start-up contest at the conference.
The second issue is the environment: if we reuse the materials that have already been brought here, then we do not have to expand mines, for example. The third issue of a consumer society is waste: the West sends their textile and electronic waste to Africa, using the continent as its personal waste dump. In Africa, large mountains of electronic waste are burned to extract metals and the rest is released into the atmosphere as black smoke or seeps into the earth through dirt.
The other side of the coin is that mining natural resources and removing valuable components from western waste is a source of income for these regions. It is the responsibility of the wealthy West to help them find a better source of income and make smart investments. Tony Hand, EU Climate Pact Ambassador, emphasised that local resources must benefit local people and economies in responsible economic systems; however, the majority of African mines are owned by rich countries.
Kaupo Heinma added the notion of circular society to the discussion, and Ines Karu-Salo from ReWear Company stated that the circulation of materials is only one aspect, we also need sustainable business models. ‘Instead of competing for profit, we should compete for a better future,’ she challenged entrepreneurs. The expectations and demands of the consumers are also forcing companies to adopt sustainable methods.
What should we do? Stefan Nilsson from Foxway proposed three steps to the IT sector for reducing the effect of current processes: maximise the life span of products with proper maintenance, double the use of products with rentals instead of personal devices, and reuse at least half of the components of products. We need to shift our focus from recycling waste to restoration and reuse; i.e. we should put everything to as much use as possible before recycling. This helps solve another problem – digital inequality. If we were to collect all old devices and turn them into new ones, there would be enough sustainable technology for everyone to own or rent.
According to Kaupo Heinma, we are already changing direction to earning profit from renting, not from production. Renting is already finding its place in mobility, the electronics sector, and industry. The discussion on circular economy led to a fascinating idea of ‘material as a service’. For example, a copper miner could lease their copper to someone who turns it into a product and leases it to a user. After the lifespan of a product ends, copper and other resources and elements are removed and returned to owners.
So by the end of the conference, we developed a concept of a new economic model where both the environment and the consumer win. If we could only let go of the desire to own everything.
*In accordance with the Paris Agreement signed by the European countries in 2016, the increase in the average global temperature is going to be kept well below 2 °C compared to the level before the industrial revolution and all efforts are made for limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 °C. According to the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published this winter, the average air temperature of the earth increases by 1.5 °C by the early 2030s. Compared to the pre-industrial period, the climate has already warmed by 1.1 °C and the results indicate that global warming has accelerated over the last few years.