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Country profile (Estonia)

What distinguishes the country?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011



Estonia is located on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, being the northernmost of the three Baltic States. Estonia is one of Europe’s smallest countries, its total area being only 45 227 km2.

Estonia is a lowland country. Only southern Estonia is known for its hillocks and ”curved” landscape with plains in the north and west and hills in the southeast. The highest point — Suur Munamägi (Great Egg Hill) in the southeast - is only 318 m above sea level.

About one half of Estonia’s mainland is covered with forests. Wooded meadows in Estonia are among the most species-rich plant communities in the world as measured by the number of vascular plant species per one square metre. Peatlands account for about 22 % of the territory.

Estonia has the world's largest exploited deposits of oil-shale, which provide raw materials for power production and chemical industry. Of other mineral resources, Estonia has limestone and dolomite, but also sand, gravel and clay (Map 1).

Map 1. Distribution of mineral resource extraction permit areas according to county in 2008

Map 1. Distribution of mineral resource extraction permit areas according to county in 2008. Data: Land Board.


Climate and weather

Estonia is located within a transition zone from maritime to continental climate. The active cyclonic activity of the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean makes the weather very variable, causes strong winds, high precipitation and fluctuations in temperature and the Baltic Sea causes significant differences between the climate of coastal and inland areas. As mentioned, Estonia is very small by area, but at the same time temperatures may vary 20 °C, e.g. + 10 °C on islands and -10 °C in inland areas. Due to the climate conditions and latitude the average annual temperature in Estonia is only +5 °C and Estonia also has a great seasonal variation in daylight. Because of that, people in Estonia need extra electricity and heating during most of the year, from September until May.

Due to rather high precipitation (about 630 mm/year), the need for  irrigation  is much less significant than in the southern European countries.



Estonia is home to about 1 340 415 people (1 January 2009), making it one of Europe’s smallest countries in terms of population as well as in terms of area. In the EU, only Cyprus, Malta and Luxembourg have smaller populations. Similar to Finland and Sweden, Estonia’s population density is one of Europe’s lowest – 31.2 per/km2.

The proportion of urban population is 70 % (1.01.2008) and of rural population 30 %. Estonia’s main cities are small. About one-third or about 400 000 inhabitants of the total population live in the biggest city, the capital Tallinn. The other main cities are Tartu with approximately 98 000 and Narva with approximately 65 000 inhabitants.

Figure 1. Population in 1970–2008. Data: Statistics Estonia.



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What have been the major societal developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Transformation from communist to democratic system

Estonia was under three successive foreign occupations from 1940–1991. Before WWII, Estonia was economically successful, mainly an agricultural country. For 50 years, Estonia was part of the Soviet centrally planned economy which included nationalised farms, enterprises and existing industries. In the same way as in other parts of the Soviet Union, resource-intense industries were established. The main industrial areas became Tallinn and the East-Viru county (bordering Russia). Migrant workers and also raw materials for the industries were brought in.

Since its regained independence in 1991, Estonia and other Baltic states have made serious economic and socio-political reforms. Estonia is a parliamentary republic with 15 counties and over 200 administrative units with local government. Since 1991 Estonia’s transition to liberal market economy began. Economic growth began in 1995, declined in 1999 and started to grow again in 2000. In 2006, Estonian economy was one of the fastest growing in the world: the GDP real growth was 6.3 % in 2007 and 10.4 % in 2006. The growth in consumption and production has also resulted in increased use of environmental resources and waste generation.


The legal basis for the environmental legislation system

The legal basis for the environmental legislation system lies in the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, which entered into force in 1992. By the mid-1990s, most legal acts needed to regulate the use of natural resources, environmental protection and spatial planning. In 1997, the first Estonian Environmental Strategy was approved by the Parliament and was followed by National Environmental Action Plan. At present Estonia has an Environmental Strategy 2030. The Estonian National Strategy on Sustainable Development is focused on long-term sustainable development in Estonian state and society until 2030.


EU accession

Estonia became member of the EU in 2004. Estonia agreed to take over all the EU environmental acquis by the date of accession, with the exception of some directives for which transitional periods were agreed for Estonia.


Read more:

  • Environmental damage caused by the Soviet occupation: (2006). Editor Anto Raukas. Tallinn: Estonian Encyclopaedia Publishers.
  • Past pollution of the Soviet Army in Estonia and its Liquidation (Summary in English p.120–129) (1999). Tallinn: The Ministry of the Environment.
  • Estonian Environmental Strategy 2030

What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Energy production

The main pressure on the Estonian environment is caused by the oil shale-based energy production, but also by transport and agriculture. Estonia has the largest accessible oil shale deposits in the world. Over 80 % of the oil shale mined is used for the production of electricity and heat. Over 90 % of electricity is produced from local oil shale. It is also used for the production of fuel oil, petroleum coke, pitch, bitumen. Oil shale-based energy production is very resource intense. Despite new technologies used and efforts to make oil shale power industry more effective, it is still the main source of pollution: e.g. 93 % of all the emissions of SO2, 41 % of nitrogen oxide emissions and 75 % of GHG came from the energy sector. From 2003–2007 the oil shale and power industry produced 72 % of Estonia’s total waste. Over 95 % of hazardous waste resulted from energy and fuel oil production.

Compared to other EU Member States, Estonia has more pollutant emissions per capita and these levels are above EU average. However, if SO2, NOx and NH3 emissions in general are considered, then it forms only 0.5 % of EU emissions.

Figure 2. Energy production and consumption. Data: Statistics Estonia. * Consumed directly without transformation to other types of energy.



Besides the energy and industry sectors, transport is another source of pollution in Estonia. Road transport causes the main share of pollution emissions. The number of motor vehicles increased 1.5 times from 1990–2007 and there were 622 000 vehicles in Estonia in 2007.

The share of more than ten-year old cars has decreased from 72 % to 58 %. In 2007, 32 % of nitrogen oxides (NOx), 15 % of volatile organic compounds, 25 % of carbon monoxide (CO) and 4 % of heavy metals resulted from road transport in 2007.

Figure 3. Transport and the environment.

Figure 3. Transport and the environment. Data: Statistics Estonia, EEIC.



The share of agriculture in the Estonian economy has declined compared to the mid-1990s and its competitiveness is below the EU average. However, a significant share of food products consumed in Estonia are locally grown or produced. Agricultural production is the main activity in Estonian rural areas. Besides food production, the agricultural sector provides employment in rural Estonia and has created a man-made environment.


Residual pollution

The Soviet era left Estonia with residue pollution, which developed due to the mining of mineral resources, soil improvement, careless storing and processing of oil-shale products and forced agricultural activities. Also large-scale groundwater pollution was caused due to military activity. With the end of the Soviet era, resource and energy intense industry, environmental pollution also declined considerably.

Many residue pollution objects go unnoticed until they reach wells, sewage or water bodies. Hazardous landfilled waste or soil pollution is discovered during excavation works.

There are over 30 old asphalt concrete factories not yet treated on the list of residual pollution objects. Thousands of tonnes of waste oil in unstable tanks is the main environmental danger there and may pose a threat to surrounding ground and surface water.


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What are the foreseen developments?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Estonian nature and its key biotopes, which have been left untouched by human activities, may become endangered by intense logging, real-estate development, road construction and increasing extraction of mineral resources. Fragmentation of habitats has a negative impact on biodiversity.

Also the resource-intense power industry will continue to have an impact on Estonia’s environment.

In recent years, there have been public debates on whether Estonia should build a nuclear power plant in order to secure its future energy production. Focus needs to be shifted to making energy production more effective and on the use of more renewable energy sources. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby alleviate climate change, the objective of the Estonian Environmental Strategy 2030 is to bring about, by 2015, an increase in the share of electricity for domestic consumption produced from renewable sources to at least 8 %; and, by 2020, the share of electricity produced in combined heat and power plants should increase to at least 20 %. The percentages currently achieved are still quite low. The amount of electricity from renewable energy grows each year, but in 2007, renewable electricity made up 1.5 % of total consumption, which is about 19 % of the objective set for 2015.

Figure 4. Share of electricity produced from renewable energy and co-generation process in total electricity consumption

Figure 4. Share of electricity produced from renewable energy and co-generation process in total electricity consumption. Data: Statistics Estonia.


  • Estonian Environmental Strategy 2030


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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