Estonia country briefing - The European environment — state and outlook 2015

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
7 min read
Photo: © Arne Ader

Main themes and sectors addressed in the national State of Environment report

Estonian Environmental Reviews are published by the Estonian Environment Agency (formerly known as the Estonian Environment Information Centre). Based on the Aarhus Convention, the Sustainable Development Act, the Public Information Act, the Environmental Register Act, and other acts, Environmental Reviews are compiled every four years. The first review was published in 1989 and the most recent one in 2013. The Estonian Environmental Review 2013[1] addresses the following areas:

  • Socio-economic background
  • Natural resources
  • Weather patterns and climate change
  • Waste
  • Ambient air quality
  • Changes in land use and urban ecology
  • Biological diversity
  • The environment and health
  • Environmental management tools

A more targeted and concentrated overview of the state of environment exists in the form of environmental indicator reviews. Environmental indicator reviews have been compiled three times: in 2007, 2009 and 2012[2].

Key findings of the State of Environment report 

The economic downturn that began in 2008 decreased consumption and production, thus also decreasing environmental pressures. However, these pressures have started to increase as the economy recovered. The challenge now is to ensure human well-being with less waste generation and more sustainable use of resources and without placing an excessive burden on the environment.

Oil shale-based energy production provides energy independence to Estonia, but it is very resource intensive. Noteworthy progress has been made by increasing the share of renewable energy in final energy consumption (Figure 1)[3]. The Estonian Environmental Strategy 2030 foresees the more extensive introduction of renewable energy and combined-heat-and-power plants. By 2020, the share of renewable energy should reach 25% of final consumption. The main sources of renewable energy are biomass, wind and hydropower.

Figure 1. Share of renewable energy in final energy consumption and share of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, 2004–2012

Source: Statistics Estonia[3]

The nature conservation status of both species and habitats of European concern has improved over the past five years – more than half of both species and habitats in Estonia are in favourable conservation status today. According to the Red List, 3% of all species registered in Estonia are endangered.

Areas with peat formation cover 22% of Estonia's territory, with open mires and bogs accounting for 5.5%; and the remaining 17% being composed of paludified forests, grasslands and degraded bogs. Natural and semi-natural meadows (those that are not intensively managed) cover about 2.5% of Estonia. 35.6% of these meadows have a high nature-conservation value. The average age of forests is decreasing and their structure as habitats is shifting away from being natural. This has resulted in the decline of species characteristic of old-growth forest ecosystems. 

The majority of the population in Estonia consume good-quality, safe drinking water. The quality of water continues to improve as new water treatment plants are built and pipes are repaired and reconstructed. Estonia has sufficient freshwater resources. The main reason for the deterioration of waterbodies is eutrophication and hydromorphological changes (amelioration, impoundment of water bodies by dams, and alteration of the water regime).

The environmental condition of small lakes is mostly good. The reason that roughly one third of Estonia's lakes are in moderate status according to the Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the presence of nutrient concentrations and phytoplankton[4]. Approximately 70% of Estonia's rivers are at least in 'good' ecological status, although nitrogen concentrations are increasing in streams that drain agricultural areas.

Continuous monitoring of ambient air has shown that the quality of air is good. Emissions of SO2, NOx, NH3, heavy metals (Pb, Cd and Hg), and other pollutants have decreased during the period 1990-2012. Emissions of SO2 decreased by 85.2% in this period[5]. The changes were caused by the restructuring of the economy in the early 1990s, which significantly reduced the amount of electricity consumed by industry. The use of local fuels (including wood, and oil-shale oil with a lower sulphur content compared to heavy fuel oil) and natural gas has been increasing since 1993. In the same period, the use of heavy fuel oil in the production of thermal energy has reduced. Due to energy security concerns, proportion of natural gas has remained small in Estonian energy mix. Recent developments in Estonian biogas sector have increased the share of locally sourced biogas used for electricity and heat production[6]

Estonia assumed the obligation to decrease annual SO2 emissions from oil-shale power plants to 25 000 tons by 2012. Unique desulphurisation systems were installed on four generating units of the Estonian power plants and the goal was met[7]. Emissions of NOx and ammonia have dropped by 56% between 1990 and 2012. Emissions of particulate matter and lead decreased by 90% and 84% respectively in the same period.

The effects of climate change are less extreme in Estonia than in many other countries. Nevertheless, there could still be changes in weather patterns such as temperature and rainfall changes, storms, and resulting floods. The main contributor of greenhouse gases is CO2 from the oil shale-fuelled energy sector.

Main policy responses to key environmental challenges and concerns

In the period 2007–2011, over 85% of all waste was generated by the industrial sector, with 79% of total waste comprising waste from the oil-shale industry and energy sector (including hazardous waste) (Figure 2)[8]. However, the oil-shale industry is seeking ways to recover and reduce waste. The wood and cement industries also generate large volumes of waste, but most of that is recovered. 

Figure 2. Generation and recovery of waste, 2000-2012

Source: Estonian Environment Agency, Waste Data Management System[8]

While 20% of total waste was recovered in 2005, in the following five years the recovery rate was 33%. In 2011, waste recovery reached 55%, which was mostly a result of the increased recovery of oil-shale mining waste. In that year, the semi-coke landfills were closed and pitch lakes containing the waste from oil production were filled with mine waste (e.g. crushed limestone). Besides, in 2011 several large-scale road construction projects were launched in which mine waste was used as an embankment filling material.

The pollution charge for depositing oil-shale mining waste and waste from mineral dressing is on the increase. Therefore, for the past five years, there has been a greater focus on increasing the share of recovered waste. As a result of this focus, several powerful stone-crushing plants have been established. About 90% of the mine waste generated by companies was recovered in 2011 and 2012, which accounted for 70% of all recycled waste.

The main sources of ambient air pollution are transport, the combustion of oil shale for energy, and wood combustion in the residential sector. Air pollution policy has increasingly focused on particulates and their fractions. The exceedance of limit values for PM10 has regularly been registered in the centre of Tallinn city[9], although a significant decrease has been observed in concentrations in recent years. 

The majority of Estonia's coastal waters are in moderate status. Haapsalu Bay is an exception: it's ecological status is considered to be poor[10]. Although Haapsalu's modern wastewater treatment facility was completed in 1998, pollution accumulated in bottom sediments still has an effect due to the shallowness of the bay and poor water exchange. The conditions of Lake Peipsi are deteriorating and it is classified as being of moderate status[11]. In general, approximately 34% of monitored water bodies are considered as being in moderate status or worse[12]. Therefore, during the next Water Management Plan period (2016-2021), the application of water-protection measures should be enforced. 

Estonia has had good success lately in building modern wastewater treatment plants and in modernising industry so as to diminish pollution. However, the country still has to clean land and sediments contaminated with hazardous substances and fertilisers, as well as deal with the impact of historical drainage systems.        

Country specific issues

Estonia has great potential for sustainable tourism in nature i.e. eco-tourism. People have started to make more sustainable choices, and spending time in nature is growing in popularity. Nature tourism is organised by the State Forest Management Centre (RMK). Besides managing state forests, RMK offers active leisure opportunities by managing a national forest recreation infrastructure that includes 13 recreational core areas and a total of 2 000 km of nature trails[13].

Forward-looking scenarios envision Estonia as a country that is based on sustainable agriculture and forestry[1]. Pollinators, whose numbers have been depleted by intensive farming and the use of pesticides, are among the chief beneficiaries of organic farming.

Estonia's status as a small, highly urbanised, and very sparsely populated country –  but one which still has remarkably untouched nature – is a good basis for a sustainable, ecosystem-based economy in balance with nature.                


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


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