Estonia’s Supreme Court Delivers Landmark Verdict in Favor of Climate Activists

In a historic moment for climate advocacy within Estonia, the nation’s Supreme Court has issued a landmark ruling, affirming a lawsuit filed by climate activists affiliated with Fridays for Future Estonia. The lawsuit’s central aim was to revoke a construction permit for a contentious shale oil refinery project, notorious for its potential contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This decision by the Supreme Court marks the country’s inaugural climate-related lawsuit and mandates an immediate cessation of construction activities at the disputed site in northeastern Estonia.

The Supreme Court’s verdict hinged primarily on significant shortcomings in the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA). The state-owned energy entity, Enefit, owns the project in question. Of particular concern was the substantial underestimation of the project’s repercussions on a bird sanctuary, an integral part of the EU-wide Natura 2000 network. Furthermore, deficiencies in evaluating the refinery’s wastewater, contaminated with phenol, and its environmental implications were flagged as inadequacies in the EIA. Additionally, the court found that the potential environmental consequences of the refinery on Estonia’s greenhouse gas emissions had been insufficiently deliberated.

Nevertheless, the court did recognize that, at the time when the building permit was initially issued, the permitting authority’s consideration of the project’s climate impact was deemed “justifiable.” This issue constituted a central point of contention in the lawsuit spearheaded by Fridays for Future. During that period, the EU’s climate objective was to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Estonia’s parliament had even set more ambitious targets, striving for a 70 percent reduction in climate gas emissions from the energy sector by 2030, with additional reductions in the ensuing decades.

The ruling is not expected to halt construction activities entirely but will likely result in significant delays. Enefit intends to address the court’s concerns and seek a fresh construction permit. However, Fridays for Future Estonia perceives an opportunity in the plant’s future operating license, which would necessitate adherence to prevailing, more stringent climate targets rather than the standards set in 2019.

Supreme Court Justice Heiki Loot has indicated skepticism regarding the plant’s alignment with the current, more rigorous climate targets. Kertu Birgit Anton of Fridays for Future Estonia echoed this sentiment, stating that even if a new building permit were to be granted, securing an operating license would be a formidable challenge, potentially leading to further legal confrontations.

Beyond the immediate ramifications of this case, the Supreme Court’s ruling carries far-reaching implications. It obligates the Estonian government to fulfill its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement and establish a “realistic and legally binding phased and sectoral emission allocation plan” to attain climate neutrality expeditiously. Estonia currently lacks a comprehensive climate law, a circumstance that has fueled the ongoing debate regarding the future of the oil shale industry within the country.

Oil shale has historically served as a substantial source of electricity production in Estonia, covering approximately half of the nation’s electricity generation, with last year’s share reaching 57 percent. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most environmentally taxing and inefficient methods of generating electricity from fossil fuels. Estonia’s trade balance heavily relies on electricity exports and refined oil shale products, and many jobs in the economically vulnerable northeast region are intricately tied to this industry.

The Supreme Court’s decision has placed a spotlight on the delicate equilibrium between economic interests and environmental concerns, compelling Estonia to chart a course toward a more sustainable and climate-conscious future. This ruling underscores the escalating influence of climate activism in shaping environmental policies and legal precedents within the nation, serving as an exemplar for other countries grappling with analogous challenges in their pursuit of climate action.

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