Bearing Witness climate storytellers gear up for fresh Fiji challenge

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Bearing Witness climate storytellers gear up for fresh Fiji challenge

Postgraduate students Blessen Tom (left) and Hele Ikimotu talking about the Bearing Witness climate project on the Pacific Media Watch programme Southern Cross on Radio 95bFM yesterday. Image: David Robie/PMC

By Jean Bell in Auckland

Two postgraduate students on the Pacific Media Centre’s Bearing Witness climate change project are due to jet to Fiji this weekend.

Journalism student Hele Ikimotu and screen production student Blessen Tom will be heading on a two-week climate change mission to the main island of Viti Levu where they will be interviewing local people who are directly affected by the devastating effects of climate change in the Pacific.

Ikimotu and Tom will be searching for stories, interviewing people directly affected by climate change and reporting directly for Asia Pacific Report and other media.

Using the University of the South Pacific as a base, the two postgraduate students will work closely with the USP journalism programme newspaper Wansolwara.  They will also be working with the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD) to report on climate change stories and issues.

Both Ikimotu and Tom bear a close connection to the impact climate change is wreaking on the Pacific region and wider world.

Ikimotu is from Kiribati and his passion for the Bearing Witness project is drawn from his close connection to the Pacific region.


Ikimotu said: “Kiribati is one of the most affected countries by climate change and climate change issues. I have a special connection to the issues these communities are going through because it’s my family that’s being affected.

‘Genuine passion’
“I wanted to be a part of this project as I have a genuine passion for climate change and climate change issues.”

Likewise, Tom has a strong link to the consequences of climate change due to the impact it is having on his family’s agriculture business in his homeland of India.

Tom said: “For me, climate change is a very personal subject. I come from a family who for generations has depended on agriculture as our main income.

“This project is really important to me because just like in my country, people in the Pacific Islands are really suffering.

“Climate change real for us. We experience it in a really bad way right now, when you think about our income from agriculture, we can’t survive on it.”

Both Ikimotu and Tom bear a strong commitment to sharing the stories of the Pacific peoples, which they say are not being covered adequately by mainstream media.

Ikimotu said: “I feel that mainstream media aren’t doing enough to report on climate change.”

Local stories
“I think a project like ‘bearing witness’ gives a platform for climate change to be reported on genuinely and passionately, and give opportunities to locals to tell their story.”

“The Bearing Witness project gives us the opportunity to share that with a wider audience, both in the Pacific in and New Zealand.”

“Rather than just talking about the need for change, I want to be a part of that change,” said Ikimotu.

Tom also highlights the unclear way mainstream media reports on climate change.

Tom said: “Mainstream media gives a lot of statistics and details that people don’t understand. So bearing witness is a stage where we can tell stories in a really creative way, so people will be interested in climate change and then they can act against these things we do to nature.”

Ikimotu said: “Bearing Witness is a great opportunity for us as journalists to be at the forefront of climate change and to see first hand what these communities are going through, and hopefully spark a discussion around what needs to be done to tackle the issue.

“It also emphasises the need for journalists to be reporting on climate change.”

Partners praised
PMC director Professor David Robie, who initiated the project in 2015, praised the support from the partners, USP Journalism, PaCE-SD and AUT’s Te Ara Motuhenga documentary collective.

“They have helped make this experiential journalism and doco-making project possible and we hope it will grow in future years.

“Last year, our Bearing Witness team students won the Dart Journalism Award for trauma journalism, so it is a tremendous creative and learning opportunity facing one of the world’s most urgent challenges.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Article by

France committed to backing ePOP Pacific climate storytelling

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: France committed to backing ePOP Pacific climate storytelling

French Ambassador to Fiji Sujiro Seam takes a selfie with ePOP participants at the University of the South Pacific last week. Image: Wansolwara News

By Elizabeth Osifelo in Suva

The French government is committed to the fight against climate change in the Pacific and hopes programmes such as the eParticipatory Observers Project (ePOP) will shed light on the impact of this global phenomenon in the region.

Ambassador of France to Fiji Sujiro Seam made the assurance during a visit to the journalism newsroom at the University of the South Pacific in Suva last week to observe the progress made at the conclusion of an ePOP workshop, which focused on producing short videos about the perceptions and impact of climate and environmental changes on Pacific Island populations.

Seam said ePOP targeted young people and gave them an opportunity to share stories on climate change and environmental issues taking place in their communities.

“I am very happy that we have this programme because it is not only beneficial for the youth but it also focuses on climate change,” he said.

“Since COP21 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, France tries to stay at the forefront of this fight against climate change.

“With the ePOP training, there are some good tools for the participants’ personal development and their professional career.


“I think it is important today to master these techniques and knowhow to tell a story in different formats.”

French actors
Seam said it was also appropriate for him as Ambassador of France in Suva to support the initiative which was designed and led by French actors.

Ten students from USP, including a group of journalism students, were part of the four-day intensive training ePOP workshop which enabled them to maximise their reach through video storytelling and develop a brand narrative across multiple social media platforms.

One of the training facilitators was Julien Pain, former editor-in-chief of France24’s Observers, a citizen journalism project he set up in 2007. Prior to that, Pain was head of the new media desk at the Paris-based global media freedom agency Reporters Without Borders.

ePOP is a concept imagined by RFI Planète Radio (France Media Monde Group) and developed with the IRD (National French Research institute for Sustainable Development), in collaboration with many partners including the PIDF (Pacific Island Development Forum), L’Office des postes et télécommunications (OPT) in New Caledonia, the Fondation Expéditions Tara, la Fondation de France , la Fondation des Alliances françaises et l’Organisation internationale de la francophonie (OIF).

Two Auckland University of Technology students, Hele Ikimotu and Blessen Tom, are travelling to Fiji later this month on the Pacific Media Centre’s Bearing Witness climate change project and will be working with USP students and staff.

Elizabeth Osifelo is a final year student journalist at the University of the South Pacific.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Article by

A timely climate media strategy to empower citizens

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: A timely climate media strategy to empower citizens

BOOKS: By David Robie, editor of Pacific Journalism Review

At the time of reviewing this important and timely book, Hurricane Irma had just ripped a trail of unprecedented destruction from Antigua, Barbuda and Saint Barthélemy in the eastern Caribbean to Florida with at least 81 deaths.

Florida involved one of the largest mass evacuations in US history, with nearly 7 million people being warned to seek shelter elsewhere. Seventy percent of Miami lost electricity at the height of the storm.

And Irma in turn had followed on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated a large swathe of Texas. This was the first major hurricane to hit US soil in more than a dozen years.

Seventy-one fatalities and more than US$70 billion in damage. Two wrecking storms of such destructive force hitting the US mainland in less than a fortnight. Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump dismissed any link between climate change and the two hurricanes.

“We’ve had bigger storms than this,” he snorted, even though earlier he had “marvelled” at their historic size.

The catastrophic category 5 Hurricane Irma sparked an analysis of media responses by Carbon Brief and a forensic examination of the science of climate and Atlantic hurricanes. Citing three climate specialists in particular, the website concluded: ‘The strongest hurricanes have gotten stronger because of global warming’ (Multiple authors, 2017).


Florida’s global warming denier governor Rick Scott weathered criticism after the devastation to his state by still refusing to say—as he had done for seven years since he was first elected in 2010—if he believes man-made climate change is real (Caputo, 2017).

Rather ironic
This is all rather ironic given that at the time of completing Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives, the co-authors were writing in the context of massive wildfire ravages in the Canadian city of Fort McMurray—epicentre of one of the world’s most controversial energy mega-projects, the Alberta tar sands—and, on the other side of the globe, aggressive wildfires were savaging Australia with sharply increasing frequency and intensity.

Just a few years earlier, in 2009, 173 people had perished in the “Black Saturday” bushfires that engulfed the community of Kinglake in the state of Victoria. Disturbing coral bleaching was also damaging Australia’s popular tourist attraction Great Barrier Reef off the Queensland coast.

Noting that the reality of anthropogenic climate challenge can no longer be ignored, this book warns that neither can the “responsibility of journalism to inform, motivate and empower citizens to engage with the problem” (p. 2)

Journalism and Climate Crisis seeks to disrupt the status quo of the way climate change is reported in much of the world, especially Anglo countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, and to offer strategies for community empowerment, action and hope in the digital age.

While much of the mainstream media, compromised as they are through their declining commercial models, offer little scope for change, the co-authors offer many examples of active communication success, mostly through alternative media.

The four co-authors are uniquely qualified for this collaborative volume. Robert A. Hackett is professor of communication at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and as a co-founder of NewsWatch Canada, and has been a leading writer on environmental and peace journalism models. He also contributed an issue-defining article in the July 2017 edition of Pacific Journalism Review on climate change and critical media models.

Susan Forde is director of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research and associate professor of journalism at Griffith University, Australia, and whose books include Challenging the News on alternative media. Shane Gunster is a colleague of Hackett at Simon Fraser University, where he is an associate professor in the School of Communication. Kerrie Foxwell-Norton is senior lecturer in journalism and media studies at Griffith University and a co-author of Developing Dialogue.

‘Normative touchstones’
The book is divided into seven chapters as well as an introduction to journalism models for climate crisis and a conclusion written by the co-authors. The first chapter is on Democracy, Climate Crisis and Journalism, looking at “normative touchstones”, followed by a chapter on Engaging Climate Communication, which examines audiences, frames, values and norms. The third chapter deals with Environmental Protest, Politics and Media Interactions.

Chapter four From Frames to Paradigms offers an in-depth comparative analysis of civic (or public) journalism, peace journalism and alternative media. This is followed by a British Columbia case study on Contesting Conflict with an examination of advocacy and alternative media in that province.

Chapter six analyses Australian independent news media and climate change in the context of COP21 when the historic Paris Agreement was forged. The final chapter looks at a Guardian Australia case study to demonstrate alternative approaches to environmental coverage. The conclusion offers a strategy for ‘media reform for climate action’.

Writing about “ordinary journalism in extraordinary times”, the authors argue that the conglomerates that “increasingly dominate media ownership are maximising short-term profits, stripping assets and disinvesting in news and thus have declining capacity and inclination to face up to the challenges of climate crisis”. Mirroring the arguments of McChesney and Nichols, for example, the authors state:

Working journalists are faced with tighter deadlines, heavier workloads, multiplatform demands, a 24/7 news hole to fill and a broader palette of topics to report. The result is predictable: fewer beat [rounds] reporters with specialised expertise, less investigative or accountability journalism, more pressure to act like stenographers, reporting competing claims rather than assessing their respective validity (p. 4).

However, the problem does not end there. It goes beyond the “crisis of journalism’s business model—Climate Crisis journalism faces additional barriers of institutional structure, class power and ideology”. Citing Naomi Klein’s argument for taking climate change seriously, they reaffirm the need for a positive role for government, a strengthened public sector and collective action—which is precisely why conservative political forces, especially in North America and Australia, prefer not to take it seriously.

The co-authors argue that journalism needs to rethink its mission to cover urgent political issues such as climate change. The problem is less about the informed citizen, and much more about empowering the public to be engaged. They are highly critical of how “elite media” in Australia and the US, for example, have privileged denialist opinion and vested interests, blaming them for widespread misinformation and disengagement. This is contrasted with Western Europe’s “vibrant and pluralistic” media systems.

The co-authors draw from the Christians et al. (2009) model of four normative democratic roles for journalism in their search for answers. While they critique the limited effectiveness of the traditional monitoring and the watchdog function of the media (and institutional biases of “objectivity”), they propose the facilitative role seeking to improve the quality of public life and the radical role foregrounding social injustice and abuses of power as being more helpful for climate crisis strategies. They give less emphasis to the collaborative role “in support for broader and dominant social purposes”, but this latter category is important in many developing countries, such as in the Pacific.

Their concluding and positive message is that global media reformers and environmentalists have a strong basis for common ground in seeking public support for alternative media and independent journalism as key pillars of democracy and climate communication.

Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives, edited by Robert A. Hackett, Susan Forde, Shane Gunster and Kerrie Foxwell-Norton. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. 2017. 204 pages. ISBN 978-1-1389-5039-9. This review was first published by Pacific Journalism Review.

Full references

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Article by

Tiny Timbulsloko fights back in face of Indonesia’s ‘ecological disaster’

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Tiny Timbulsloko fights back in face of Indonesia’s ‘ecological disaster’

Drone views of the village of Timbulsloko showing the scale of coastal erosion and sinking flatlands in an area that once used to to be rice fields on the edge of the Central Java city of Semarang. Mangroves are being rapidly re-established. Drone footage source: CoREM. Video: David Robie’s Café Pacific

By David Robie in Semarang, Indonesia

A vast coastal area of the Indonesian city of Semarang, billed nine months ago by a national newspaper as “on the brink of ecological disaster”, is fighting back with a valiant survival strategy.

Thanks to a Dutch mangrove restoration programme and flexible bamboo-and-timber “eco” seawalls, some 70,000 people at risk in the city of nearly two million have some slim hope for the future.

An area that was mostly rice fields and villages on the edge of the old city barely two decades ago has now become “aquatic” zones as flooding high tides encroach on homes.

Onetime farmers have been forced to become fishermen.

Villagers living in Bedono, Sriwulan, Surodadi and Timbulsloko in Demak regency and urban communities in low-lying parts of the city are most at risk.


Residents have been forced to raise their houses or build protective seawalls or be forced to abandon their homes when their floors become awash.

The lowland subsidence area in north Semarang leading to the volcanic Mt Urganan and Mt Muria/Medak.  Source: CoRem (UNDIP), 2017.

Environmental changes in Semarang have been blamed by scientists on anthropogenic and “natural” factors such as tidal and river flooding – known locally as rob, mangroves destruction since the 1990s, fast urban growth and extensive groundwater extraction.

Climate change
This has been compounded by climate change with frequent and extreme storms.

It has been a pattern familiar in many other low-lying coastal areas in Indonesia, such as the capital Jakarta and second-largest city Surabaya.

The Jakarta Post headline on 2 February 2017. Image: PMC

In February, The Jakarta Post reported that both Jakarta and Semarang faced environmental crises.

Citing Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) researcher Henny Warsilah, a graduate of Paris I-Sorbonne University in France, who measured the resilience of three coastal cities – Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya – the Post noted only Surabaya had built sufficient environmental and social resilience to face natural disasters.

Jakarta and Semarang, Warsilah said, “were not doing very well”. Although Surabaya was faring much better with its urban policies.

The National Geographic Indonesia banner headline in October 2017. Image: PMC

The fate of some five million people living in Indonesia’s at risk coastal areas – including Semarang — was also profiled in the Indonesian edition of National Geographic magazine last month under the banner headline “Takdir Sang Pesisis” – “The destiny of the coast”.

The introduction asked: “”The disappearance of the mangrove belt now haunts seaside residents. How can they respond to a disaster that is imminent?”

Ongoing reclamation
According to The Jakarta Post, Semarang “has ongoing reclamation projects in the northern part of the city, which threaten to submerge entire neighbourhoods in the next 20 years”.

Urban erosion and land subsidence in Semarang city. Note the raised house second from left, the other sinking dwellings on either side have been abandoned to the tidal waters. Image: David Robie/PMC

“The more [the city] is expanded, the more land will subside because the region is a former volcanic eruption zone, and it is a swamp area,” says Warsilah.

“With the progression of the reclamation projects, the land is not strong enough to withstand the pressure.”

With a team of international geologists and researchers attached to Semarang’s Center for Disaster Mitigation and Coastal Rehabilitation Studies (CoREM) at Diponegoro University, I had the opportunity to visit Timbulsloko village earlier this month to see the growing “crisis” first hand.

City planners might see the only option as the residents being forced to leave for higher ground, but there appear to be no plans in place for this. In any case, local people defiantly say they want to stay and will adapt to the sinking conditions.

An unnamed local shopkeeper who has three generations of her family living in her Timbulsloko home and she doesn’t want to leave in spite of the sea encroaching in her house. Image: David Robie/PMC

One woman, a local shopkeeper, who has a three-generations household in the village with water encroaching into her home at most high tides, says she won’t leave with a broad smile.

I talked to her through an interpreter as she sat with her mother and youngest daughter on a roadside bamboo shelter.

“I have lived here for a long time, and I am very happy with the situation. My husband has his work here as a fisherman,” she said.

A local storekeeper with her mother and youngest daughter – three generations live in her Timbulsloko village home. Video: David Robie’s Café Pacific.

‘We don’t want to leave’
“We live with the flooding and we don’t want to leave.”

A raised house at low tide in Timbulsloko. Image: David Robie/PMC

She also said there was no clear viable alternative for the people of the village – there was no plan by the local authorities for relocation.

Later, she showed me inside her house and how far the water flooded across the floors. Electrical items, such as a television, had to be placed on raised furniture. The children slept on high beds, and the adults clambered onto cupboards to get some rest.

The village has a school, community centre, a mosque and a church – most of these with a sufficiently high foundation to be above the seawater.

However, the salination means that crops and vegetables cannot grow.

The community cemetery is also awash at high tide and there have been reports of eroded graves and sometimes floating bodies to the distress of families.

Timbulsloko’s village cemetery. Video: David Robie’s Café Pacific

We were warned “don’t touch anything with your hands” as the flooding also causes a health hazard.

Research projects
The situation has attracted a number of research projects in an effort to find solutions to some of the problems, the latest being part of the 2017 World Class Professor (WCP) programme funded by the Indonesian government.

Two of the six professors on the University of Gadjah Mada’s WCP programme, in partnership with Diponegoro University, are working with local researchers at CoREM.

WCP programme professors Dr David Menier (centre) and Dr Magaly Koch (right) talk to CoREM director Dr Muhammad Helmi on the Timbulsloko village wharf, near Semarang. Image: David Robie/PMC

They are geologists Dr Magaly Koch, from the Centre for Remote Sensing at Boston University, US, and Dr David Menier, associate professor HDR at Université de Bretage-Sud, France, who are partnered with Dr Muhammad Helmi, also a geologist and director of CoREM, and Dr Manoj Mathew. Both Dr Mathew and Dr Menier are of LGO Laboratoire Géosciences Océan.

The stages of flooding in the Semarang study area. Source: Ramkumar & Menier (2017)

“At the regional scale, the rate of subsidence is related to the geological and geomorphological context. North Java is a coastal plain that is very flat, silty to muddy, influenced by offshore controlling factors (e.g., wave, longshore drifts, tidal currents, etc.) and monsoons, and surrounded by volcanoes,” explains Dr Menier.

Controlling factors along the Semarang coastline. Source: CoRem, (UNDIP)

“Locally, anthropogenic factors can play a serious role as well.”

He says that coastal plains are dynamic. However, human activities are fixed – “the first contradiction”.

“Humans want to control and continue their livelihood, and are reluctant to accept changes related to their own activities or natural factors.”

Dr Menier says the subsidence is due to many factors, but some key issues have never been studied.

On a long term scale, the active faults of the area need to be examined in a geodynamic context and also volcanic activity with Mt Urganan and Mt Muria/Medak.

“We need to have a better understanding of the age of the coastal plain in order to reconstruct the past, explain the present-day and predict the future,” he says.

“Colonisation in the 17th century-Dutch period probably led to destruction of ecosystems (mangrove) and fine sediment usually trapped by plants has been stopped.”

Dr Koch adds: “Subsidence rates and their spatial distribution along the coastal plain need to be studied in detail using InSAR techniques. Groundwater abstraction (using deep wells) is probably happening in the city of Semarang but not necessarily in Demak.”

Expanding mangroves protection at Timbulsloko, Demak regency. Image: David Robie/PMC

Mangrove restoration
Mangrove restoration and mitigation has been used successfully to restore coastal resilience and ecosystems in Timbulsloko.

While noting that “high failure rates are typical” due to wrong special being planted and other factors, Dr Dolfi Debrot, of a Dutch project consortium, argues “given the right conditions, mangrove recovery actually works best without planting at all.”

The consortium involves Witteveen+Bos, Deltares, EcoShape, Wetlands International, Wageningen University and IMARES.

However, community planting is also a strategy deployed in the lowland villages.

Mangroves revitalise aquaculture ponds for crab and shrimp farming.

A “growing land” technique borrowed from the muddy Wadden Sea in the Netherlands has also been used successfully at Timbulsloko and other villages.

Semi-permeable dams are built from bamboo or wooden poles packed with branches to “dampen wave action”. In time, a build up of sediment settles and allows mangroves to grow naturally.

CoREM director Dr Muhammad Helmi … praises the contribution of flexible “eco” seawalls. Image: David Robie/PMC

“These eco-engineering seawalls are better than the concrete fixed barriers,” says Dr Helmi. “The permanent seawalls in turn become eroded at their base and eventually fall over.”

Dr David Robie is on the WCP programme with Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Article by

Estonia’s high price of energy independence – ‘we have lost our wetlands, our streams’

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Estonia’s high price of energy independence – ‘we have lost our wetlands, our streams’

Article by

Estonia may lie a continent and an ocean away from the two biggest polluters in the world – China and the United States – but the nation cannot lay claim to climate innocence. Having mined oil shale for 100 years, Estonia now has energy independence, but it has come at a cost. Kendall Hutt investigates.

Celebrating 100 years of oil shale mining may represent a proud moment for Estonia, but this doesn’t compare to what the country has lost, many environmentalists say.

The backbone of Estonia’s electricity production may have allowed the Baltic nation to escape from beneath the Soviet yoke and become energy self-sufficient post-independence in 1991, but most observers remember that this has come at a cost: the environment.

“In terms of ecology it’s a total disaster. From the point of view of state economy this is something to be proud of,” says Professor Mait Sepp, research fellow in physical geography at the University of Tartu.

“We have lost our wetlands, we have lost our streams.”

Many of Estonia’s environmental organisations agree, with more than 15 percent (504.6 km²) of the country’s Ida-Virumaa region severely damaged by the oil shale industry.

Mihkel Annus of the Estonian Green Movement says the sector still stamps the largest ecological footprint on the nation, despite European Union (EU) regulations.

’40 years like a volcano’
Perhaps the greatest reminder of this footprint will be the country’s ash mountains, huge piles of solid hazardous waste that mar Estonia’s relatively flat landscape.

“These will probably stay as the remnants of our fossil-fuel dependent past for centuries from now, as well as the land that has been excavated and already been exhausted,” says Annus.

Soviet legacy: The ash mountain of an abandoned power plant just outside the former oil shale town of Kiviõli. Image: Lukas Rusk

Harmful to the environment due to the poisonous gases and various contaminants they emit into surface and groundwater, these mountains are not only viewed as an ecological disaster.

They have also dealt a blow to the country’s pockets.

It cost the government more than 36 million euros (about NZ$44.4 million) to close the infamous ash mountain in Kohtla-Järve, which stood approximately 170m above sea level before it was closed and made environmentally safe in 2015.

Hazardous giant: Kohtla-Järve’s infamous ash mountain, which the Ministry of the Environment says it had to “redo”. Image: Berit-Helena Lamp/Estonian Ministry of the Environment

Estonia’s current environmental headache is the Kukruse ash mountain, which one official from the Ida-Viru County government describes as a 40-year-old “volcano”.

Hardi Murula, head of development and planning for the county government, says they have been engaged in ongoing talks for the past three to four years on how best to “neutralise” the mountain, but that no consensus has been reached.

“No one can guarantee during the restoration process that the pollution can be stopped.”

The closure of ash mountains throughout Ida-Virumaa is largely seen as positive despite the challenges, with one of the mountains in the former oil shale town of Kiviõli converted into an adventure centre in a joint industry-government project.

Piret Väinsalu of the Estonian Fund for Nature says the restoration of land is rather impossible, however.

“You can try to restore it into something, but it will always be there as a ‘heritage of oil shale age’.”

The source of the Kiviõli Adventure Centre’s heat is its ash mountain, which a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment described as a “great example of using available resources”. Image: Lukas Rusk

Legacy pollution
But government, industry and environmentalists do not see eye-to-eye on the source of this environmental damage.

Minister of Environment Marko Pomerants says much of the environmental impact is related to “legacy pollution” of the Soviet-era.

“Fortunately, most of the major negative effects are a thing of the past and the current oil shale sector has remarkably reduced its harmful practices for the environment.”

He says environmental concerns today largely involve emissions, although these have decreased since 2002.

Timo Tatar, head of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication’s energy department, agrees.

“Talking about environmental damage, one can say, that oil shale environmental impact has significantly decreased due to heavy investments into new combustion technologies as well as emission control.”

Kiviõli Keemiatööstus: The last oil shale bastion in the town of Kiviõli. Image: Lukas Rusk A digger at work atop the suspected ash mountain of Kiviõli’s last remaining shale-chemical plant. Image: Lukas Rusk

Official 2014 data by the European Commission shows Estonia currently stands as the second highest emitter, per capita, of greenhouse gases in Europe, however, and its far from carbon-free history occupies a blight on their climate change record.

Although the EU’s Emissions Trading System allows the country to sell-off its emissions because they are lower than the country’s massive levels at 1990, things are far from rosy, especially in the wake of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.

In light of this, environmentalists Annus, Väinsalu, and their colleague Aleksei Lotman, a marine conservation expert with the Estonian Fund for Nature, do not share officials’ view.

Although they agree the oil shale industry is “very much less polluting” than it was 30 years ago, they say making oil shale “environmentally friendly” is not enough.

To call current improvements by the oil shale industry so is “over-optimistic to say the least”, Lotman says.

A question of commitment
They are therefore critical of industry and government and feel both have failed to act effectively.

Väinsalu, who serves as the Estonian coordinator for the international non-profit network EKOenergia in her role with the Estonian Fund for Nature, says the government does “just enough” to be on a good list for Estonia’s European partners, while it simultaneously supports oil shale interests by lobbying for greater industry exemptions.

“Instead of understanding the need to find an alternative route and exit the oil shale era our government just supports the industry in every way possible.”

Eesti Energia train: The main driver of oil shale operations, delivering millions of tonnes of oil shale to the Narva power plants per year. Image: Essi Lehto

Eesti Energia, Estonia’s state-owned energy enterprise, refutes such claims and says it has taken several steps to reduce the environmental impacts of its operations.

“Today we can produce more energy from oil shale than in the past with less environmental impact,” says Eesti Energia.

Eesti Energia says introductions in new technology have been responsible, although physical changes have also occurred.

Among these was the 2008 closure of the ash field at their Balti power plant near Narva, in Estonia’s east.

The project took three years to complete and resulted in 570ha being made safe for the environment.

In 2013, Eesti Energia’s sister company, Enefit, opened a 17-turbine wind park on the former ash field.

“Our main focus lies in replacing fossil fuels with cleaner fuels,” Eesti Energia says.

The company adds it already does so through its use of water, wind, and biomass.

Rock-and-a-hard-place: Estonia’s renewable capacity is hindered by its relatively flat topography. Image: Lukas Rusk

Annus, however, as a member of one of Estonia’s most influential environmental organisations, feels industry may not have been as cooperative as it makes out.

“Whether they would make their processes more environment-friendly voluntarily, is questionable.”

He says this is because the oil shale industry has been put under increasing pressure by tightening EU regulations.

“They have been forced to take action to meet the set concentration values of emissions, changing the technology of landfilling of solid and hazardous waste, limiting water pollution, and so on.”

Annus adds much of Estonia’s oil shale industry happens behind closed doors, which further calls into question their transparency.

“A lot of the region has also been blocked off from the public eye.”

“No, no way”: This was as far as one of my photographers and I could get to one of Eesti Energia’s oil shale operations near Viivikonna, eastern Estonia. Image: Essi Lehto

Kaja Peterson, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute Tallinn Centre’s (SEI Tallinn) climate and energy programme, says Eesti Energia has, in fact, been rather open.

“I think Eesti Energia has been very flexible because they reformed and created a new sister company, Enefit Renewable Energy.”

She points out, however, that Eesti Energia is gradually transitioning to renewables and oil shale, unfortunately, still forms the majority of their operations.

Fossil free future?
This seeming unwillingness on the part of officials to divest from oil shale has led to serious doubts about Estonia’s renewable future.

While the government and oil shale industry remain positive, environmentalists and researchers are sceptical.

They claim there is no direct investment or clear political will in renewables by the government, only some will to diversify.

“There have been measures to promote sustainable energy, but the indirect subsidies for fossil fuels have still been greater,” Annus emphasises.

Annus feels Estonia is lagging behind a large portion of their EU counterparts and trendsetters, while Tatar and Pomerants celebrate Estonia reaching its Renewable Energy Directive target – 25 percent of renewables in final energy consumption – well before the 2020 deadline.

“Since the political target has been achieved there is no political motivation to increase that,” Peterson says.

Estonia’s climate footprint: The largest oil shale power plant in the world, near Narva, operated by Eesti Energia. Image: Lukas Rusk

Peterson’s colleague, Lauri Tammiste, SEI Tallinn’s director, says the shift to a low-carbon economy remains on the official agenda.

He highlights plans by the government to reach 50 percent of renewables and lower CO₂ emissions by 2030, although there will be a challenge.

“The main issue is, how to actually deliver these goals and ensure successful transformation with biggest possible environmental, economic and social benefits.”

When asked whether Estonia would have a fossil free future, Sepp was adamant he would not see change in his lifetime.

“No. Not in the near future.

It’s very convenient to use this old system. You have one system which works and to build a new one …. takes a lot of money and a lot of effort. Some very critical changes must happen to change this system.”

It seems clear, for the time being at least, that Estonia’s energy future remains far more carbon intensive than environmentalists would like.

Feature article by Kendall Hutt; photos by Essi Lehto and Lukas Rusk. The assignment was part of the Inclusive Journalism Project collaboration between journalism schools in New Zealand and Scandinavia.