Chapter 2. Environmental governance and management

Estonia has made significant progress in upgrading its regulatory framework for environmental management and advancing environmental democracy. However, more needs to be done to improve the coherence of environmental requirements and ensure better compliance with them, as well as to build human and technical capacity at the local level. This chapter analyses Estonia’s environmental governance system. It reviews the regulatory framework for environmental impact assessment and permitting, as well as compliance assurance instruments. The chapter also assesses progress in promoting public participation in decision making and access to environmental information, education and justice.


1. Introduction

Estonia has come a long way down the road of European integration, making its legal framework consistent with the European Union (EU) environmental acquis. Estonia’s achievements in the field of environmental democracy can also be largely attributed to this process. However, the transposition of EU directives has required multiple and frequent changes in national legislation. This has imposed a considerable administrative burden on the regulated community and complicated business planning. Until recently, legislative reform had been piecemeal, which led to inconsistent and fragmented environmental requirements and procedures. These problems are being addressed through the codification of environmental legislation.

The upgrade of Estonia’s legislative and regulatory framework was much needed, as many specific policy instruments (permitting, economic instruments, enforcement sanctions and the liability regime) remained rooted in the Soviet legacy. These practices are embedded both in the legislation (e.g. the Environmental Charges Act, liability provisions in issue-specific environmental laws) and in the operation of environmental authorities (e.g. guidance for evaluation of environmental damage). The key drawback of this legacy is its orientation towards raising revenue through different channels (pollution taxes and their penalty components, damage compensation mechanisms) rather than how effectively the respective instruments reduce pollution, remediate environmental damage or deter against violations. Estonia is gradually revising its approaches to follow best international practices, but this process is likely to continue for many more years.

2. Institutional framework for environmental governance

Estonia has a centralised system of environmental governance with national authorities responsible for all environmental management except local environmental services. The reorganisation back in 2000 of environment departments of county governments into regional offices of the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) reinforced this centralised model. Territorial reforms underway are expected to reduce the number of local jurisdictions.

2.1. National institutions and horizontal co-ordination

The MoE is responsible primarily for environmental policy and legislative development, land management, natural resource accounting and protection, compliance monitoring and enforcement, and ambient environmental monitoring. Institutions under the auspices of the MoE include the Environmental Board, Environmental Inspectorate, Estonian Environment Agency (ESTEA), Estonian Land Board, State Forest Management Centre, Foundation Private Forest Centre, Estonian Environmental Research Centre and Geological Survey of Estonia.

The Environmental Board, which has six regional offices, is the main executive institution within the MoE’s jurisdiction. It is responsible for permitting, environmental impact assessment, environmental liability regulations, environmental monitoring and administration of nature protection areas.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications also has important environment-related responsibilities, particularly for energy and transport (via the Road Administration). Economic development plans also often have considerable environmental implications. The Ministry of Social Affairs has responsibilities for chemical safety and health protection (covering, among others, regulation of drinking and bathing water quality). The Ministry of Rural Affairs deals with agriculture and fisheries. Finally, the Ministry of Finance, in addition to managing a major part of environmental tax revenues, has recently become the competent authority for land-use planning in the context of territorial reform (Section 2.2).

Estonia does not have a special body charged with horizontal environmental co‐ordination. The Strategy Unit of the Government Office oversees sustainable development and green growth issues. An inter-ministerial working group at the deputy secretary-general level is in charge of integrating sustainable development considerations into sectoral development plans. However, this may not be enough to ensure effective policy co‐ordination and coherent actions in several areas of environmental concern, such as land-use planning (Section 3.4).

2.2. Sub-national institutions and territorial reform

County governments liaise between the national and local governments. Estonia is divided into 15 counties, presided by a county governor, who is a direct representative of the central government at the regional and local levels. County governments monitor municipal services, control the performance of state functions assigned to local governments, advise municipalities and manage county-level land-use planning. However, their legal status is relatively weak because almost every final decision is taken at either the central or the local level. Over the years, in parallel to county governments, several sectoral ministries have created their own regional administrations. As a result, county government does not play a role in balancing sectoral interests at the sub-national level.

Municipalities have environmental responsibilities (including the issuance of local ordinances and ensuring compliance with them) with regard to drinking water supply, wastewater treatment and waste management, noise pollution and land-use planning. There are 213 municipalities in Estonia: 30 towns and 183 rural municipalities. Most of them are small, with a median population size of 1 745 residents. Over one-third of the population resides in Tallinn (427 000) and the main university city of Tartu (98 000).

Given their small size and low institutional capacity, municipalities within a county need to co-operate. Apart from 9 regional water utilities covering 73 municipalities, however, there is little collaboration between local governments. The Association of Estonian Cities and the Association of Rural Municipalities of Estonia are voluntary unions to represent common interests and promote co-operation of towns and rural municipalities, but their role in environmental issues is limited.

The national government has taken several actions to assist municipalities. The Environmental Investment Centre has helped the two associations of municipalities to organise training, while the Environmental Board has advised county governments on issues that can support municipalities. Local capacity, however, remains a concern.

The government is carrying out territorial reform to address the budgetary and human resources challenges faced by many local governments since the 2009 economic crisis and to improve efficiency of local public services. By 2018, voluntary mergers or – as a last resort – government-ordered consolidation will reduce the number of municipalities to fewer than 100.

3. Setting of regulatory requirements

The transposition of EU directives, which govern much of Estonia’s environmental legislation, was conducted hastily and unsystematically, creating a considerable degree of regulatory inconsistency. Many transposition issues have been gradually rectified. In 2014, Estonia had only 2 environmental infringement procedures initiated against it (while the average across EU Member States was 12); until 2012, this number had consistently been over 10 in Estonia (EC, 2014b).

The process of codification of Estonia’s environmental law, begun in 2007, continues to date. Its main purpose is to reduce fragmentation of environmental legislation, increase coherence and cut red tape for the regulated community. In 2011, Parliament adopted the General Part of the Environmental Code Act (ECA), which lays out the main environmental legal principles, rights and obligations, as well as a harmonised permitting procedure (Section 3.3). This General Part entered into force in August 2014; the Special Part of the ECA, consisting of streamlined issue-specific legislation, is close to completion. The amended Industrial Emissions Act, Atmospheric Air Protection Act, Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management System Act, Forest Act, Fishing Act and Nature Protection Act, Environmental Monitoring Act and the Radiation Act have been adopted since 2013. The Earth’s Crust Act is expected to be adopted in 2016. The government has not yet approved drafts of the Water Act and the Waste Act.

3.1. Regulatory impact analysis

Regulatory impact analysis (RIA) must be carried out when a draft law is prepared, using the assessment methodology approved by the government in 2012. Methods to identify the economic impact of different policy options include cost-benefit analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, multi-criteria analysis and standard cost modelling. The RIA requirements are expected to be fully implemented by 2018. So far RIA has only covered EU transposition-related laws and regulations. None of the elements of the Environmental Code Act has undergone RIA, as it was not considered to be new legislation. RIA has been conducted mostly qualitatively (in the form of “explanatory notes” for different pieces of legislation); it has included budgetary projections, but not cost-benefit analysis.

In 2012, Estonia introduced ex post evaluation for all new major primary laws adopted, but none has yet been conducted due to the absence of an agreed methodology and lack of resources. Few OECD member countries have used ex post evaluation of regulations systematically. Where they occur, such evaluations tend to analyse the administrative burden and compliance costs rather than predicted and actual regulatory impacts.

3.2. Key regulatory requirements for economic activities

This section provides a brief overview of issue-specific requirements for environmental quality and pollution releases, as well as nature protection-related requirements for the siting and operation of economic activities. Waste management regulations are addressed in Chapter 4, and the regulatory framework for the mining industry (including the Earth’s Crust Act) in Chapter 5.

Air quality and emission standards

The 2004 Ambient Air Protection Act, which transposes nearly all EU Air Directives, specifies 13 pollutants of primary importance in assessing and monitoring ambient air quality. These include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, fine particulate matter and heavy metals. The MoE establishes ambient air quality standards for these pollutants. In areas where the level of air pollution exceeds these standards, the Environmental Board must prepare an action plan for reducing emissions of the problematic pollutant. In addition, local governments have a right to restrict the movement of motor vehicles in areas where air quality standards are likely to be exceeded due to unfavourable weather conditions. In practice, however, there has been no need to apply these measures.

Emission limit values (ELVs) for stationary pollution sources subject to an air pollution permit are calculated for each regulated pollutant so the amount emitted does not cause the exceedance of the respective ambient air quality standard. Such calculations are labour-intensive and costly; the resulting ELVs stimulate the use of end-of-pipe technologies rather than production process-oriented best available techniques (BAT). Only integrated environmental permits (Section 3.3) establish ELVs explicitly based on BAT.

With respect to mobile sources, the MoE sets ELVs for pollutant emissions for motor vehicles, aircraft, boats, etc. However, as these emission standards are difficult to enforce, they have been largely superseded by environmental requirements for liquid fuels based on respective provisions of EU law.

Water quality and effluent standards

The Water Act, the main law for the protection of water resources, has been amended more than 30 times since its adoption in 1994 (sometimes twice a year), mainly to accommodate the requirements of EU directives. These multiple amendments have led to a number of inconsistencies and overlaps across its provisions. At the same time, the regulatory framework for water quality protection is in line with good practices in other EU Member States.

Quality standards for surface water bodies and groundwater are consistent with the environmental objectives (corresponding to the “good status”) of the EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). Less stringent water quality objectives can be set if three conditions are met: the achievement of “good status” objectives is unfeasible or disproportionately expensive; the highest possible biological and chemical quality is achieved; and no water quality deterioration is allowed. Surface water quality standards depend on the type of a particular water body, but not its designated use (except for special standards for water bodies used for the abstraction of drinking water).

Wastewater discharge standards are set for municipal wastewater treatment plants for five parameters (biochemical oxygen demand [BOD7], chemical oxygen demand [COD], total phosphorus, total nitrogen and suspended solids) depending on the pollution load (expressed in terms of population equivalents). Other standards for municipal wastewater treatment plants (e.g. for hazardous substances) are uniform and do not depend on pollution load. For industrial discharges, effluent standards (laid out in a government regulation No. 99 of 2012) were elaborated based on recommendations under the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area following the definition of BAT for specific industry sectors. However, the recommendations did not prescribe use of any technique or specific technology. These effluent standards can be made 30% more stringent if the receiving water body does not meet EU “good status” requirements. In Estonia, effluent limit values are not linked to surface water quality standards of the receiving water body. For industrial wastewater discharges into municipal sewerage systems, existing pre-treatment standards are outdated and do not cover many important hazardous substances (Lääne and Reisner, 2011).

Nature protection-related requirements

The Nature Conservation Act (2004) defines three types of protected areas: national parks, nature conservation areas and landscape conservation areas. In those areas, a consent from the Environmental Board (which administers protected areas) is required to develop a comprehensive or detailed spatial plan (Section 3.4) or to issue a building permit. Depending on the stringency of nature protection requirements, the act distinguishes strict nature reserves (all human activity prohibited), conservation zones (all economic activity prohibited) and limited management zones (exploitation of natural resources prohibited). The act also defines limited management zones and building exclusion zones along sea shores and banks of fresh water bodies.

There are no special types of protected area associated with Natura 2000 sites (protected under EU legislation). However, requirements for environmental impact assessment (EIA) and strategic environmental assessment (Section 3.3) with respect to potential impacts on a Natura 2000 site are significantly more onerous than for other areas. The proposed project or activity should be proven beyond doubt not to contravene the protection procedure of a Natura 2000 site. However, if the activity is judged to be vital for public interests and has no viable alternatives, a development consent may be issued or a strategic planning document adopted with government approval regardless of the potential significant negative effect.

3.3. Environmental impact assessment and permitting

The developer submits an application for development consent1 to a competent authority (i.e. issuer of the development consent), which decides on the need for an EIA. EIA is mandatory if the proposed activity falls into the respective list of activities with significant environmental impact contained in the Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management System Act (EIA & EMS Act). Otherwise, the competent authority decides based on criteria defined in the act.

Important amendments to the EIA & EMS Act went into effect on 1 July 2015. Prior to that date, the developer had to submit for approval an EIA programme and subsequent report to the MoE or the Environmental Board, which would specify environmental conditions to be taken into account in the development consent. As of July 2015, the leading role in the EIA approval process was transferred to the competent authority, which in cases of building permits is the municipal government. This decision creates a risk of inadequate evaluation of EIA reports due both to low technical capacity of local governments and the potential conflict between the environmental scrutiny of the competent authority and its economic and social interests.

The environmental permitting system includes integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) permits (in line with the EU Industrial Emissions Directive), issue-specific permits (for air and water pollution releases and waste management) and other environmental protection permits (for mining, hunting, fishing, logging, etc.). The Environmental Board issues all environmental permits except permits for marine and coastal zone activities and permits for extraction of mineral resources in deposits of state importance, which are granted by the MoE. The Environmental Board issues IPPC permits, permits for exploration and extraction of mineral resources, air pollution permits, special water use permits (for water abstraction over certain daily thresholds and wastewater discharges), waste generation and management permits, hazardous waste management licences, local mining permits and radiation permits.

In a lingering legacy of the Soviet period, environmental permitting requirements had long been scattered throughout several laws and regulations. The General Part of the ECA integrated the application and delivery process for issue-specific permits, but not their substance. A single application has to state all intended activities for which an environmental permit is required, and if these activities are spatially or technologically related, a single permit will be granted.

The application process (including public consultation) is handled entirely through the electronic environment permit information system. If the activity is subject to an EIA, the permit application process is suspended until the EIA report is approved. Information about environmental permits is published on the ESTEA and MoE websites.

However, some issue-specific permits are required for activities with relatively low environmental impact, creating an excessive administrative burden for small enterprises. For example, boilers with capacity of just 0.3 MW require an air pollution permit (Veinla and Relve, 2012). To further simplify the regulatory regime, Estonia may consider replacing tailor-made permits with sector-specific general binding rules for a range of activity sectors. This would follow the example of other OECD member countries (e.g. the United Kingdom and the Netherlands), as well as its neighbour Latvia.

3.4. Land-use planning and strategic environmental assessment

Spatial planning is regulated by the Planning Act whose new version entered into force on 1 July 2015. There are national (Ministry of Finance2), county-wide and local (comprehensive or detailed) spatial plans. For county, comprehensive and detailed plans, the size of covered territory is flexible. In principle, spatial plans at the higher level serve as the basis for those at the lower level. In many cases, county plans are adopted after the local plans within the county (e.g. new county spatial plans will come into force in 2017). Municipalities have the right to propose changes to county plans, which may also undermine consistency between different levels of land-use planning. Since 2015, county governors have larger oversight powers with respect to local plans.

The new Planning Act distinguishes clearly between terrestrial planning and maritime spatial planning; the latter has to be conducted at the national level. A methodology for maritime spatial planning, developed in 2015, has been tested in two pilot projects in Hiiu and Pärnu counties in the context of development of offshore windmill parks.

Local comprehensive and detailed plans may stipulate environmental requirements in addition to those contained in environmental laws and regulations. For example, a comprehensive plan may designate green areas and establish provisions for their protection and use; a detailed plan may identify buildings whose construction would require an EIA. An approved land-use plan is usually a prerequisite for environmental and building permits. At the same time, the legislation does not clearly indicate whether an environmental permit is needed before applying for a building permit; this has occasionally led to controversial decisions by local authorities. Most small municipalities lack adequate capacity for spatial planning, with one person often responsible for all planning and environmental issues.

Local spatial plans usually do not incorporate transport development and urban mobility issues. Municipalities generally consider these issues as beyond their jurisdiction, while the government believes that transportation policies should not be legally binding (Eltis, 2015). The National Spatial Plan “Estonia 2030+” (MoI, 2013) and the National Transport Development Plan 2014-20 envisage developing sustainable urban mobility planning and mobility management. However, since mobility issues are not limited by municipal boundaries, it is uncertain whether they should be handled at the county level. At the same time, Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu have been actively participating in a number of sustainable mobility projects. The Tartu Transport Development Plan 2012-20 is the official urban transport plan with the most sustainable mobility elements. Tallinn has made several attempts to have an integrated transport strategy, but none has gone through an official participatory process or been adopted by the city council.

The EIA & EMS Act regulates strategic environmental assessment (SEA), which is obligatory for all spatial plans, strategic development plans3 and other government programmes and strategies in certain fields, such as forestry or waste management. To ensure better co-ordination between the EIA and SEA processes, local detailed spatial plans consisting of specific development projects are subject to EIA rather than SEA, which is consistent with good practices in other OECD member countries such as France. The authority responsible for the strategic planning document initiates SEA, and its report must be approved by either the Environmental Board or the MoE. However, the quality of SEA reports varies considerably, and in many cases they have little impact on planning decisions (Veinla and Relve, 2012).

4. Compliance assurance

Compliance assurance covers the promotion, monitoring and enforcement of compliance, as well as responsibility for environmental damage. As with environmental requirements, Estonia combines approaches and instruments inherited from its Soviet past with international best practices. This is particularly true in the fields of administrative sanctions and liability, where further reforms are needed to achieve greater coherence and effectiveness of policy implementation.

4.1. Environmental inspections

In accordance with the Environment Supervision Act (whose latest version entered into force in 2014), the Environmental Inspectorate (EI) monitors compliance in collaboration with other state institutions in several domains, including the Environmental Board, the Technical Regulatory Authority, and the Tax and Customs Board. Municipalities are responsible for local environment-related decisions (particularly on water supply, sanitation and waste management), but rarely have sufficient capacity to monitor compliance. At the same time, the EI has inspection powers over environment-related functions of local governments.

The principal areas of the EI’s activity are environmental protection, nature conservation and fish protection. Over 60% of infringements in the area of environmental protection are related to waste. For example, illegal dumping of waste continues to be a problem (ESTEA, 2014). Between 2010 and 2014, the number of detected environmental offences increased by 25% (Figure 2.1). Over the same period, the number of conducted inspections decreased slightly, which may point to better targeting of inspections and, as a consequence, a higher detection rate.

Figure 2.1. More violations detected with fewer inspections

Compliance monitoring follows a risk-based planning approach with respect to installations subject to IPPC permits, using an electronic tool developed within the EU Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law (IMPEL). However, the average share of planned inspections, about 55% for 2010-14, can be considered low compared with best practices in OECD member countries. This indicates that compliance monitoring is largely reactive. To increase its effectiveness, the risk-based approach should also be used for other regulatory regimes, where inspection planning is less formal.

4.2. Enforcement tools

Administrative enforcement tools include penalty payments (preceded by a written warning and imposed if corrective measures prescribed in the warning have been ignored) and substitutive enforcement (having a third party execute the corrective measures at the expense of the offender). Misdemeanours are punished by fines, whose upper limit was increased in 2015 to EUR 400 000 per offence for legal entities. However, in practice these fines are quite low: in 2014, the average fine was just EUR 248 per offence. While this was the highest average figure since 2010, it is likely still too low to deter future offences.

A higher rate of pollution taxes (Chapter 3) is charged for exceeding emission/effluent limit values or limits for the use of natural resources specified in a respective environmental permit, or operating without such permit. This could be from 5 to 100 times the basic rate depending on the hazardousness of activity or substance emitted. In another legacy of the Soviet era, these punitive taxes play the role of fines (the revenue, albeit going to the state budget, is earmarked for environmental purposes). The operator can substitute payments by spending an equal amount of money on qualified environmental measures. As in several other countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, this system runs contrary to the polluter pays principle since, essentially, it allows operators to write off non-compliance penalties in exchange for expenditures that they should bear in full.4 Estonia should consider replacing this system with administrative fines that would remove the operator’s economic benefit from non-compliance in accordance with best practice implemented by the US Environmental Protection Agency for over 30 years.

The EI also carries out pre-trial criminal investigations of environmental violations under the supervision of a prosecutor. Criminal offences (entailing “significant or major damage”) are punished by a financial penalty for both physical and legal persons (expressed in daily rates based on the average daily income of the convicted offender) or imprisonment. The EI has developed internal guidance on identifying criminal offences. However, the failure to obtain an environmental permit is also considered a criminal offence, which is excessive in most cases. A clear policy is needed on applying administrative and criminal sanctions that are proportionate to the seriousness of non-compliance.

4.3. Environmental liability

Liability for damage to the environment

There are two parallel environmental liability regimes in Estonia: the older national regime and the regime resulting from the transposition of the EU Environmental Liability Directive (ELD, 2004/35/EC) into Estonian legislation through the 2007 Environmental Liability Act. The act did not integrate the fragmented provisions of the prior regimes, which are scattered across issue-specific environmental laws such as the Water Act, the Waste Act and the Forest Act. Rather, its sole purpose was literal compliance with the EU legislation (Veinla and Relve, 2012).

The ELD regime covers only damage to water, land and biodiversity. As the competent authority under the Environmental Liability Act, the Environmental Board must prove a causal link between the activity and the damage except for a list of hazardous activities, including those requiring an integrated permit or waste management licence, or that are related to dangerous chemicals. However, the law exempts the responsible person from bearing the costs of remedial actions if, at the time damage occurred, the person was in compliance with applicable permits and licences.

The Environmental Board determines the extent of the damage and approves the remediation plan. A person who is or may be affected by environmental damage, or an environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO), may request that the Environmental Board impose preventive or remedial action on the responsible party, but this provision is not applied in practice. Overall, the ELD regime has been rarely implemented, partly because in most cases it does not allow the competent government authority to impose remediation costs on the responsible party (Justice and Environment, 2012).

The issue-specific liability regimes have a broader combined coverage. Generally, however (with the notable exception of mandatory land restoration after mining activities stipulated in the Earth’s Crust Act), they mandate monetary compensation from the responsible party to the state rather than environmental remediation. These liability regimes are fault-based, with a person liable only for deliberate or negligent actions. In most cases, the competent authority is the Environmental Inspectorate, which calculates and collects compensation for environmental damage. These amounts, however, are based on fixed rates or formulas and do not reflect the real damage to the environment. Moreover, revenue is earmarked for environmental projects, and not specifically for remediation. The Water Act and the Waste Act require the offender to clean up the damage at its own cost, but the respective provisions are ambiguous and rarely applied in practice. At the same time, the provisions may require compensation in situations with no real environmental damage (such as exceeding limit values for emissions of non-toxic air pollutants).

Contaminated sites

Neither the ELD liability nor the issue-specific liability regimes cover past contamination, which makes it difficult to assign responsibility for rehabilitation of old mining sites (Chapter 5). The remediation of abandoned sites with residual land and water contamination, most of it stemming from Soviet-era activities, also presents a significant challenge. Estonia has identified 70 former military and industrial areas as priority contaminated sites. These include old Soviet military bases, where soil polluted by fuel spills is the most important remaining type of contamination. Another major category is that of mining areas, mainly abandoned open-cast mines and peatlands damaged by mining. The most prominent site for clean-up is a hill containing high levels of oil shale and pyrite, parts of which have occasionally self-ignited. Other sites include now-closed factories for wood treatment and phosphorus fertilisers. As past owners of these sites are not identifiable, current land owners, the state and local governments share obligation for remediation.

Since the 1990s, Estonia has devoted significant resources to the clean-up of contaminated sites. In total, Estonia has allocated EUR 86.5 million from the 2007-13 and 2014-20 programming periods for clean-up work (Figure 2.2). In addition to money from the EU Cohesion Fund, EUR 5.5 million of revenues of environmental taxes was channelled through the Environmental Investment Centre. Old industrial and municipal landfills have been largely remediated. Estonia’s Operational Programme for 2007-13 set a goal to clean up 53 sites by 2015, mostly using EU structural funds. By the end of 2014, only 46 sites had been cleaned up (Living Environment, 2015). In early 2016, Estonia’s government estimated that clean-up of the biggest abandoned oil shale-contaminated site would cost approximately EUR 7 million. In addition, rivers and wetlands downstream from former mining areas have sediments containing phenol and other pollutants.

Figure 2.2. Significant funds allocated for clean-up of contaminated sites

Many lower-priority contaminated areas still require attention. These include asphalt and tar residues, fuel and oil waste, waste paint and metal scrap, which pose a lower health hazard, but are a significant public nuisance. In recent years, the government started compiling an inventory of abandoned quarries of natural construction minerals and planning further restoration actions.

The Estonian Environmental Strategy (MoE, 2007) sets an objective to eliminate abandoned hazardous sites by 2030. In addition to the MoE, the National Audit Office regularly monitors the progress of clean-up activities, which shows the priority the government assigns to this issue. Over EUR 3 million is allocated to the mapping of contaminated sites (Figure 2.2), and their identification and clean-up is expected to continue for some years. Achieving the 2030 target will require sustained government funding.

4.4. Promotion of compliance and green practices

Government promotion of compliance can reduce costs for businesses by allowing them to achieve and maintain compliance as efficiently as possible. It may also reduce regulatory costs by increasing the efficiency of compliance monitoring and enforcement. Compliance promotion is particularly effective when targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises.

Compliance promotion

The Environmental Inspectorate has only recently started to give compliance promotion the attention it deserves. It recently conducted a number of information campaigns in selected activity sectors with acute environmental issues (through mass mailings and county-level meetings with sector representatives) before launching sector-wide inspections. One such campaign targeted waste oil handling in car repair shops (Box 2.1).

Box 2.1. Compliance promotion campaign in car repair shops

The 2013-14 compliance promotion campaign was triggered by concern expressed by the Association of Car Dealers and Service Providers (AMTEL) about a significant number of repair shops not turning over all the waste oil they produce to waste management companies. The Environmental Research Centre corroborated this complaint, reporting that up to half of repair shops’ waste oil was not reaching the legal waste management system.

The Environmental Inspectorate (EI) verified this information and drew up a preliminary selection of potentially problematic repair shops. An information letter was sent to each of these repair shops reminding them about their legal obligations for waste management. In addition, the Environmental Board, Estonian Waste Management Association and AMTEL jointly organised an “Information Day”, accompanied by a press release. More than half of the 100 operators invited took part in the event. Over the next several months, the EI monitored, based on waste management companies’ data, possible changes in the repair shop operators’ behaviour.

At the end of this “grace period”, the EI and the police undertook a massive campaign over two months to inspect 105 repair shops. Follow-up inspections were carried out in non-compliant establishments.

Source: Country submission.

Corporate social responsibility

Voluntary agreements related to environmental issues have been in use since 1999. The agreements are bilateral – between one firm (or a business association) and the MoE. So far, 11 such agreements have been signed, including those with the Estonian Water Works Association, the Fishermen’s Association, the Forestry and Wood Industries Association, the Mining Companies Association, the Federation of Estonian Chemical Industries, Kunda Nordic Cement and Estonian Deposit Packaging. In most cases, businesses commit to BAT or environmental management systems (EMS), while the MoE provides the other party with information on best practices (but no financial support) and involves it more closely in the process of developing relevant legislation. There is, however, no evidence that such agreements promote green business practices or significantly improve the environmental performance of the respective enterprises. Voluntary agreements could be strengthened by setting ambitious sector-specific environmental targets.

Business groups play a significant role in promoting corporate environmental management by organising seminars, improving webpages, distributing information letters, etc. For example, the Estonian Association for Environmental Management is a cross-sectoral organisation that liaises between enterprises and government institutions, while representing its members’ interests on environmental issues.

Environmental management system certifications and awards

The government has run several programmes to promote the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), including financial support available from the Environmental Investment Centre. As of August 2015, there were 6 EMAS and 521 ISO 14001 registered organisations compared to fewer than 100 in 2004 (Figure 2.3). These certifications are driven entirely by market demand in the absence of regulatory or economic incentives (such as lower inspection frequency or reduced pollution taxes) from the government.

Figure 2.3. Rapid growth of ISO 14001 EMS certifications in Estonia

Since 2014, the MoE has organised an annual competition – Environment-Friendly Enterprise of the Year. Winners in the three categories (environmental management, environment-friendly product or service and environment-friendly technological process) are given the right to use an environmental label, are announced through the media and have a chance to compete for the European Business Awards for the Environment. Acknowledging the winners is also intended to help inspire other companies, organisations and private persons to use similar nature-friendly solutions.

5. Promoting environmental democracy

Estonia ranks 14th in the world (but behind Lithuania and Latvia) on the Environmental Democracy Index (WRI, 2015). The index is a composite indicator that considers public participation, transparency and access to justice. Estonia scores well on transparency and access to justice mainly due, respectively, to the public’s clear right to access environmental information and legal provisions for the review of administrative decisions related to the environment.

5.1. Public participation in environmental decision making

The 2012 Code of Good Practice of Involvement declares the government’s commitment to stakeholder and public engagement in decision making and lays out a procedure for public consultation in the development of policies and legislation. The Sustainable Development Commission under the government’s Strategy Unit consists of representatives of 19 NGOs and meets four to five times per year to recommend different sustainable development topics and strategic documents before they are adopted by the government.

According to the 2011 government regulation “Rules for Good Legislative Practice and Legislative Drafting”, stakeholders and the public are involved in the preparation of legislative proposals and draft laws. The public can participate in legal drafting through the webpage of the MoE, social media, different public events and discussions, generally having four weeks to submit comments and proposals. In the case of draft legislation of particular public resonance, the MoE develops a special “inclusion programme”. The Estonian Environmental Law Centre actively guides the public through different participation options.

EIA and SEA proceedings are open to any member of the public, and all proposals and objections must be considered. According to the Administrative Procedure Act, persons whose rights may be affected by the proposed activity or implementation of the strategic planning document have a special status in the proceedings. During the permitting process, the public is notified on a relevant webpage, and all interested persons have a right to comment on the draft permit.

The role of the public is also important in land-use planning. The national spatial plan “Estonia 2030+” (adopted in 2012) was prepared for the entire territory of the country through extensive consultation and public participation: a special website and different working groups were established to ensure broad-based consultation.

Many environmental NGOs receive financial support from the state to partly cover their overhead costs. This funding is unconditional and does not compromise the organisations’ independence. For example, the Ministry of the Interior supports environmental associations through the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations.

5.2. Access to environmental information

The Public Information Act (2000) and the General Part of the ECA guarantee access to environmental information. According to the 2014 environmental awareness survey of the Estonian population, 74% of respondents thought that environmental information in Estonia is available, among whom 14% considered access to such information to be very good. Public opinion about the availability of environmental information has been steadily improving from year to year (MoE, 2014). According to an EU-wide study of citizens’ attitudes on environmental matters (EC, 2014a), 69% of Estonians consider themselves well informed about environmental issues, which is 4% higher than in 2011 and higher than the EU average (62%).

ESTEA collects, processes and analyses information about the state of the environment, and communicates it to the MoE and its subordinate institutions, Statistics Estonia, the European Environment Agency and public information networks. ESTEA publishes regular environmental reviews in electronic and paper formats (Estonian Environmental Review, Estonian Environmental Monitoring, Estonian Environmental Indicators, etc.). ESTEA also maintains public domain-specific databases: Estonian Environmental Register, Estonian Nature Information System, Waste Reporting System (JATS), Forest Registry, etc. National environmental monitoring data and results are also available to the public. Although information is accessible, it often takes a long time to find, and its completeness and quality may not always be reliable (NAO, 2013).

5.3. Access to justice

The Administrative Procedures Act regulates appeals against administrative decisions. A person who finds his or her rights violated by an administrative action may file a challenge. In addition, an environmental NGO can contest an administrative decision if it can prove the decision has violated its rights or is related to its environmental goals and activities. If the administrative appeal is rejected, a suit can be filed in an administrative court. Physical persons and environmental associations are eligible for waivers and reductions of legal fees related to administrative court proceedings.

While administrative appeals are fast, accessible and inexpensive, in practice their usefulness is limited. Actions taken by ministers are explicitly excluded from the scope of such proceedings. In environmental cases, the same authority that made the original decision is typically also the reviewing body, which is unlikely to change its point of view. The general weakness of administrative court appeals is that courts can only review the legality of administrative discretion; they cannot overturn the administrative decision on substantive grounds only.

The public does not have access to courts of general jurisdiction for other environmental protection issues, as there is no reference to the right to a clean environment in the Estonian Constitution. Civil judicial proceedings are only open for direct actions against persons under private law and, in environmental matters, are only relevant for suits related to damage to health and economic interests (under the so-called traditional liability regime).

5.4. Environmental education

The Environmental Education Department of the Environmental Board and the MoE itself are actively promoting environmental education. The Environmental Board manages an online environmental education database that includes contact details of institutions offering environmental education programmes, irrespective of their affiliation. It also contains a list of study programmes offered by these institutions that can be ordered by schools. The selection of study materials, worksheets, movie clips for educational purposes and a calendar of events are also available in the database.

The Environmental Board also runs a competition called “Keskkonnakäpp” aimed at acknowledging educational institutions for the promotion of environmentally friendly behaviour. In 2014, more than 86 000 kindergarten and schoolchildren participated in educational programmes run by the institutions subordinated to the MoE (MoE, 2015).

Environment and sustainable development is a mandatory topic in national curriculums of primary and secondary education. The “Development of Environmental Education” programme supported by the European Social Fund focused on integrating environment and sustainable development issues into national curriculums. About 600 school and kindergarten teachers and supervisors of environmental education centres participated in training activities. The Ministry of Education and Research supports environmental education activities of the Baltic Sea Programme and the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Programme (GLOBE) in over 100 schools across the country.

The Environmental Investment Centre under the MoE offers grants for environmental awareness and education activities. Grants are focused on a number of thematic areas, including sustainable consumption, nature conservation, awareness-related research, etc. The annual budget of this programme is EUR 3-3.2 million. In addition to the Environmental Investment Centre, local governments and universities also contribute to the financing of environmental awareness-related activities. The European Regional Development Fund supports a EUR 21.2 million programme for the establishment and renovation of 30 nature houses (run by the State Forest Management Centre) and environmental education centres in all Estonian counties. New environmental education centres have recently been established in Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu.

Recommendations on environmental governance and management
  • Strengthen inter-ministerial co-ordination on environmental and sustainable development issues, including climate change, to better incorporate environmental concerns into strategic planning, sectoral policies and spatial planning; encourage collaboration between local governments in all areas of their environmental competence.

  • Complete the process of codification of environmental legislation to improve its coherence and reduce the administrative burden on the regulated community; reinforce the ex ante evaluation of environmental regulations and policies through rigorous regulatory impact analysis, including extensive use of economic analytical tools; encourage ex post evaluation of their implementation.

  • Consider replacing bespoke permits with sector-specific general binding rules to simplify the regulatory regime for installations with low environmental impact; update pre-treatment standards for industrial wastewater discharges into municipal sewerage systems; ensure close MoE oversight and evaluation of EIA implementation by municipal governments.

  • Improve the co-ordination and consistency between national, county and local land-use plans; increase the capacity of local governments to conduct spatial planning and related strategic environmental assessment; integrate sustainable mobility issues into spatial planning at the local level.

  • Further enhance risk-based planning of environmental inspections; reform the system of penalties for environmental violations by adopting a sound methodology for the determination of fines, based on the gravity of the offence and economic benefit from non-compliance; develop an enforcement policy with clear guidance on applying administrative and criminal sanctions proportionately to the seriousness of non-compliance.

  • Scale up government efforts to promote environmental compliance and green business practices through a range of information-based tools and regulatory incentives; strengthen voluntary agreements with industrial associations by setting ambitious sector-specific environmental targets and encouraging investment in eco-innovation.

  • Streamline the environmental liability regime by integrating liability provisions of issue-specific environmental laws into the Environmental Liability Act, while assigning priority to remediation of damage to the environment at the expense of the responsible party over monetary compensation; accelerate the programme for the clean-up of contaminated sites by securing adequate financial resources for its implementation.

  • Expand citizens’ access to justice beyond the review of administrative decisions related to the environment in order to guarantee broader human rights on environmental matters in county courts of general jurisdiction; enhance the completeness and quality of environmental information available to the public.


EC (2014a), “Attitudes of European citizens towards the environment”, Special Eurobarometer, No. 416, European Commission, Brussels, (accessed 3 December 2015).

EC (2014b), Statistics on Environmental Infringements (database), European Commission, Brussels (accessed 9 December 2015).

Eltis (2015), Mobility plans: Estonia, The Urban Mobility Observatory, (accessed 12 January 2016).

ESTEA (2014), Estonian Environmental Review 2013, Estonian Environment Agency, Tallinn,

ISO (2015), ISO Survey 2014, International Organization for Standardization, (accessed 3 December 2015).

Justice and Environment (2012), Estonia: Environmental Liability 2012, National ELD Report, Justice and Environment,

Lääne, A. and R. Reisner (2011), Water Sector Reforms in Estonia, Background paper for the OECD Global Forum on Environment: Making Water Reform Happen, OECD Conference Centre, Paris, 25-26 October 2011,

Living Environment (2015), Elukeskkonna arendamise rakenduskava seirearuanne [Living Environment Operational Programme: Operational Monitoring Report 2014], June 2015, Living Environment, Tallinn,

MoE (2015), Response to the Questionnaire for the OECD Environmental Performance Review of Estonia, Ministry of the Environment, Tallinn.

MoE (2014), “Eesti Elanike Keskkonnateadlikkus” [Estonian Environmental Awareness Survey], Ministry of the Environment,

MoE (2007), Estonian Environmental Strategy 2030, Ministry of the Environment, Tallinn,

MoI (2013), National Spatial Plan Estonia 2030+, Estonian Ministry of the Interior, Tallinn,

NAO (2013), Maintenance and Development of Information Systems in Area of Government of Ministry of the Environment, National Audit Office, Tallinn, 4 November 2013,

Veinla, H. and K. Relve (2012), Environmental Law in Estonia, Kluwer Law International BV, The Netherlands.

WRI (2015), Environmental Democracy Index, (accessed 3 December 2015).


← 1. A development consent is usually a building permit, an environmental permit or a natural resource extraction permit; in the latter two cases, the Environmental Board is the competent authority.

← 2. The Estonian Land Board under the MoE is also an active participant of the land-use planning process. It administers state-owned lands, maintains the Land Cadastre, manages geodetic, geological and topographic data, etc.

← 3. The environmental impact of regional development plans is assessed in accordance with the 2013 guide “Through themes in development plans”. The guide offers a methodology for evaluating potential impacts and conflicts along five horizontal themes, one of which is environmental protection and climate.

← 4. Such substitution of pollution tax payments is reported by Estonia to the European Commission as a form of state aid.