Environment

Teet Randma: Estonia’s dirty secret

Teet Randma, an environmental campaigner, writes that Estonia is the second largest emitter of CO2 per capita in the European Union, and the country urgently needs energy reforms.

Estonia is the second largest emitter of CO2 per capita in the European Union and by far the most carbon-intensive economy among the OECD countries. The reason for that is oil shale, sedimentary rock that has been mined in Estonia for electricity generation since the fifties and, since recently, have also been used for liquid diesel fuel production.

Over 90 per cent of Estonia’s CO2 emissions come from burning oil shale for electricity, and oil shale contributes significantly to other pollution and waste levels in the country. The high concentrations of pollutants create health problems for local people: children living in the oil shale area have more respiratory diseases and are projected to live four years less on average. The country’s energy development plan 2030 commits to reducing the number of early deaths resulting from pollution by 50 per cent by 2030.

The Tallinn-based consultancy firm, Praxis, has analysed the socio-economic costs of using oil shale, but, in doing so, has failed to interpret the cost of PM2.5 (particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair) air pollution and water usage. When factored in, the total socio-economic cost of producing electricity from oil shale far exceeds the benefits.

The Estonian electricity grid is well connected with the country’s neighbours, and large amounts of oil shale energy are for export. The costs of wasted resources, damage to health and environmental destruction, however, stay in Estonia. The oil shale industry seems to provide very little economic benefit in exchange for a massive pollution toll.

Flogging a dead horse

The arguments used by politicians defending oil shale industry are energy security, national income, innovation, electricity price and underemployment in the mining region.

The only valid argument is that the oil shale industry indeed provides lots of jobs – about six thousand people work in mining and energy production. They have relatively high-paying jobs in a region with already high unemployment rates. Associated social problems should be a national priority, and new investments in the region are required to implement a just transition.

With the rising CO2 prices, electricity production is getting very expensive and new renewable energy sources are taking over the market. Solar energy is booming in Estonia and is expected to intensify after 2020 due to the requirements for near-zero energy buildings, but large-scale energy production is hampered by the market situation.

The oil shale industry is heavily subsidised: the industry enjoys exceptional marginal resource and water costs, which allow electricity to be sold below its actual cost.

If oil shale producers needed to pay for the damages caused to human health and environment, then they would probably go out of business.

A subsidy for renewable energy produced to grid amounts to 600 GWh per year, and there is no incentive to build new wind energy projects. The few projects planned by private investors have been stopped by legal battles citing national security concerns, as wind energy farms can reduce radar picture quality.

But even such favourable conditions created by the government are not enough to keep the oil shale business afloat: occasional large capital injections of Estonian and European taxpayers’ money are still required.

Exploiting European money

In 2012, the European Commission approved a grant of 18 million tonnes of free CO2 emissions for a state-owned company, Eesti Energia, to build a new 300MW oil shale and biomass co-firing electricity plant. At the time of the transaction, with a tonne of CO2 costing approximately €7.5, this concession amounted to roughly €135 million.

The total cost of constructing the plant was €638 million, scheduled to be launched in 2014. As of April 2018, the plant is still not fully operational, as the contractor could not keep the pollution under the required levels. In 2016, the plant was devaluated by €39.6 million.

The originally planned co-firing of 3.4 million cubic metres of wood would represent one third of the total Estonian forest output, and such a sudden increase of wood use would devastate the forests.

Thanks to the strong citizen opposition to massive wood burning, a further devaluation of power plant by €200 million is likely to follow, as the company cannot sell “green” electricity from wood burning.

In another project, in 2014, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development issued a loan of up to €35 million to finance VKG, the largest producer of liquid fuel from oil shale. The total CO2 savings with this loan have been estimated at 126,000 tonnes per year, but the company has increased CO2 emissions from 801,000 tonnes in 2014 to 1,053,000 tonnes in 2016.

The company also laid off a hundred people in 2014 and another five hundred in 2016. This forced the government to further reduce the resource tax on oil-shale, which has been extended until 2019.

Estonia still has not made plans to reduce its use of oil shale. The current oil shale development plan for 2016-2030 does not see a need for reducing mining quotas, and the current limit of 20 million tonnes is above the actual mining quantities. The current oil shale plan is to replace the electricity production gradually with liquid fuel production. The new, lowered resource costs are motivating the companies to ramp up production, and a boom in oil shale mining is expected in the upcoming years.

CO2 emissions per unit of GDP:

Urgently needed reforms

The Estonian Green Movement recently presented the parliament with a proposal for a strategic oil shale exit plan, signed by 1,079 Estonians. The first meeting in the parliament’s environmental commission was held on 5 June.

All who attended the meeting saw the need for a strategic plan to exit from the oil shale energy era, although this issue has been discussed for the past twenty years with no results.

The trade union is also in favour of having a strategic plan that will replace jobs through new investments, but the investments should come in the region before the existing plant closes to avoid hardships for workers. The high unemployment rate is already a problem in the region, and the current regional development plan is not ambitious enough to fully combat the problem. This might become a problem in 2019, when the state-owned energy company Eesti Energia closes three oil shale electric plant blocks built in the seventies.

The required investments for just transition could be provided by the European Union as part of the next Multiannual Financial Framework: most eastern European countries struggle with energy poverty and high emissions in the energy sector.

For example, Cohesion Policy instruments, like the European Social Fund or the European Fund for Regional Development, could prove instrumental in helping the transformation of Estonia into a much lower carbon-intensive economy. This would help improve the environmental situation in Estonia itself, while supporting the country fulfil its European and international climate pledges.

The transformation from an energy stone age to renewable sources will require a comprehensive plan, political determination and hard work, but the benefits of such endeavour will provide a good basis for stable, sustainable, economic growth in the future.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published in Bankwatch Network. Cover: Kiviõli oil shale and chemical processing plant in Estonia (YouTube).

UPDATED: The Estonian clean-up initiative engages 144 countries in a single day

The Estonian-founded global clean-up initiative, Let’s Do It! World, brought together 144 countries from all over the world for a massive waste clean-up on 15 September.*

The Let’s Do It! movement, which started in Estonia in 2008 when 50,000 people came together and cleaned up the entire country in five hours, has since grown into a global operation and engaged over 20 million environmentally savvy volunteers around the world.

On 15 September, an extensive network of NGOs, civic groups and institutions joined together to organise the world’s biggest clean-up action – called World Cleanup Day.

The World Cleanup Day gathered an estimated 13 million volunteers – united with their energy, goodwill and concern for the environment – to clean their countries of waste pollution in a single day.

The clean-up started in Fiji island and New Zealand – where about 5,000 volunteers turned up in Auckland and Wellington – and ended in American Samoa.

The biggest turnout during the first 10 hours of the campaign was reported in Indonesia and Nepal. In Nepal, about a million people turned up, out of the country’s 29 million population. In Indonesia, 3.3 million people turned out and in Pakistan, three million did the same.

In India, an estimated 110,000 people joined the crowd for a cleaner planet. On one of the beaches in Mumbai, there were 800 volunteers cleaning, for example.

Read also how the Let’s Do It! World got its start back in 2008.

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* Please note that the live broadcast is now finished. Images courtesy of World Cleanup Day.

Estonia’s air is one of the cleanest in the world – WHO

According to the data by the World Health Organisation, Estonia is among the countries with the cleanest air.

According to the WHO, the countries with the cleanest air are Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Canada, Norway and Iceland.

The worst air quality in the world, according to the WHO, are the continents of Asia and Africa. Worldwide, nine out of ten people are breathing polluted air. The air quality is the worst in Uganda, Mongolia, Qatar, India and Cameroon.

“Updated estimations reveal an alarming death toll of 7 million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution,” the WHO said in a statement.

“In general, ambient air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries, particularly in Europe, the Americas and the Western Pacific,” the WHO noted. “In cities of high-income countries in Europe, air pollution has been shown to lower average life expectancy by anywhere between 2 and 24 months, depending on pollution levels.”

Pia Anttila of the Meteorological Institute of Finland, the country with the cleanest air in the world, told the Finnish national broadcaster, YLE, that the Nordics, Canada and Estonia are all far away from concentrations of polluting industry – this being the reason for these countries’ clean air.

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Cover: Kauksi beach in Estonia (the cover image is illustrative/Jaak Nilson/courtesy of Visit Estonia Flickr).

140 years ago, wolves still ate people in Estonia

One hundred and forty years ago, it was a common occurrence that wolves attacked people – and kidnapped children – instead of being afraid of them; nowadays, however, the newly-elected national animal of Estonia usually keeps to itself.

This article was originally published by the University of Tartu blog, authored by Villu Päärt.

On a cold day, a tipsy drum player happened to come home in the dark in Tartu County. While on the road, he was attacked by a pack of wolves. Only some rags and bare bones were left of the poor man. The wolves’ hunger had been such that even the skin of the drum was devoured.

The naturalist and writer, Jakob Benjamin Fischer, described this story in his “Natural History of Livonia”, published in 1791.

Back then, wolves were a real danger to people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when travelling in Estonia or Livonia in the winter, one had to take into account that the wolves were hungry and, in the wake of a potential meal, ready to forget the rule that humans are the ones they should fear.

Texts from the 16th century recount that during the winter, all travellers carried lances and crossbows for protection against the wolves. Behind the sleigh was a long rope with a bludgeon attached to it, meant to keep the animals away. Fires, the smell of gunpowder, clanging of chains, hitting iron against firestones, blowing horns and beating drums were also used for the same purpose. However, as indicated by the story from Tartu County, sometimes the drum was no help.

In 2011, wolf researcher Ilmar Rootsi defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tartu regarding the relationships between humans and wolves. The work focused on Estonia from the middle of 18th century until the end of 19th century. Six years earlier, Rootsi published a monograph entitled “Susi tuli soovikusta” that became the basis for his dissertation. A portion of his work is dedicated to man-eating wolves.

The first written proofs

Rootsi has studied exercise and sport sciences and is now retired. In the 1980s, he began to study folk tales about wild animals and hunting, which ignited his extraordinary interest in wolves. During his research, he has studied the animal in collections at the Estonian Literary Museum, as well as the Estonian National Museum, the Estonian Historical Archives and the archives in St Petersburg and Riga. He has learned the peculiarities of wolves’ behaviour and taken nightly forest trips, where he used to listen to the wolves’ voices and tried to lure them, imitating their sound.

According to Rootsi, there’s quite a difference between the 18th and 19th centuries, as far as relationships between wolves and people are concerned. Written material about the 18th century is sparse, but the 19th century could be covered quite well because of church books reflecting the everyday life of congregations.

“The data from the 18th century is incomplete: there are no reports by the clergy and the material in the archives is rather random,” Rootsi has said.

Cases of children that were attacked that Reverend Johan Heinrich Frost included in the church chronicles of Kambja are some of the first reliable sources about wolves eating people. During five years, wolves attacked 11 children and a grown woman in Kambja Parish.

The first of these entries dates back to the midsummer of 1762, describing a wolf who grabbed six-year-old Peep, who was herding animals not far from home. The wolf had come from the forest and wasn’t interested in sheep – it chose the boy instead. When his parents heard the noise, they started to follow the wolf with a dog. The wolf dropped the boy but he couldn’t be saved.

The Lutheran church chronicles from the 19th century reflect 111 attacks in the years 1804-1853, with 108 children, one man and one woman dead because of the wolves.

There must have been more accidents like these, because in the 1840s, about 65,000 Livonians (a tenth of the population) converted to Orthodoxy. There is no data about them in the church books.

The last mention of a child attacked and killed by a wolf in a Lutheran church book dates back to 1853: five-year-old Toomas was taken away by a wolf in his own backyard in the village of Maetsma.

Folk tales also tell of attacks in later years, but there is no trace of these wolves’ victims in church books. Still, a single later incident is mentioned in an Orthodox church book from Iisaku Parish: in 1873, a wolf carried away a nine-year-old boy. His head, the bones of his arm and fingertips were later found in the forest, three versts (a Russian measure of length, one verst is about 0.66 miles) away.

Uninfected wolves haven’t attacked people after this period, but the bites of rabid animals have been fatal to humans in Estonia later, too – even after the Second World War.

Where do man-eating wolves come from?

Rootsi has pointed out that the attacks happen if the number of wolves is large, meaning an increased number of naturally more aggressive specimens. An increased number of old and sick lone wolves raises the danger level for people as well. There used to be a lot more wolves in the Estonian forests than there are today.

Another prerequisite: in those days, people didn’t use to hunt wolves as much, so the animals had no fear of people. Add the scarcity of prey and the major premises are met.

In Estonia, wolves have attacked children in summer, not in winter, when food was scarce, indicating that in addition to an empty stomach, there were also sheer predatory instincts involved.

There were domestic wolves among the attackers as well that were brought from the forest as young wolves and raised around people. They were raised for crossbreeding with dogs and thus produced good hunting dogs, but also for protecting herds against wild wolves. Domestic wolves weren’t afraid of people, but their predatory nature remained intact.

For the last century and a half, wolves haven’t attacked human beings in Estonia. Why is that? The flocks are smaller, so there are less lone wolves that could be dangerous to people, Rootsi has pointed out. Nowadays the forest provides wolves with enough food as well. Also, hunting is more common and the wolf, being an intelligent animal, is scared of humans. And no one raises wolves domestically anymore.

Lifestyles have also changed – kids don’t herd or pick berries and mushrooms alone anymore, nor do they accompany their parents in agricultural work.

But the nature of the wolf hasn’t changed. Under different circumstances, the animal could still become interested in human blood, Rootsi has warned.

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The cover image is illustrative (Shutterstock).

Estonia picks the wolf as the national animal

It’s official – Estonia has a national animal now; the grey wolf beat competition by the beaver, the badger, the fox, the hedgehog and the roe deer in a contest.

The wolf was “elected” by several local organisations, such as the Estonian Nature Society, the Estonian Natural History Museum and Tallinn Zoo. “Wolf is a natural part of our environment and leaves no one indifferent,” Marju Kõivupuu, an Estonian folklorist, told the country’s public broadcaster ERR. “The wolf is one of the most popular animals in our folk tales, there are over 500 names and stories written down about this animal.”

The decision-makers said in a statement that the wolf was a “symbol of wild and untouched nature”. “Our bogs and forest massifs are sometimes also pointedly called ‘wolf lands’. There is probably no other animal in this region that has influenced the local language and culture as much as the wolf.”

The nature experts said that as a skilled predator, the wolf has also kept the number of herbivores under control and thus indirectly shaped the forested landscapes in the region. “The wolf has been the ruler of our bogs and forests for hundreds and thousands of years,” they noted.

In a further “characterisation”, the wolf was described by the nature organisations as “tough, extremely clever and with a good stamina”. “The wolf is a survivor. It is brave for protecting its family and territory from other wolves. Wolves respect their parents and love their family. Wolves appreciate privacy – they want to be left alone. The wolf is also charismatic. All these qualities are the reasons why the wolf is suitable for symbolising Estonia and Estonians as a national animal.”

Once feared, now loved

There are currently about 200 wolves in Estonia, divided between 20-25 packs. The wolves are distributed almost evenly across the country, but they live mostly in large wilderness areas.

While the wolf is now affectionately regarded the national animal, it hasn’t always been so loved. Back in the day, wolves were a real danger to people.

In 2011, the wolf researcher, Ilmar Rootsi, defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tartu regarding the relationships between the humans and the wolves. He found that up until the 19th century, when travelling in Estonia in the winter, one had to take into account that the wolves were hungry and, in the wake of a potential meal, ready to forget the rule that humans are the ones they should fear.

According to Rootsi’s research, texts from the 16th century recount that during the winter, all travellers carried lances and crossbows for protection against the wolves. Behind the sleigh was a long rope with a bludgeon attached to it, meant to keep the animals away. Fires, the smell of gunpowder, clanging of chains, hitting iron against firestones, blowing horns and beating drums were also used for the same purpose.

And the wolves really attacked. The Lutheran church chronicles from the 19th century reflect 111 attacks from 1804–1853, with 108 children, a man and a woman dead because of the wolves.

But not to worry – wolves haven’t attacked people in Estonia for the last century and a half because hunting is more common and the wolf, being an intelligent animal, fears humans. And being the national animal, consuming its honourable members is not really an extremely clever act, is it?

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Cover: A grey wolf in Estonia (Sven Zacek).

James Cameron to film “Avatar 4” in Estonia

James Cameron, one of the most successful movie directors of all time, announced that the fourth sequel in the Avatar film series will be filmed near Navi village in Estonia.*

Cameron made the announcement at a press conference in Hollywood on 31 March. “We considered various locations around the world and it wasn’t until I bumped into an old friend of mine from Canada (Cameron grew up in Ontario, Canada – editor) that Estonia as a possible location came up,” Cameron said.

Asked to specify, the film director, famous for such blockbusters as “The Terminator”, “Aliens”, “True Lies” and “Titanic” – in addition to “Avatar” – explained that his old friend stemmed from the Estonian-Canadian family and has recently resettled to southern Estonia. His friend shared the old Estonian folk tales with Cameron and also showed the pictures of sacred trees, which are still common in Estonia even today.

“To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Estonia before – but hearing the stories on how for Estonians, their god was in nature, made me realise that there is an interesting connection between the fictional Naʼvi species in Avatar and Estonians,” Cameron said. “The Naʼvi way of life revolves around the Home tree. And the ancient Estonians had a god called Tharapita who was worshiped in forest groves. They also have old folk tales, in which the sins of humans resonate in nature – lakes fly away to punish greedy villagers, or forests wander off in the night, never to return.”

Cameron added that another similarity with the fictional Naʼvi species was how Estonians felt that their way of life and nature was threatened. “The Estonians once started a ‘phosphorite war’ against the Soviet Union – an environmental protest against the opening of large phosphorite mines in the country. Now this nation is apparently concerned about losing its forests,” he said.

Navi village

Cameron said that, to his surprise, there was even a village called Navi in Estonia (Navi is in Võru County in south-eastern Estonia and currently has a population of just over 260 people – editor). “That they [Estonians] have a Navi village, amused me, of course. But then I realised that the surrounding area would also make a perfect filming spot and I asked my team to get in touch with the Estonian film institutions,” he said.

Cameron added that other factors helped to sway his decision to shoot one of Avatar’s sequels in Estonia. “They have pretty experienced local film crews, apparently – it turns out that they have made films for over 100 years in that tiny country.”

The film director behind the epic science fiction films is currently filming “Avatar 2” and “Avatar 3”, in California and in New Zealand. The “Avatar 4” shooting will start in Estonia as soon as the previous sequels wrap filming and is due to be released in 2024.

The first “Avatar” was released in 2009 and became the highest-grossing film of all time, having grossed $2.788 billion to date. The film is set in the mid-22nd century, when humans are colonising Pandora, a lush habitable moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system, in order to mine the mineral unobtanium. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of Na’vi – a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora.

James Cameron found major success after directing and writing the science fiction action film “The Terminator” (1984). He is the fourth highest-grossing film director worldwide, after Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Michael Bay.

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Cover: A screenshot from “Avatar” (the image is illustrative). * Please note that this article was April Fool’s Day story. 

PICTURES: Estonian community in the Netherlands dedicate an oak field to Estonia

The members of the Estonian community in the Netherlands opened a field of oak trees near Amsterdam, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.

The oak field was opened near Amsterdam on 24 March and presented as a “gift” from the Estonians living in the Netherlands. “We wanted to find a place in the Netherlands that would remind Estonians their home country,” Margit Tera, a member of the board of the Estonian House in the Netherlands, said in a statement. “Now we have the oak field for this purpose, where we and the future generations can celebrate the important anniversaries of Estonia – as is the 100th birthday of the country,” she added.

The oak has always been the most sacred tree for Estonians and the local expat community was inspired by the invitation from the Estonia 100 programme to plant oaks or oak tree parks and dedicate them to the country’s centenary.

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Images courtesy of Estonia 100.

Study: Estonia one of the five countries least vulnerable to climate change

According to a study by HSBC, a global financial institution, Estonia is one of the five countries considered the least vulnerable to climate change.

The other countries among the five are Finland, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand.

HSBC assessed 67 developed, emerging and frontier markets based on their vulnerability to the physical impacts of climate change, the countries’ sensitivity to extreme weather events, exposure to energy transition risks and their ability to respond to climate change.

Pakistan is the worst

The 67 countries included in the study represent almost a third of the world’s nations, 80% of the population of the earth and 94% of the global GDP.

The most vulnerable countries to climate change are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Pakistan, in particular was ranked as the least well-equipped to respond to climate change.

HSBC (originally abbreviated from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) is a British financial services company. It’s the seventh largest bank in the world by total assets, and the largest in Europe.

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Cover: Lindi coast in Pärnu County, Estonia (the image is illustrative/photo by Danel Rinaldo).

Estonian clean-up initiative aims to engage 150 countries in a single day

The Estonian-founded global clean-up initiative, Let’s Do It! World, aims to bring together 150 countries from all over the world for a massive waste clean-up on 15 September.

The Let’s Do It! movement, which started in Estonia in 2008 when 50,000 people came together and cleaned up the entire country in five hours, has since grown into global operation and engaged about 20 million environmentally savvy volunteers around the world.

An extensive network of NGOs, civic groups and institutions have now joined together to organise the world’s biggest clean-up action – called World Cleanup Day – uniting up to 150 countries on 15 September 2018.

According to the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), about four billion tonnes of solid waste is created in the world, of which 1.6 billion is household waste. Approximately 3.5 billion people in the world have no access to recycling facilities and the waste they create ends up in the nature. Eighty per cent of the garbage that pollutes our oceans is of mainland origin. Meanwhile, the World Bank has announced that the global cost of dealing with rubbish is continuing to rise – to annual global costs of US$375 billion by 2025.

Fight against waste

In anticipation of the global clean-up day, the Let’s Do It! movement organised the Clean World Conference, which brought civic leaders from about 90 countries to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on 25 January. All of them are committed to stand up against waste pollution in their countries and cooperate globally to raise awareness about the rapidly growing waste problem. According to Eva Truuverk from the Let’s Do It Foundation, 116 countries have so far confirmed their participation on the World Cleanup Day in September.

The conference was also attended by the Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, who said the Earth needed a worldwide movement against overpackaging, just as there are universal campaigns against child labour or animal testing, for example.

Kaljulaid, a qualified biologist, also pointed out that incinerators as “waste to energy” solutions were far from environmentally friendly. “The by-products of burning are very hard to manage, and we have to handle them almost the same way as we handle nuclear waste. It is also giving our society the wrong message because instead of reducing and recycling, we are wasting quite a lot of materials that could otherwise be reused,” she said.

The plan for the worldwide clean-up day is to start in Japan in the morning and to finish the day in Hawaii. “Hopefully, by the end of 15 September 2018, the world will be a lot more beautiful and cleaner than it was before,” the organisers say.

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Cover: Let’s do it world! clean-up in Libya in 2015 (images courtesy of Let’s do it world!).

Tallinn to serve as the global hub for a climate change hackathon

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, will serve as the main stage for the climate change hackathon, Climathon 2017, a worldwide 24-hour hackathon focussed on climate change challenges for cities.

During the annual worldwide hackathon – this year’s edition takes place on 27 October 2017 – students, entrepreneurs, big thinkers, technical experts and app developers come together in cities across all six continents of the planet.

Software engineers in cities all over the world will pull all-nighters to work on innovative solutions to climate challenges in their cities such as major flooding and extreme heat, or air pollution and waste related issues.

The goal of the Climathon hackathon is to bring together the challenges of the world’s cities with the people who have the passion and ability to solve them.

The hackathon activities in Estonia, that currently holds the presidency of the EU Council, will be broadcast live via Facebook.

“During the EU presidency, Estonia focuses on a low-carbon climate-friendly circular economy,” Siim Kiisler, the minister of the environment, said in a statement. “The achievement of this goal will be assisted by the implementation of the climate agreement via different legislations as well as by eco-innovation. Now it is time to spread some ideas and develop real solutions to reduce climate-related risks.”

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The cover image is illustrative. 

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