Our planet is warming. Arguments over possible solutions are overheating. To draft an agreement between global players, takes a world class negotiation skills. Cleantech ForEst talked to Birgit Aru, an inspiring young leader in climate policy who recently worked as a Climate Policy Counsellor during the Estonian Presidency of the EU.
Birgit, you have been involved in climate and energy policies for some time now, designing the Kliimapoliitika Põhialused 2050 (Estonian Low Carbon Strategy until 2050). What is the biggest change in Estonian climate policy that you are most happy about and why? And what’s the next goal for Estonian climate policy?
Despite a lot of work that still lies ahead of us I am happy today that for the first time we have taken a long-term strategic approach on our climate policy. Over 80 interest groups of all sectors together with researchers and modelers worked over a year and a half to set out our long-term vision for low-carbon Estonia until 2050. Getting there requires a gradual but steady transition of our economy as well as our mindsets into a more environmentally considerate ones, most notably in how we produce energy and use transport. An encouraging result from modelling and impact assessments has been that transition to a low-carbon Estonia would have a quantifiable positive effect on our economy, energy security and society as a whole.
Thanks to the extensive research and scenario modelling by Estonian scientists in recent years we now have a comprehensive understanding of which worrisome natural and societal damages we might face if timely action is not taken. Although climate change is not topping Estonian news headlines, I would say the issue as well as the need for action are acknowledged more than ever before by Estonians.
The biggest challenge I would say is making the low-carbon transition happen and in a smart way. This inevitably requires decisions around the future of our energy production which is still per capita one of the most carbon intensive ones in the EU. Also, having one of the most polluting car parks in Europe we have to convey painful but necessary political discussions and make smart choices around the way we use transport.
In EU climate negotiations I see Estonia as a bridge builder between lower and higher income Member States, between the most ambitious and the conservative ones. On one hand we understand and experience similar difficulties as many Eastern and Central European countries, on the other hand being Nordic we aspire for innovation and efficiency. Why couldn’t we for example lead the way on how IT solutions can bring climate benefits?
Recently you spent 1,5 years in Brussels, leading the EU’s climate negotiations during the Estonian Presidency of the EU. Describe your work days in Brussels?
I very much enjoyed not having much of a routine during the Presidency which on the contrary required being alert and flexible at all times. Having a solid plan A was a must, but always had to keep plans B, C, D and E in the pack-pocket.
Aiming for an inclusive and transparent negotiation process we had to work closely with all our colleagues in Member States, the European Parliament and the Commission. Even more than in formal setting it meant informal meetings, coffées, dinners, never-ending phone calls etc. One becomes a connoisseur of the best tea and coffee spots in Brussels pretty quickly. Relationships matter!
Reluctant to 6 day working weeks at first I must admit I started enjoying (if that is the correct word) these at some point. Sunday was the holy day of the week when the phone didn’t ring (much) and having fewer meetings allowed me to dive into more serious analytical work and plan the week ahead.
To be successful working in climate policies, you need to…
Have an inner drive to make a change, a global one, because climate change does not know borders. Be sufficiently pragmatic, because such a complex issue has various (economic, societal) angles to it.
What were the most difficult times during your work in Brussels and how did you motivate yourself to overcome them?
As Presidency the information flow, pressure and workload can be overwhelming at times. For me it escalated towards the end of the year when running difficult negotiations with the European Parliament on Member State 2030 greenhouse gas emission targets.
For me a solid preparation is the key! I probably spent twice as much time on preparation than on execution. Knowing my topic in depth as well as building close trustworthy relationships with key partners allowed me to be on top of things.
At the busiest of times I found it super important to focus and direct my energy to where it matters the most. Sometimes you need to rely on your gut feeling to make the difference and after a while it comes naturally – knowing the right way and understanding the surrounding political and emotional currents.
Last, but not by far the least – I feel really blessed with the people I was working closely with! They were perhaps the greatest motivators and supporters at toughest moments. A good reminder that one should never take things too seriously and a good joke is the best stress releaser.
How do you keep yourself updated with all the latest green tech solution, scientific results on air pollution and all the nuances of climate policies and politics?
Thanks to my work this info flows to me naturally, but in addition I follow POLITICO Brussels Playbook and keep a close eye on the innovative companies in this field.
You have been actively challenging yourself outside work. In 2015 you took part of Cleantech ForEst “Pioneers into Practice” programme, and spent 2 months in Hungary and Poland, working on environmental education via simulation and building plant walls. How have these side projects helped you in your career?
Participating in Pioneers in Practice programme allowed me to peep into working in the private and NGO sectors and also resulted in a follow-up project in Tallinn (!). This was a truly valuable and fun experience that took me out of my comfort zone and straight into where the magic happens. I guess the biggest gain is that such experiences broaden your mind, inspire and bring you together with great like-minded people around the world.
What’s you next challenge?
[smiling] I will for sure continue my mission on working on a more sustainable future!
If you are interested in advancing your career in sustainability and building your network, check out Pioneers into Practice Scholarship, that is now accepting applications in Estonia. For more info on the program, please reach out to Kadri Kaarna (firstname.lastname@example.org), Pioneers Manager.