UN climate chief: ‘Let the oil lie’

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Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief who earlier has called for an end to coal mining on Svalbard, is reluctant to criticize Norway for its coal and oil operations. At a conference in Oslo this week, however, she made it clear that most fossil fuel resources should be left lying in the ground.

Greenpeace activists boarded the Transocean rig, after Statoil was given the green light on Monday to begin exploration work near the island of Bjørnøya, north of the Arctic Circle. PHOTO: Greenpeace

Greenpeace activists protested after Statoil was given the green light to begin exploration work near the island of Bjørnøya, north of the Arctic Circle. The UN’s climate chief also opposes drilling in the Arctic. PHOTO: Greenpeace

Figueres told newspaper Aftenposten, which organized the conference on climate issues, that she was “smart enough” not to meddle in a country’s internal affairs. She was clearly distancing herself from comments made earlier in the week by James Hansen, the US climate researcher who’s been warning about climate change for decades and who has publicly urged Norway to halt its oil exploration and drilling in the Barents Sea.

In a global perspective, however, Figueres said that it was “very clear, and James Hansen reminds us about it every third second,” that the majority of fossil fuel lying in the earth should remain there. “Someone must make that decision,” she said, but how, when and whose resources should remain untapped “is a discussion every country must take.”

Figueres also answered with a clear “NO” when the she was part of a panel that was asked whether there’s room for more drilling in the Arctic, given goals that global warming should not rise by more than two degrees. She claimed it was neither economic nor environmentally compatible to drill for oil in the Arctic.

Christiana Figueres (front row, second from left) was on Svalbard last year and called on the Norwegian government to shut down its coal mining there. Now she's made it clear she also opposes oil and gas operations in the Arctic. In the center, in blue jacket, Norway's minister for the environment, Tine Sundtoft. PHOTO: Klima- og miljøverndepartementet

Christiana Figueres (front row, second from left) was on Svalbard last year and called on the Norwegian government to shut down its coal mining there. Now she’s made it clear she also opposes oil and gas operations in the Arctic. In the center, in blue jacket, Norway’s minister for the environment, Tine Sundtoft. PHOTO: Klima- og miljøverndepartementet

Last year she called on Norway to close its coal mines on its Arctic archipelago of Svalbard but now says Norway must decide on its own oil policies. She also said that other countries still mostly speak positively about Norway’s environmental role. Not Hansen, who is among those pointing out the hypocrisy of Norwegian politicians both on the left and the right, who try to paint an image of Norway as environmentally conscious and competent yet support the country’s oil industry that makes Norway’s carbon emissions per capita very high.

The 74-year-old Hansen, who was director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies from 1981 to 2013 and still conducts research tied to Columbia University in New York, told Aftenposten that he had sent a letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg. In it, he wrote that if Norway doesn’t change its oil policies, he will contribute towards filing legal action action against the Norwegian government to halt Arctic drilling.

Hansen believes that Norway’s efforts to preserve rain forests and ambitious goals for emissions cuts are nullified by its ongoing efforts to exploit oil and gas resources from under the Arctic seabed. If the government continues to give a green light to the oil companies, they will gain access to enormous reserves of oil and gas in an ecosystem that is most vulnerable to climate change.

He told Aftenposten that he has tried, in more than a dozen countries, “to find a government that understands what’s needed and should be done, along with policies that really work.” He said he hasn’t succeeded yet, not in Norway either.

Hansen also said the Norwegian government’s claims that its “green shift” was underway were nonsense, and he hopes introduction of a new carbon tax will ultimately phase out oil and gas production because of the costs involved.

Aftenposten noted that Hansen, however, doesn’t enjoy much support from the environmental lobby, perhaps because he supports nuclear power plants or because the environmentalists stand to lose funding. Solberg didn’t want to respond to Hansen’s claims and referred requests for comment to Oil Minister Tord Lien. He said he thinks Hansen derails the climate debate by focusing on “such limited activity” as that found in the Arctic. Lien repeated claims that “the world will still have a considerable need for oil and gas for decades to come.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund