Norway’s national employers’ organization NHO gathered some of the most powerful business and political leaders in the country on Thursday for its annual conference at Oslo Spektrum. This year’s conference centered on how companies can combine reduced carbon emissions with value- and job creation, and clashes arose immediately.
No sooner had Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party warned in her opening remarks at the conference that climate policies “will come to be considerably sharpened” and “change Norway,” her new oil minister from the more conservative Progress Party was claiming that it was “utterly unrealistic and not sustainable” for Norway to become more climate friendly without the resources of its oil industry. “It’s not realistic to think that we can only concentrate on new businesses,” said Terje Søviknes in his first major public appearance since Solberg reshuffled her government ministers just before Christmas.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Søviknes was in full agreement with both Statoil CEO Eldar Sætre and NHO leader Kristin Skogen Lund, who have said it’s “naive” to try to make Norway “greener” while maintaining economic growth without the country’s oil fields still pumping at full speed. “It won’t be possible to replace the revenue stream from oil and gas for several more generations,” Søviknes said.
Asked whether it was “utopian” to think it’s possible to shut down oil fields, Søviknes told NRK “Yes. That’s utopia, and I think the political debate in Norway has been plagued by too many feelings and contempt for Norwegian oil and gas. We have to go back to seeing the possibilities and values that lie in Norwegian oil and gas.”
Even though his boss, Solberg, called on Norwegian companies to be more “future-oriented” to secure a “green restructuring” of Norway’s economy, Søviknes’ comments set the stage for the debate that keeps raging between many employers and environmentalists, climate activists and climate skeptics. While Solberg claimed that Norwegian business must become “green, smart and creative,” even though she too supports Norway’s oil industry, other top business leaders and investors were echoing Søviknes.
Some still don’t see a need to cut Norway’s own carbon emissions and still question climate change. Among them is Øystein Stray Spetalen, a leading Norwegian investor and multi-millionaire who thinks the welfare state will collapse if Norway becomes a zero-emission society. He also stressed that the UN climate agreement reached in Paris, to which Norway adhered itself, is “non-binding” with no threat of sanctions if countries don’t follow up on voluntary commitments to cut emissions.
“If Norway were to become a zero-emission society and shut down its oil operations, it will have great consequences for Norwegian business,” Spetalen wrote in an email to newspaper Dagsavisen on the eve of the NHO conference. “The welfare system will collapse and Norway will wind up with a standard of living like countries in Eastern Europe. That’s why it’s important to have measures that won’t cause lasting damage to Norwegian business.” Spetalen showed as much contempt for climate activists and critics of Norway’s oil industry as Søviknes sees against Norwegian oil and gas: “Norwegians must also understand that Norway … is a small country that no one is especially interested in, apart from navel-gazing Norwegian journalists and politicians. CO2 policies will be determined by the large industrial countries like the US, China, Japan and the EU.”
Jan Haudemann-Andersen, another Norwegian investor who doesn’t seem at all interested in any “green shift,” joined Spetalen and others in the oil industry in discounting the need for reduction of carbon emissions. “The so-called human-created climate changes have so far not caused any notable deaths or damage in the large context,” he told Dagsavisen. He’d rather see increases in taxes on sugar and tobacco than on fuel, for example.
Such comments ignited opponents like industrialist Jens Ulltveit-Moe, who firmly believes that carbon emissions must be cut to halt climate change. He’s one of the few top Norwegian businessmen and investors who have called for reductions in oil and gas exploration and production. Marius Holm of Zero, a foundation advocating zero emissions, was also firmly opposed to the comments of the new oil minister and climate skeptics like Spetalen and Haudemann-Andersen.
“There a big effort now in Norway to establish the story that Norwegian oil and gas will survive all the changes in a green direction,” Holm told NRK. “That’s what’s naive.” He doesn’t buy the argument that the world needs every drop of oil that Norway produces: “We hear daily that the world will use oil and gas for many more decades, also if the Paris goals are reached, but that’s not possible. The numbers don’t add up.”
Truls Gulowsen, leader of Greenpeace in Norway, called Søviknes’ comments “scary” and said the new oil minister seemed to be on a collision course with the prime minister. “We have, together with Natur og Ungdom (another Norwegian environmental organization) sued the Norwegian state over its opening of oil drilling in the Arctic,” Gulowsen said. “With ministers like Søviknes, it’s necessary to use the court system in an effort to prevent the complete destruction of the globe.”
NHO President Tore Ulstein, meanwhile, insisted that Norwegian business must become both environmentally and economically sustainable. He claimed that companies “all over Norway” are already well on the way towards that goal, not least by using resources and opportunities provided by the sea in the form of transport, seafood, oil and energy. The conference’s theme “Made in Norway” was coined, he said, to promote how Norwegian goods and services can be both greener and more competitive.
The main goals of NHO’s conference this year were to promote people, companies, natural resources and technology that have met challenges tied to population growth and climate emissions. NHO officials claimed they wanted to show that it is possible to reduce climate emissions “at the same time that we create value and jobs.” The conference, which would conclude with a banquet Thursday night, also aimed to spark discussion over what characterizes goods and services that are made in Norway, and draft what type of leadership and framework is needed “on the road to a low-emission society in 2050.”