Jens fends off critics at home

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NEWS ANALYSIS: As Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg welcomed heads of state to Oslo, and got ready to host another climate conference and effort to save the world’s rain forests, he continued to face criticism from environmentalists and opposition politicians at home. Stoltenberg, it seems, has a better environmental image abroad than he does in Norway.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (left) welcomed Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono to Oslo on Wednesday, and signed an agreement to help Indonesia halt deforestation. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor (SMK)

“There’s no doubt the contrast is great between my environmental reputation internationally and the criticism on home turf,” Stoltenberg conceded recently to newspaper Aftenposten.

Stoltenberg has become well-respected among world leaders and involved at the highest levels of international climate negotiations. Norwegians, known for humility everywhere but in sports, should be at least a little bit proud that their prime minister is often at the center of power and playing a global role far out of proportion to their country’s size. High-profile figures from Microsoft founder Bill Gates to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to US President Barack Obama have all praised Stoltenberg’s leadership on climate issues, as well as his knowledge.

But as Stoltenberg flies around the world urging emissions cuts and rain forest preservation to help reverse climate change, his track record at home is troublesome. Norway, as a major oil and gas producing nation with a small population, continues to top charts on emissions per capita. Emissions declined last year, but only because of the economic slowdown, not because of environmental measures.

Stoltenberg has also refused to stop state-owned Statoil from getting heavily involved in a controversial oil sands project in Canada, his government just had to admit that its plan to build a carbon recapture plant at Statoil’s Mongstad plant is severely delayed, and a study last week revealed more offshore oil and gas exploration during Stoltenberg’s time in office than ever before.

Stoltenberg visiting the Montes Azules nature reserve in Mexico in April, while meeting again with Mexico's president. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor (SMK)

At the same time, Stoltenberg repealed tax breaks for biodiesel last fall, hasn’t managed to get Norway’s beleaguered railroad to work reliably, has delayed a new climate report and refuses to oppose oil and gas exploration off Lofoten and Vesterålen, at least for now. Even a former party colleague-turned-state-auditor, Jørgen Kosmo, worried publicly this spring that “there’s a considerable risk that the goals to reduce national emissions by 2020 won’t be met. Reductions must be given higher priority.”

Stoltenberg seems to want the rest of the world to cut its emissions, while letting Norway roll along as it is. Few doubt his environmental commitment, but he faces rising accusations of hypocrisy or that he’s guilty of a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality.

Until now, Stoltenberg has defended his domestic record by mostly claiming that “we will cut emissions in Norway as well.” Now, reports newspaper Aftenposten, it’s emerging that Stoltenberg’s passion for cuts elsewhere in the world are based mostly on his background as a social economist.

In short, Stoltenberg simply thinks it’s cheaper and more efficient to reduce emissions by protecting rainforests, for example. Using money to make it less attractive to chop down the Amazon’s rain forest, for example, can yield cuts that it would take 25 carbon capture plants at Mongstad to do. Financing emissions cuts overseas is much cheaper than doing it in Norway, and Stoltenberg points out that the world still needs Norway’s oil and gas. 

Environmentalists aren’t convinced. “If you’re going to win a war, you ask what it will take, not how you can win in the cheapest way,” Frederic Hauge of environmental group Bellona told Aftenposten. Stoltenberg is also suspected of wanting to protect Norway from painful reorganization of its own economy, through less reliance on oil and gas.

Opposition politicians in Parliament grilled Stoltenberg earlier this month over the Mongstad delays and still threaten hearings on the issue, even though most were never big fans of the carbon capture plant anyway. They’ll seize on any opportunity to bash Stoltenberg’s government, which was re-elected last fall.

And that still gives Stoltenberg some comfort, if not a mandate for his policies. As he hosts the president of Indonesia, Prince Charles and other dignitaries this week, he’ll likely be at ease, and more among friends at the lovely old Holmenkollen Park Hotel in the hills above Oslo, than he may be downtown.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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