Norway passes the climate buck again

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NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian government has once again avoided making any national commitment to cut carbon emissions within Norway itself. Instead, the Norwegians will be able to continue buying their way out of international obligations to cut their own emissions, and thereby protect Norway’s oil and gas industry, by agreeing to “contribute” to the EU’s goals for cutting emissions elsewhere in Europe. Many environmentalists and climate experts were surprised by the move, and furious.

Norway's minority government won backing from its two support parties to latch on to the EU's climate policies. That let them avoid setting any specific goals for emissions cuts within Norway, once again protecting Norway's emission-producing oil and gas industry. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Norway’s minority government put on quite a show Wednesday, after it won backing from its two support parties to latch on to the EU’s climate policies. That let the government avoid setting any specific goals for emissions cuts within Norway, once again protecting Norway’s emission-producing oil and gas industry. From left: Christian Democrats’ leader Knut Arild Hareide, Progress Party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen, Conservatives leader and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the Conservatives’ Environment Minister Tine Sundtolft and Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

Norwegian newspapers were full of headlines Thursday morning about how Norway has not committed itself to cutting emissions by 40 percent at home. “It’s still completely in the blue what Norway’s own climate goals are,” said Marius Holm, leader of the climate organization Zero. Norway’s conservative coalition government has only committed itself to financing the cost of emissions cuts in other countries, while refusing to set any specific emission-cut goals at home that would harm its important oil and gas industry.

“It looks like the government’s climate goals are tailor-made for allowing oil and gas production to continue at a high tempo,” said Lars Haltbrekken, leader of the Norwegian chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbundet).  Arild Skedsmo of WWF Norge agreed, telling newspaper Dagsavisen that “it’s far from given that this will lead to any meaningful emission cuts in Norway.”

Letting others ‘do the climate job for us’
Norway emits among the highest per capita levels of carbon emissions in the world, because of its large oil industry and small population. The only way Norway can significantly cut its own emissions would be to reduce its oil and gas activity along with other industrial operations, but no government has been willing to do that because of the jobs and economic development that oil and gas provide.

At the same time, though, Norwegian politicians are always keen to portray themselves as environmentally conscious and concerned. The former Labour-led, left-center government avoided cutting emissions at home by funding preservation of rain forests elsewhere on the globe, and won good global PR for the effort. Now the conservative government that succeeded Labour can avoid cuts at home as well, by promising to help offset the costs of cutting emissions elsewhere in Europe.

Its new plan, according to Haltbrekken, means Norway “still wants others to do the climate job for us.” He contends that the government’s plan “will let us get away without doing our part in the global climate effort,” while oil and gas activity continues as before, slackened only by any market effects of lower oil prices.

Really big show
The government, which recently opened up new areas of the Arctic to more oil and gas exploration, made a big show on Wednesday of announcing that it would latch on to the EU’s goals of cutting emissions over the next 15 years to a level that’s 40 percent lower than emissions were in 1990. Prime Minister Erna Solberg trumpeted “new and more ambitious climate policies” that she claims will result in at least some cuts in Norway, based on negotiations with the EU. She just doesn’t want to set any goals for how much.

Climate researchers predict the EU will pose tough demands, while the leader of one of the government’s support parties, Trine Skei Grande of the Liberals, claimed it won’t be possible for Norway to buy its way out of making cuts at home entirely. “There is, of course, a theoretical possibility,” she told newspaper Aftenposten, “but the EU’s quota market is a locked market where quotas are going to be more and more expensive in the years ahead.” She believes Norway will still need to make cuts at home because the costs of funding cuts elsewhere in the EU will be so high.

Not even the leader of the Labour Party, which has been as keen to preserve oil industry jobs as the Conservatives, fully believes that, though. “The oil industry and other industry can, under the government’s plan, buy quotas and in theory increase emissions in Norway, as long as emissions go down in Europe,” Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre told news bureau NTB.

Political triumph and tighter EU ties
The government’s new plan as it heads into the UN climate summit later this year was at any rate a political triumph for Solberg. At least one environmental leader, Fredric Hauge of Bellona, refrained from trashing it, saying the EU won’t let wealthy Norway get away cheaply. He thinks it’s positive that Norway will now “be part of the EU climate battle.”

Solberg’s environmental minister Tine Sundtoft, meanwhile, could chalk up her first major political victory by uniting the two-party minority coalition and getting its two support parties to go along without setting any specific emissions goals for Norway. The EU is also Norway’s biggest gas customer, so it’s in the EU’s interests as well that Norway continues to produce and sell gas to its member nations, especially given the tensions with Russia, the EU’s other major gas supplier. Solberg is also fond of pointing out that gas is a much cleaner source of producing energy than coal.

Both Grande’s party, the Liberals, and the Christian Democrats campaigned for clear national goals for emissions cuts but have appeared to cave in on the grounds that Norway will now at least be part of the EU’s “ambitious” goals. “When we open up for committed cooperation with the EU, our chances increase that we will succeed with green growth,” reasoned Grande.

That’s not exactly music to the ears of those in Norway who thimk Norway is already cooperating too much with the EU, and who want Norway to sever its economic agreement (the EØS avtale) with the EU that allows Norway market access. Hareide admitted that the new climate cooperation “is like a mini-EØS avtale.” Several commentators pointed out that the deal further integrates Norway into the EU, even though Norwegians have twice voted against actually joining the EU.

Norway has now “reported itself a bit more into the EU,” wrote Kjetil B Alstadheim of newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). He cited another benefit of that: Norway also wants European customers to replace coal with gas. As a fully integrated member of at least the EU’s climate policies, Norway will have even better chances of lobbying for gas-friendly policies, and thus keep its oil and gas industry strong despite the climate threat it continues to pose.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund