As Norwegian politicians continued to quarrel this week over raising fuel taxes to cut carbon emissions, climate activists gathering in Oslo put the quarreling in perspective. They noted how Norway’s oil and gas industry emits roughly 10 times the emissions of all the cars in Norway combined, yet politicians remain reluctant to scale it back even though ongoing investment in it can be risky business.
“We have to bust the illusion that profits from oil and gas will continue,” declared Marius Holm, leader of the Oslo-based environmental foundation ZERO, which has attracted more than a 1,000 people to its climate conference in Oslo this week. At issue: turning Norway into a zero-emission society and how best to do that.
Holm claims most Norwegian politicians remain in a state of denial when it comes to the country’s oil and gas industry, still the country’s most important despite the dive in oil prices. While they’ve accepted how cuts in carbon emissions can help halt climate change, they keep investing in the industry that generates the most emissions. Holm and several others on the conference program Wednesday were pointing out how that can lead to unfavourable economic consequences as well as environmental.
Holm argues that it’s risky, even reckless, to contine to open new oil fields. He even wrote in newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday that the politicians are actually “gambling” that the UN agreement struck in Paris to limit global warming to two degrees will fail. Demand for fossil fuel is already declining and will have to decline by another 30 percent by 2040 in order to meet the goals set in Paris.
That means that Norway’s current oil industry investment in the Barents Sea will only be profitable if the world fails to follow up on the promises made in Paris. Not all oil industry analysts agree with that but Holm argues that opening up new areas for oil exploration and production defies the intention and spirit of the Paris Agreement and can be costly instead of profitable in the long run, both because of the emissions generated and poor economic returns on the oil itself. Oil and gas can’t be relied upon to produce nearly the level of revenues that they have for the past 50 years.
He did note that the “dogmatic opposition” to meaningful cuts in the oil industry and its emissions disappeared with Jens Stoltenberg, after his Labour-led government lost its re-election effort in 2013 and he became secretary general of NATO. Stoltenberg and Labour have traditionally supported the oil industry because of the jobs it creates, and his administration also failed to force through an expensive carbon capture plan at Statoil’s Mongstad plant. According to Holm, Stoltenberg’s government “thought that all of Norway’s emissions problems would be solved by buying climate quotas” that cut emissions in other countries, and by funding rain forest preservation in Brazil and Indonesia. It was much easier to fund emissions cuts abroad than make significant emissions cuts in Norway.
Now the Conservatives-led government that took over for Labour claims it has presented the “greenest” state budget ever but it doesn’t want to cut back on oil exploration and production any more than Stoltenberg’s government did. Instead, the two conservative government parties and their two support parties have been quarreling for weeks over fuel taxes. The government only wants to raise them by less than half-a-krone, while the Liberals want to make it more expensive for Norwegians to drive their cars.
There was some progress on the state budget negotiations this week after Prime Minister Erna Solberg called in her ministers from both the Conservative and Progress parties Monday night. The results of that meeting haven’t leaked out yet, but by Tuesday, there was a visible improvement in the moods of all four parties hammering out the budget. The Liberals and Christian Democrats were summoned to Solberg’s office and when they walked out, they made comments like “we are much closer to a solution” and “we think this is going in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, Holm told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that those attending ZERO’s climate conference (who included Solberg, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre and other top politicians) would hear a lot of proposed solutions to Norway’s emissions problem. He said the most important goal of the conference is to contribute to Norway restructuring its economy away from fossil energy. Technology, investment in new export products from seaweed to fish oil and biofuels and renewable energy would be promoted to offer practical and concrete alternatives.
Only the Socialist Left, the Greens and the Liberal parties really want to block the opening of new oil and gas exploration areas in the Arctic, or at least subject such moves to both climate and profitability tests, but they lack support in Parliament. Both the former Labour Party when it led the government and the Conservatives who lead it now have refused to stop drilling for new oil and gas but they will meet setbacks. Just this week it emerged that all the municipalities in Lofoten now opposed oil activity off their scenic coastline, and an oil discovery in the Barents Sea proved far less promising than expected. Such negative developments can be good news for the climate.