NEWS ANALYSIS: Oslo’s political leaders were basking in the spotlight on Friday, ready to officially kick off the city’s year of being hailed as Europe’s “Green Capital” in 2019. Muttering in the background are critics who claim it’s all just a big show that’s costing residents and taxpayers dearly.
The critics are not limited to opposition politicians from the non-socialist parties. They held power until 2015 and actually launched many of the recycling, waterfront redevelopment and other climate-friendly programs for which the current Labour-Greens-Socialist Left parties are now getting credit. The current Labour-led city government has mostly accelerated the programs, but at such a rapid pace that speculation has flown over whether Labour and the Greens especially are simply rushing to get them in place, in case they lose the next municipal election this fall.
That’s a distinct possibility given other disgruntled critics who include downtown residents, retailers, businesses and trades workers. They’ve had to swallow the loss of most all their formerly free street parking, for example, which has been replaced by bike lanes, planter boxes and other so-called “urban outdoor furniture” meant to enhance street life. The reality has been lots of new inconvenience that can make it more challenging to live and work in the city.
“Oslo has become like a locked fortress against cars and visitors,” claimed the late Ivar Odnes of the Center Party, not long before he died of cancer in October. He was a Member of Parliament from the valley of Gudbrandsdalen and objected, among other things, to the high tolls he had to pay to drive in and out of the city.
City government leader Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party continues to dismiss such grumbling, calling it “populism” and sour grapes on the part of his political opponents. He doesn’t think it’s unreasonable at all to spend an estimated NOK 118 million (USD 14 million) on “Green Capital” events and programs throughout the year, all meant to “raise consciousness” of what needs to be done to really turn Oslo into a climate- and environmentally friendly national capital.
“We are the first generation that clearly sees climate change, and the last that can do something about it,” Johansen told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. Many, however, think his Labour Party should curb Norway’s oil and gas industry instead of imposing so many climate restrictions on residents instead. That could cut far more emissions than banning all the cars in Oslo ever would.
It’s a paradox how Norwegian politicians at both the local and national levels and across the political spectrum constantly promote the need for emissions cuts both at home and abroad, but choose to concentrate their efforts on the transport sector, for example, instead of reining in the industry that produces the oil and gas that creates the lion’s share of Norway’s emissions itself. Johansen is just one example of the politicians who for years have let Norway become dependent on its oil fueling the economy, while trying to score climate points on other initiatives that won’t threaten it.
Johansen claims Oslo, which invested a lot just in winning the EU’s “Green Capital” designation, can now be a testing grounds of sorts for how cities around the world can develop in a more climate- and environmentally sustainable manner. In addition to Friday’s “opening ceremonies” at City Hall that summoned, among others, King Harald and Queen Sonja, the city’s “Green Capital” coordinators have organized conferences, festivals and outdoor activities throughout the year. Local schools will be offering environmental education programs. All households are already receiving more information on recycling, more efficient energy consumption and tips for living greener.
“The goal is to involve the city’s entire population,” Johansen claims, in learning how to live in a more environmentally efficient manner that can hinder climate change. Eirik Lae Solberg of the Conservative Party, however, thinks it’s “ridiculous” to spend so much money on a year of what he thinks will mostly be partying and promotional events. “This is money that could have paid 150 teachers for a year, or used to further strengthen public transport,” Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten last summer, when the “Green Capital” budget was narrowly approved.
The European Commission has been awarding the “Green Capital” designation since 2010, when Stockholm became the first to win. It aims “to put a spotlight on urban renewal and sustainable development,” according to Anita Lindahl Trosdahl, project manager for Oslo’s “Green Capital” year and thus on its budget’s payroll. Oslo tried to win the “Green Capital” title twice before finally clenching it after fulfilling 12 indicators that included air quality, energy consumption and environmental innovation. It should be noted that the earlier efforts were made while Solberg and his conservative colleagues were still in power.
Oslo scored well on its public transportation system, emissions cuts, recycling programs and energy systems. The city has lots of electric cars, is getting electric buses and ferries, has a rich diversity of wildlife, high ambitions for more emission cuts and lots of parks and recreational space, both in the hills and forests surroundng Oslo and long the Oslo Fjord. Trosdahl noted that the only areas where Oslo did not score well was on its heavy usage of water per capita and its wastewater management.
Now city officials hope they can influence other cities. “This is an open call for joining in,” Trosdahl said at a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo just before the Christmas holidays. Lan Nguyen Berg of the Greens Party, which has controversially rushed through much of the city’s anti-car program and tried to extend it to suburban areas outside Oslo, thinks the designation will also increase tourism and yield “positive international media coverage worth millions” for Oslo. “Europe’s eyes will be on us, and what we do,” Berg told newspaper Aftenposten.
Trosdahl and Marianne Alfsen, head of communications for the Oslo Green Capital project, also boasted how 170 local organizations and businesses are already joining in with programs of their own. Oslo has won international attention for various innovations within design, architecture and transport and prides itself on now being “part of a network” to spread knowledge and momentum for green solutions, Alfsen said. City officials have already had visits from foreign delegations keen to see what Oslo is up to.
Trosdahl and Alfsen also downplayed the costs involved, claiming the multi-million kroner Green Capital budget was “a political decision” they’re now simply charged with carrying out. They also claim that despite all the grumbling in local media, surveys indicate public support for the “Green Capital” project.
Others aren’t so sure, as griping continues in several downtown neighborhoods where cyclists and pedestrians have clashed and where it can be difficult to call in a plumber or carpenter because they have no place to legally park. Some parking spots in garages in Oslo’s Frogner district are suddenly selling for as much as NOK 1 million, prohibitively expensive for most. Residents, the vast majority of whom lack garages, now need to pay NOK 3,000 a year in order to obtain a permit to hope for an open space on streets that used to be free and where some parking is still allowed. Others complain about lower speed limits and looming prohibition of diesel-fueled cars that were recommended by Labour just a few years ago.
Despite all the complaints, Johansen, Berg and their city government colleagues promised a “spectacular” ceremony to launch Oslo’s Green Capital year on Friday. Johansen calls it “an investment for the future.” In a commentary in Aftenposten last weekend, he only briefly addressed the public anger many of his city government’s programs have caused:
“In order to carry out this green shift, residents will have to support the policies imposed,” Johansen wrote. “The politicians can’t stop carrying out the policies because of opposition or fear they won’t be re-elected. We campaigned on a platform of creating a greener, warmer city with room for everyone. We intend to keep that promise.” He also claimed that Oslo already has protected its forests, cleaned up its fjord and expanded public transport. He pointed to polls showing that a majority, when asked, support restrictions on car use downtown. He doesn’t seem to fear any major organized protests like those recently seen in France.
“We see (the Green Capital designation) as recognition of what Oslo has achieved so far, and an effort to mobilize citizens to do more,” said his project manager Trosdahl. Alfsen agreed, adding that “sometimes you have to push people into making changes. This is all part of an extra push, and inspiration to move on, because we have no alternative.”