NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian officials are under increasing international pressure to get serious about restructuring the country’s economy away from its reliance on polluting fossil fuels. Prime Minister Erna Solberg drew criticism after what many called a “disappointing” presentation at the UN’s Climate Action Summit on Monday, while a new UN report due next spring is expected to call on Norway to halt new oil and gas projects.
“It surprised me how enthusiastic the folks in the Oil & Energy Ministry were when we talked about last year’s new discoveries in the Barents Sea,” David Boyd, the UN’s “Special Raporteur on Human Rights and the Environment,” told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. “This is not the time to be enthusiastic about new oil discoveries.”
In order to really provide international leadership on climate change, Boyd believes Norway “should stop exploring for additional oil and gas reserves, stop expanding fossil fuel extraction, and harness Norwegian wealth and ingenuity to plan a just transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy.”
Boyd, a law professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in politics and sustainablity, has been in Norway on a 12-day official visit on behalf of the UN. He will present his full report on Norway to the UN Human Rights Council in March, but in his preliminary statement he zeroed in quickly on the “Norwegian paradox” that plagues leaders on both the right and the left sides of Norwegian politics. They all want to be at the forefront of promoting human rights and addressing climate change, while continuing to allow Norway’s offshore oil and gas industry to keep drilling and pumping at full force.
“Norway is both a climate leader and a straggler, but it doesn’t look like Norwegian authorities are willing to tackle this paradox,” Boyd told Dagsavisen. He said he has met with many organizations and civilians who want to do so, and that government leaders put forward many positive climate measures, “but when it comes to the oil and gas industry, it’s business as usual. That can’t continue.”
He praised Norway’s “predominantly emissions-free” electricity system, and noted how the country has the world’s highest share of electric vehicle sales. He also commended Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative that provides “substantial funding” to help preserve rain forests and prevent deforestation and finance adaptation in developing countries.
The ongoing problem is that Norway, under the governments of both the former Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (now secretary general of NATO) and current Conservative Prime Minister Solberg, pays other countries to reduce carbon emissions while not reducing its own. Despite all the electric cars, hydro-electric power and highly controversial measures to restrict driving, Norway’s carbon emissions have continued to rise. They will likely continue to do so without limits on the oil and gas production that now accounts for nearly 30 percent of all carbon emissions in Norway. Emissions from oil and gas production have nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 million to 15 million tons a year, not including all the emissions generated when the oil is exported and actually used.
“That’s not sustainable,” Boyd noted as he also referred to how Norway’s emissions have gone up, not down, in the 27 years since it signed the first UN convention on addressing climate change in 1992. He further noted now 81 percent of the world’s collective energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, exactly the same as in 1992. “That’s proof that we have failed catastrophically,” Boyd told Dagsavisen.
The UN official also doesn’t buy Norwegian government and industry officials’ argument that “Norwegian oil and gas is cleaner and better” than that produced elsewhere. Boyd believes Norway must stop all exploration after more oil and gas but officials are too reluctant to do so. Why? “It’s all about money, just money,” Boyd said. “I can’t see any other clarification.”
In short, Norway is doing exactly what the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg railed against in her severe scolding of world leaders at the UN on Monday: Norway’s government, no matter which political bloc is in charge, puts economic growth and ongoing wealth creation ahead of efforts to reverse climate change and save the planet.
So do Norway’s leading business organizations and labour unions, which don’t want any curtailment of the country’s offshore oil industry because of all the jobs and wealth it generates, also in other industries. Two members of both the Labour and Socialist Left (SV) parties, however, are chiding the large labour federations LO and Fellesforbundet for urging Labour not to cooperate with the Greens Party that scored major victories in recent local elections. Lars Martin Mediaas of Labour and Thor Egil Braadland of SV wrote in a commentary in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday that the labour federations were actually doing their members a disservice by constantly resisting all attempts at economic restructuring away from oil and gas. “LO says it’s taking responsibility for its members,” they wrote. “By fighting against a managed downscaling of oil activity they (already) have in practice done the opposite.”
‘Lessons to learn from coal’
Boyd touches on much the same in his assessment for the UN, noting that the economic shock of a sudden or forced shutdown (which could come either through a new oil price collapse, market decline or international regulation) would be much more painful than a gradual withdrawal. “Look what happened in the coal industry,” he told Dagsavisen. “Countries that were dependent on coal have gone through huge disruption and chaos. Norway has a lesson to learn from that.”
He stressed that he’s not suggesting Norway should “shut down oil and gas production today, but you must plan for a fossil-free economy, and that must happen now.” Many others, not just Mediaas and Braadland, are saying the same. Unlike Norway’s bullish oil minister from the Progress Party, who recently ridiculed the Greens, a few top Labour Party politicians think it’s time to put action behind all the words of the past many years and listen to the younger generation that’s been taking part in school strikes and clamouring for emissions cuts at home in Norway. They seem willing to trade less affluence for a healthier planet.
Prime Minister Solberg can hardly ignore all the pleas as well, but it remains unclear whether she’s listening or taking them to heart. Her government has talked about omstilling (economic restructuring) since before winning power in 2013, but little has occurred. The oil price collapse of 2014 dented production and resulted in thousands of job losses, but now the oil is gushing as never before while the government also “enthusiastically” (in Boyd’s words) hands out more exploration licenses not least in the sensitive Arctic.
Solberg disappointed both foreign aid and environmental organizations on Monday that accused her of merely “recirculating” old promises of emissions cuts. “We are especially disappointed that the (Norwegian) government isn’t offering any new climate goals or emissions cuts at home and presents old promises on climate financing (elsewhere) as new,” Ingrid Rostad told Nowegian Broadcasting (NRK). She represents a network of more than 50 Norwegian climate, environmental and foreign aid organizations (Forum for utvikling og miljø).
Turning to the seas instead
Solberg was granted time to speak because of another report she presented that dealt how better management of the seas can help save the climate. It claims that 21 percent of emissions cuts needed can be made with the help of industry and activity tied to the seas including offshore wind power, more climate-friendly ships and preservation of marine ecosystems. People should also eat more fish and seafood instead of meat, according to the report, but fewer exports should be transported by air. The latter two points are likely to meet resistance from Norway’s large fish farming and agricultural industries.
Solberg insisted that much of what she presented, including Norway’s own plans for emissions cuts (45 percent by 2030) was at least “new for the UN … and in an international context.” She also promised “new initiatives” and that “new ambitions” would be presented at next year’s climate summit.
A “major economic restructuring” is also on the way, Solberg told news bureau NTB, adding that “it must become more expensive to pollute and cheaper to make environmentally friendly choices.” She didn’t seem offended by Greta Thunberg’s salvo, calling it “natural” for young people to demand action. “The next generations will have a completely different framework than we have,” Solberg said. “More must see the seriousness here.” It remains questionable whether she’ll be among them, but her government may be shocked into action itself if the “Norwegian paradox” results in international humiliation next spring.