Climate offensive turned defensive

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Erna Solberg headed into the New Year with a new climate offensive, using her annual address to the nation to more specifically address her many climate critics. There wasn’t much new, however, even after one of her own government partners complained during the holidays that their coalition “lacks enthusiasm” and “needs a restart.”

Prime Minister Erna Solberg used her traditional New Year’s address to the nation last week to defend her government’s climate policy. Critics don’t see much real change ahead, however, only more climate change. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Trine Skei Grande, leader of the non-socialist Liberal Party, made the remark on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s morning political talk show Politisk kvarter when the much-needed holiday recess began. It was quickly picked up by other media outlets as an illustration of the challenges Solberg faces in keeping her right-center coalition together until the election in 2021.

Others expect more cabinet changes among Solberg’s ministers, to toughen up her government. She already went along with one significant cabinet change just before Christmas, when the Progress Party’s minister in charge of oil and energy, Kjell-Børge Freiberg, was replaced by Progress’ far more outspoken and attention-grabbing Sylvi Listhaug. It’s Listhaug’s fifth cabinet post in Solberg’s government, after she first shook up agricultural politics, moved on to usher in much stricter immigration policy, sparked such huge controversy as justice minister that she had to resign that post, but was later allowed a comeback as government minister in charge of public health and elder care.

Defending oil and gas
Now Listhaug, who until recently was known for being a skeptic of climate change, will be staunchly defending Norway’s oil and gas industry on behalf of the government. She’s also been a critic of the large turbines needed to generate more sustainable wind energy, so already has needed an evaluation of her impartiality since she’ll be in a position to decide where windmills can be erected.

Bjørgulv Braanen, commentator in newspaper Klassekampen, has viewed Listhaug’s appointment as an effort by the Progress Party to further divide the left-green opposition on oil policy. The appointment also illustrates the Solberg government’s ongoing support for Norwegian oil and gas, however, which keeps generating new critics, not least among young voters. Even the youth organizations of both Solberg’s Conservatives and the Progress Party advocate far more climate-friendly policies than the current government has displayed so far.

That’s what Solberg tried to tackle in her New Year’s address to the nation, which initially attracted the most attention for her comments on the shocking suicide of King Harald’s former son-in-law on Christmas Day. She started off her speech with climate issues, however, and concluded with them as well.

“We often hear that Norway isn’t doing anything for the climate,” Solberg said, confronting her critics head-on. “That’s wrong.” She cited “steadily stricter climate policies since fees on carbon emissions were first imposed nearly 30 years ago.” She continued to claim that Norway will meet its climate goals by 2030, cited how Norway will have “an emissions budget” from 2021 and that carbon emissions will continue to be cut within industry, public sector operations and in the private sector.

More creative defense
But then she resorted to more creative defense of why Norway has so far failed to cut emissions from 1990s levels, opting instead to stress that they’re still roughly the same even though Norway’s population has increased by more than a million since then and despite Norway’s enormous economic growth (mostly fuelled by oil and gas).

Solberg nonetheless insisted that emissions will be cut. “This will demand a lot from us, and I know that many people are worried, especially those who rely on their cars to get to work,” Solberg said. “I can’t promise that everything will be the same as before. It’s more important than ever that we manage to change our habits.”

The problem is that there still hasn’t been any major restructuring of Norway’s oil-dependent economy, even though Solberg has been talking about it for years. Many argue that Norway’s real emissions, along with those created elsewhere by the oil and gas that Norway produces, won’t and probably can’t be significantly cut without curtailment of both oil exploration and production. Solberg and her government colleagues still resist any curtailment, which is why tens of thousands of children have been screaming at Solberg and her government in their recent school strikes.

Solberg is now citing “new opportunities and new jobs” within greener shipbuilding and construction of electric ferries, for example, but made it clear in her speech that “we should not phase out an industry that employs many thousands and contributes to financing our welfare.” She also maintains that the world will still need oil and gas for years to come, so Norway might as well be the one to produce it in a more climate-friendly manner than in many other oil-producing nations.

Norwegian ‘ego-maniacs’
Critics will thus have a hard time seeing much change in Solberg’s climate offensive that mostly put her on the defensive.  She hinted that Norway also still prefers financing emission cuts abroad (and getting credit for them) to actually cutting emissions at home. That’s basically the same policy adopted by the former left-center government headed by the current head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg.

Lars West Johnsen, political editor of newspaper Dagsavisen, wrote over New Year that Solberg’s outlook is “just as near-sighted and nationalistic” as ever, “because we Norwegians are among the world’s biggest ego-maniacs.” He cited Norway’s vast wealth generated by the oil industry, how “Norway isn’t doing anything to put the brakes on oil production,” and how both government and business leaders keep trying to convince Norwegians that “Norway’s oil is better and cleaner than other countries’ oil.”

Neither he nor other Solberg critics thus seem to expect much change regarding climate policy, only more climate change.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund