I am often asked by foreigners whether Norway is a champion or a devil when it comes to environmental protection. I can’t blame them, Norway seems schizophrenic on the topic of environment. On the one hand Norway has this image of champion at protecting the environment, with pictures of fjords and pure water to advertise for its country, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful I have come across. It also spends a lot of money trying to save the rainforests, being an international voice on climate change and sustainable development goals at international conferences. Norway regularly pulls out a few million USD out of its hat for this and that fund to save the world. Norway also has the most electric cars per capita in the world. Some municipalities are even discussing fines for those not recycling at home. So Norway looks more like an environmental hero, right?
The Norwegian paradox
Not that fast. Norway is also one of the biggest oil producers in the world. According to International Energy Statistics, Norway ranked number 15 in the world in 2016, producing 1,647,975 barrils of oil per day. (See here for aggregated data on Wikipedia). As you know fossil fuels are not great to fight against climate change, neither is a high consumption of meat, and flying. Meat consumption is reported to have slightly declined over the past few years, while the number of flights Norwegians take has increased. Eurostats reports that Norway has greenhouse gas emissions 23% higher than in 1990, one of the biggest increase for a European country.
The list goes on. Norwegians love going for hikes and camping, and are very respectful of nature. They would react very strongly if you dumped a bag of garbage on a mountain site, but there was little reaction of the public when the Norwegian state approved the dumping of several million tons of mining waste in two pristine fjords in Western and Northern Norway. One of these fjords, Repparfjord in the North of Norway, is one of the last fjords where wild salmon enjoy swimming and reproducing themselves. But in 2016, according to the Norwegian Environmental Agency’s website “the salmon will be affected mildly” by the mining waste. Sure, I mean how much harm can 30 million tons toxic mining waste dumped into a fjord do over 20 years? See this infographics with all the Norwegian fjords where toxic waste has been dumped or authorised by the state:
“But how can Norwegians live with this double standard? Aren’t they doing something about it?” asked a French friend recently. I would say yes and no. As someone who has lived in this country for 8 years, I can stay that living in Norway is very easy, and makes us feel like we live in a bubble far from the world of worries for the environment. Everything works. Trains are on time. We have enough money to over-consume international and domestic flights, Ipads, Iphones, Gore-tex jackets and other things that should be limited for our impact on the planet. Life in Norway is so comfortable that we forget that if everyone in the world had the same lifestyle, we would need the resources from three planets.
To avoid feeling guilty about this, we congratulate ourselves on the fact that 95% of the electricity we use in Norway is produced sustainably through hydropower. And that the Norwegian oil industry is “the cleanest” in the world. Don’t even ask what that means. Obviously the paradox is so huge that the clean electricity and the nice looking fjords don’t really make up for all the rest.
The Norwegian environmental awakening
In the bottom of their hearts, Norwegians are very conscious that they owe their easy life to the oil. So how can we give up our fat pensions and comfy life of travels and eat-as-much-meat-as-you-like for the sake of the climate? More and more people in the Norwegian public, may it be voters, investors or the youth, are questioning this double standard, and asking the state to be held accountable for it.
The most recent example is the law suit that two environmental organisations filed against the Norwegian state. Greenpeace Norway and Nature and Youth are claiming that “oil drilling in completely untouched areas of the Arctic undermines our common right to “an environment that ensures health and a nature where production and diversity are preserved.” We know that we can not drill more oil than we have found today if we are to manage to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Looking for more oil, up until now in completely untouched areas, is to invest in a broken future and in violation of the Constitution”. They are quoting the so-called environmental paragraph of the Constitution. The suit has started being held in court a few days ago and will be ending on the 23rd of November.
Another example is that a few days ago, the Norwegian Central Bank just asked the Ministry of Finance to divest from its oil shares. This is a big deal, as the fund has roughly 35 billion USD invested in the oil industry, including in the Norwegian oil company Statoil. The fund has already divested from palm oil companies involved in deforestation, and from coal mining. It will be interesting to see whether it also divests from the oil industry.
Norway is on its way to change. Not quite there yet, though.
Will the Pension fund divest from its oil shares? Will the Court decide that it is unconstitutional to drill oil in the Arctic? We will have to wait and see. What is for sure is that the country is starting to understand that it needs to eat its own medicine, and cannot continue to preach for finding solutions to climate change without starting by acting at home. Those two decisions would be a good start.
I am seeing a timid development in Norway, but to be honest I don’t believe the country is turning into an environmental champion just yet. Norway has very little economic transition plan. Everybody is scared of the “after-oil era” but it does not look like the government is really preparing it, with investments in a whole new economy which is not based on the exploration and sale of fossil fuels. And the current government is filled with people who do not believe in climate change. The current Justice Minister said a few years ago “Karl Marx is dead, the (socialists) needed a replacement. The climate attackers have found it in the carbon theory. And that makes use of everything possible. To many socialists, I simply think that CO2 has replaced Karl Marx”.
All that to say, we’re not quite there yet.
3 thoughts on “Environment: The End of Norway’s Double Standard?”
Well said…opening a can of worms that has been quietly ignored. Most of us look at Norway with the perception as you write not knowing many of the dirty secrets of Norwegian waste disposal. I still don’t know or haven’t heard the effects of much of the dumping in the fjords? My Norwegian people came to America in the 1860’s. So I have always felt a bit of the Norwegian perspective to nature, environmental duty for sustaining life on earth. When I actually learned my ancestors surname (was changed on arriving in America) and where they actually left from, I bought a ticket for a visit, a visit to trondheim and smaller towns north. Was a wonderful connection. Norwegians helped me wherever I went. Ironically, when I went for information in trondheim, I met a German girl working. She was married to a Norwegian who interestingly had been born near where I had in US. Not to go astray here…she understood what I was looking for and asked if she could help. I gave here the materials I had and she had me return some hours later after I’d returned from from a short tour. She had discovered information that I never thought possible, giving me the tour of trondheim in areas my ancestors were born into. The short of the story is, she volunteered to me, sheepishly, that much of the industrial waste in trondheim’s past was dumped out into the fjord. She spoke, as you speak, of Norway’s or Norwegians reluctance to admit or speak of this waste management. She proceeded to tell me her hobby of scuba diving and her dives that revealed to her the dead zones and just beyond those zones life still hanging on. It was a remarkable revelation that I found hard to understand, given the perception of how important nature is to Norway…but then I’ve always had a hard time understanding Norway’s need for whale hunting, one of two countries in the world that still does that?
It seems to me that Norway’s self-image is very different to how other countries see it. If you asked most people what they know of Norway vis-a-vis the environment, they will just mention their obsession with whale hunting. It’s especially sad when you discover that the whale meat is often used for animal feed.
If you add in the scale of Norwegian fossil-fuel production, it makes for a very poor environmental record indeed.
Very interesting about divesting from oil revenues… that it will be a truly tough decision. You mentioned about electric cars… is Norway thinking /using windpower or not practical where it’s located?