How Norway is failing the world

Despite its good reputation as a role model for mitigating climate change and protecting the environment, Norway is failing on many fronts, argues Professor Beate Sjåfjell in this blog post.

After President Donald Trump’s decision to pull USA out of the Paris Agreement and his administration’s rollback of domestic environmental protection, the US has become synonymous with reactionary opposition against international sustainability goals.

This week the eyes of the world have been on the mid-term elections in the USA, where many had hoped for a pushback against the Republican anti-science and anti-sustainability agenda.

And yet, as a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, this is what has made the greatest impression on me so far: How many positive things are happening in the most populous state in the US, California, and how Norway erroneously is seen as a role model for mitigating climate change and protecting the environment.  

Let me first say that the Norwegian welfare system of course is wonderful compared to that of the US, and that California has a long way to go before the state rightfully can call itself sustainable.

As the environmental leader of the US, California has nevertheless shown that it is willing to set ambitious climate targets and work towards these in spite of – and as a reaction to – Trump’s rejection of climate science.

In conversations with Californians, Norway is seen as an inspiring example. People want to learn more about the birth country of Gro Harlem Brundtland (‘mother’ of sustainable development) and Arne Næss (‘father’ of the deep ecology movement), and its beautiful and well-protected nature and clean water.

They want to hear how Norway has become a frontrunner in climate mitigation, and about the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund – the  Government Pension Fund Global – as  a gold standard for ethical and responsible investments.

It is embarrassing to have to explain how  Norwegian farm fishing seems to be out of control, and how Norway, as one of the few countries in the world, has allowed the dumping of mining waste in its beautiful fiords.

It is difficult to explain how Norway combines the role of being a driving force for the Paris Agreement with opening up new areas for oil and gas exploitation in the vulnerable North (no wonder Norway has been sued for the same, with the case set for the Court of Appeals next year).

It is saddening to have to clarify that the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, contrary to popular perception, has not divested from coal, oil and gas. The Fund’s mandate was changed a couple of years ago with the aim of divesting from coal, but following the Fund closely, I have to say that a coal-free Fund is still a thing of the future.

It gets worse when I attempt to explain the political context that renders the proposal from the Bank of Norway’s Investment Management to withdraw the Fund from oil and gas likely to be rejected by Parliament.

This will then be the second proposal from the Bank that potentially could have given us a more sustainable Fund to be rejected: In 2015 the Bank proposed to be allowed to invest a small fraction of the Fund in unlisted infrastructure, which could have been a first step on the way to a Fund that contributes to filling the enormous investment gap under the Paris Agreement.

The majority of the Norwegian Parliament followed the Ministry of Finance’s recommendation and rejected the proposal, justifying this through the statement that the Fund’s focus must be the economic security of future generations, and it ‘should not be used as a tool for foreign or climate policy’.

As if the economy exists in a bubble, protected against the consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss, and other environmental and social harms the Fund is involved in through its ‘business as usual’ investments.  

The conversation then turns naturally to what Norway is doing domestically to transition to a sustainable zero carbon society. People have heard about the electric car policy of Norway, and on this point I can actually confirm that this is to a great extent a success story.

California is also planning its transition from fossil fuels, and has recently set itself a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045, while the state is also criticized for its continued oil exploitation.

Can then California look to Norway for how to turn ambitious goals into reality, and phase out an industry that is the main cause of the climate crisis? Unfortunately not.

Norway seems to wish to ignore the IPCC’s report, of October this year, on the urgent action required to keep global warming under 1.5°C. According to the Norwegian public broadcaster, NRK, Norway has since 1990 fallen short of every single one of its climate targets and seems to wish to continue on this path.

Not even the very reticent targets set in the Norwegian Parliament’s agreements on climate policy have been reached. Norway is set to fail even the targets according to the Kyoto protocol, and is one of only a handful of countries in Europe that now has higher emissions than it did in 1990.

Norway could have been the petroleum nation that became the renewables country, which used its petroleum-generated wealth to invest in infrastructure for renewable energy and other sustainable industry.

It could have contributed to lifting poor countries up to a satisfactory welfare level in a way that also secured the basis for good lives for future generations. Instead, Norway is letting one opportunity after another slip away, decade after decade.

California leads the work with a climate coalition that is to contribute to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement in spite of President Trump, and the membership keeps growing.

Norway’s then Minister of Climate and the Environment, Vidar Helgesen, signed an agreement for Norway to join the collation when California’s Governor Jerry Brown visited Norway last year.

But what good does that do, if the lesson from Norway for others in the coalition is on how to speak with authority on the global stage about the significance of the Paris Agreement, and at the same time work hard to undermine the goals of the same Agreement?

Electric cars are nowhere near enough to make up for the way Norway is failing the word. If California and other states follow Norway as a role model, our common future is in peril.

Indeed, to the extent that Norway will make a positive contribution, it seems that it will have to come from its business and in spite of its government. This potential is something I look forward to exploring, together with colleagues from the SMART team and from UC Berkeley Center for Responsible Business, in our March 2019 conference: Corporate Sustainability Leadership? The Nordics and California.

Working together, across and beyond academia, and collaborating with market actors ready to be a part of the transition to sustainability, seems to be a prerequisite if there is to be any hope to secure the social foundation for humanity within planetary boundaries.  

By Beate Sjåfjell
Published Nov. 9, 2018 8:53 AM - Last modified Dec. 10, 2018 9:19 AM
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