Pushing the Limits of Sustainability in Norway

Contradictions are always easy to find in the field of sustainability and they are consistently cited as reason for inaction. Hummer drivers make reference to the supposed report showing that the batteries in Priuses are more environmentally damaging than their two-ton tanks. And produce shoppers choosing between tomatoes from Africa or pesticide and fertilizer-intensive tomatoes from the UK typically give up by siding with the cheapest option.

An article in the Economist last week did this same thing. It illustrated that Norway’s extraordinary, even heroic, effort to live sustainably was difficult to reconcile with the fact that it is one of the world’s biggest per capita polluters and a huge exporter of dirty fuels. Certainly this is a useful contradiction to point out, and one that we can grow and learn from in the future.  But I want to share the really optimistic and inspiring stuff hidden deep inside the story that environmentalists like you and I can be proud of no matter what.

It is almost impossible for anyone not to be impressed with Norway’s real efforts in meeting its zero-emission goal by 2030. As the Economist explains,

“It is hard to overstate the extent to which greenery has penetrated official thinking in Norway. Successive governments have taken all the obvious steps. There are high taxes on petrol and cars. There is an extensive public-transport system, with trains between the big cities, ferries along the coast and buses that call at many of Norway’s remote hamlets. There are cycle routes galore, and not as many new roads as drivers would like. In fact, the government is so keen to reduce road traffic that it has said it will double funding for public transport for cities that promise to squeeze private vehicles off the roads.”

Beyond that, the fourth largest exporter of oil not only generates close to one hundred per cent of energy from hydroelectric plants, but it actively invests ($1.4 billion last year, and close to double that next year) in the development of all sorts of mind-boggling new clean energy sources including floating wind turbines, and “salt power”. It has what can only be described as the most advanced and sophisticated energy-efficiency researchers and planning staff (they routinely prefer bridges to tunnels because of the emission differences).

What is perhaps the most exceptional part of Norway’s effort is its decision to allow and expand carbon offsetting in developing countries. Its internal emissions trading scheme that includes both businesses and government is linked with the EU ETS. Their current level of carbon–efficiency means that they will increasingly look to the developing countries for cost-effective opportunities for carbon abatements. On top of the vast sums of money poured into offsets as their emission targets increase, the government directly provides $360 million to stop rainforest deforestation. All of these exceptional steps are seen by the government as baby ones. Despite an increasingly disgruntled electorate, they plan to push ahead with their agenda, and are already positioning themselves as leaders in the Copenhagen debate.

The article goes on to describe has they could do much more and that they might be doing too much. It is an interesting read. But the inspiring stuff is perhaps the most pertinent point. Norway is leading the way, and learning hard lessons from the process. We should praise their effort and help them overcome the obstacles rather then viewing their case as further reason for inaction.