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Leon Kaye headshot

Oil-Rich Norway Simply Exports its Carbon Emissions

By Leon Kaye

On the surface, Norway appears to be a global sustainability leader, a trend we have occasionally covered here on TriplePundit. Rich in oil reserves, Norway has invested billions in renewables including wind power. The country’s sovereign wealth fund, long heralded as a model for how countries can invest in the long-term social welfare for their citizens, is divesting from coal. Furthermore, Norway’s capital, Oslo, says it has a plan to slash its carbon emissions in half by the end of this decade.

But to critics, Norway’s progressive policies at home are at best a token effort as the Nordic country remains one of the world’s largest oil producers. By many accounts, Norway rounds out the world’s top 10 oil exporters, coming ahead of Venezuela, Mexico and Qatar while only ranking behind the usual hydrocarbon giants such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, the country's citizens have developed a strong affinity for electric cars and green building. Nevertheless, more global energy experts are quick to point out those efforts are a drop in the massive emissions bucket when one includes the total carbon footprint of Norway’s fossil fuels generated outside of the country’s borders. “The emissions of CO2 that occur within Norway's territory are dwarfed by the emissions that result from combustion of all the oil and gas Norway produces,” concluded the Center for International Climate Research last fall.

Similar assessments have been made of other oil exporting countries that say they have embarked on clean energy investments. Analysts have attributed Saudi Arabia’s push to boost solar power capacity to its desire to free up more oil for exports. The same has also been said for the UAE as it invests in renewable power projects such as the London Array offshore wind farm in the United Kingdom. “Every barrel they don't use they can sell at a vast profit to all of us,” wrote Andrew Winston in his assessment of Abu Dhabi’s strategy three years ago.

Norway’s predicament contributes to the argument over who exactly is responsible for the world’s carbon emissions, and who should take the lead in curtailing them. The debate is analogous to the controversy over the emissions generated by India and China – which are overwhelmingly the result of those countries’ economic development as they provide the goods and services used by much of the rest of the world.

One fundamental problem is the Paris Agreement, which global leaders say is critical to halting climate change this century. But each individual country’s progress is based on how much they reduce their own emissions within their borders – not by the impact their products have across the world in their entirety. In the case of Norway, its energy companies have no plans to curtail their production. And therein lies the dilemma, say Adrian Down and Peter Erickson of the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Norway has set out to be a global leader in climate action, yet continued expansion of oil and gas production could eclipse the benefits of Norway’s domestic emission reduction efforts,” they wrote in a recent brief.

Do not expect Norway to curb its oil production anytime soon. Since oil exploration in the North Sea first began in the 1960s, oil has become an important pillar of the country’s economy. And forty years after oil production accelerated during late 1970s, Norway’s hydrocarbons sector has grown substantially. While oil’s share of the economy has flat-lined in recent years, the country’s energy ministry estimates that oil revenues contribute 12 percent to Norway’s GDP and make up almost one-third the total value of its exports.

Opponents of Norway’s energy policy point out that while Norway touts sustainability at home, it is bullish on oil exploration away from its shores, including across the Arctic. Environmental organizations, however, are not keeping quiet. Greenpeace’s Norway chapter, along with the NGO Nature and Youth, have sued the Norwegian government, alleging that oil drilling in the Arctic violates the nation’s constitution. And they may very well have a case, as a 2014 amendment states:

“Every person has the right to an environment that is conducive to health and to a natural environment whose productivity and diversity are maintained. Natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations as well.”

Jabs at Norway’s environmental record are not just limited to environmentalists. “Norway always comes across as a moralizer on environmental matters but I think there’s a lot to criticize it about at home where it’s far from perfect,” a Swedish industrial company’s CEO told the Financial Times anonymously during an interview with the newspaper last year.

Image credit: Nicolas Holvoet/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye