Norway’s paradox: lowering emissions in an economy fueled by oil and gas

by Dakotah Manson, Program Associate
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Norway’s paradox: lowering emissions in an economy fueled by oil and gas

In 2014, Norway passed environmental provisions within its Constitution declaring that all citizens have a right to a healthy environment. For the first time, litigation under this provision has been brought before Norway’s Supreme Court judges by environmental groups seeking to invalidate licenses for new oil rigs in the Arctic. Norwegian news outlets are calling it the “case of the century” and have deemed it the highest climate-change lawsuit brought before a court by activists in Europe, according to the New York Times.

The fossil fuel industry plays a key role in Norway’s economy, accounting for more than half of the country’s exports. In 2019, Norway’s oil and gas emissions reached 10.4 million tons of CO2 in the North Sea alone, with even more offshore drilling rigs approved. Norwegian oil and gas giant Equinor, along with its partners Vår Energi, ConocoPhillips, and Petoro announced in September that they would develop and operate drilling rigs in the Breidablikk field – one of the largest undeveloped oil discoveries on the Norwegian continental shelf.

Additionally, Norway plans to auction up to 136 new oil exploration blocks this year in a major licensing round with 125 of those going towards exploration in the artic Barents Sea despite its commitments to tackling global warming. The World Wildlife Fund has called the Barents Sea in the Arctic “one of Europe’s last large, clean and relatively undisturbed marine ecosystems,” but with new offshore drilling sites, this may no longer be the case.

In February 2020, the Norwegian government submitted its enhanced Paris Agreement target to reduce emissions by at least 50% and towards 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, according to Climate Action Tracker (CAF). Its current policies, however, are only projected to lead to emission levels of 14-21% below emissions in 1990, which are deemed insufficient by CAF. As the country continues to allow the development of new offshore drilling rigs, their promise seems almost impossible.

If Norway hopes to contribute its fair share to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit, they will need to take a serious look at their fossil fuel industry. As stated by Gail Whiteman, the founder of Arctic Basecamp in Davos, “Any new drilling goes against a science-based approach to climate change and is at grave odds with Norway’s image as a leading green economy.”

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