Norway's push for Arctic oil and gas threatens Paris climate goals – study
Norway’s plan to ramp up oil and gas production in the Arctic threatens global efforts to tackle climate change, according to a new study.
The research says 12 gigatonnes of carbon could be added by exploration sites in the Barents Sea and elsewhere over the next 50 years, which is 1.5 times more than the Norwegian fields currently being tapped or under construction.
The authors of the report from Oil Change International – an NGO backed by Friends of the Earth, WWF and Greenpeace – say this undermines the 2015 Paris agreement to cut worldwide emissions in order to keep the planet’s temperature rise to between 1.5C and 2C.
The report highlights the “cognitive dissonance” between Norway’s progressive domestic measures to comply with the Paris agreement on emissions cuts and its role as Europe’s biggest exporter of fossil fuels.
Climate campaigners say this is like trying to put the brakes on climate change at home while stomping your foot on the global gas pedal.
Norway has proposed a record number of 93 blocks for oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea this year, according to the report. Instead of adding new fossil fuel fields, it says Norway should reassert its environmental credentials by relying on existing production.
The study is the first of several detailed country-by-country follow-ups on a broader survey done by the group last year that highlighted the gulf between global pledges and national actions.
They focussed on Norway because it has long been a supporter of ambitious global reduction targets and has used part of its oil revenues to develop renewable technologies and tackle deforestation. If it cannot leave fossil fuels in the ground and make the transition to a carbon-free economy, the authors ask, then how can any of its rivals in less developed nations be expected to do so?
“This is uncharacteristically irrational behaviour for Norway,” said Hannah McKinnon of Oil Change International. “The Paris climate goals mean the world has to stay within a finite carbon budget. Norway’s current plans for fossil fuel production, expansion, and exploration are dangerously out of line with these budgets. Norway can’t be a climate leader at the same time as depending on new oil and gas production.”
The government says such accusations are unfair because they run against the convention at international climate talks for the responsibility for emissions to lie with consumers rather than producers. In this regard – of purely domestic carbon use – it is doing better than most nations because it gets 97% of its electricity from renewable sources, has a high carbon tax, is a leader in promotion of electric vehicles, and is pioneering carbon capture and storage at waste plants and cement factories.
It also notes that oil and gas output is flat, it is unrealistic to assume that all exploration will be successful and the trend for overall production is away from carbon-heavy oil and towards cleaner gas, which is important as a “transition fuel” for countries that are trying to move away from coal. Officials point out that without Norway’s gas the UK would be far further behind in meeting its climate goals.
“We are part of the solution, not the problem,” the deputy minister for petroleum and energy, Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde, told the Guardian. “This government is investing more in renewables and energy efficiency than any other. But renewables are not yet at a level where we can switch off oil and gas. We need a bridge.”
The government argues that its oil and gas reserves are the most efficiently extracted in the world and that, so as long as there is demand for these fuels, it is better that they come from Norway. It also puts the number of newly offered exploration blocks closer to 50.
But the authors say this misses the point because Norway exports 10 times more carbon than it emits, which makes this relatively small country the seventh biggest source of the climate pollutant.
“This is the first time we have seen how Norway’s exports affect other countries,” says Silje Lundberg of Friends of the Earth Norway.
The authors urge the government to reassert Norway’s climate and ethical leadership by committing immediately to a managed decline of production, which would be supported by 44% of Norwegians according to a recent poll.
They cite studies [Norwegian] here and elsewhere that show leaving fossil fuels in the ground is the most cost-effective way of reducing emissions.
Although the government warns other less efficient oil-producing countries would take up any shortfall left by Norway, Lundberg points to estimates by the government’s own statistical bureau that suggest there would still be an overall reduction of about a third.
Politicians from the two main parties are reluctant to scale back an industry that, as of June this year, provided almost 200,00 jobs and about 40% of the country’s export earnings. But they may not have much choice. Oil prices are less than half of their recent peak of 2014 and related employment has fallen by a fifth.
Globally, it is becoming harder to find investors for fossil fuel projects as renewables, such as solar and wind, become cheaper. Even with the very deep pockets of a $960bn sovereign wealth fund, Norway may yet baulk at the next big oil expansion – a proposed $13bn investment into the Wisting Field in the Barents Sea – that is due to be decided upon in the next two or three years.
For the small Green Party – which surprised many by winning a power-broking position in Oslo’s last municipal elections – this will be a part of their campaign for next month’s national elections. “We greens have said we don’t want to support a government that continues to explore new oil. That would be hypocrisy,” said Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, deputy mayor of transport of environment in the capital. “We need to be less dependant on an industry that faces great turbulence in the coming decades.”