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14 September 2021

How Norway’s left triumphed in a climate election

The anti-oil Greens failed to become parliamentary kingmakers, but consensus for change is building.

By Philippa Nuttall

The climate crisis may have dominated the 13 September parliamentary election in Norway, one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, but that doesn’t mean the country is ready to make radical change just yet. 

Norway’s centre-left was the clear winner as voting ended after yesterday’s parliamentary election. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre will work in the coming days and weeks to form the next government, ruling either in a minority or in coalition with other parties. His victory means that, for the first time since 1959, all five Nordic countries will have a centre-left prime minister. The change signals an end to Conservative prime minister Erna Solberg’s eight years in power and a greater appetite to engage with the climate crisis. How, and when, this appetite gets big enough to start cutting ties with oil production and investment, however, remains to be seen.

“There is now potential for change,” Poppy Kalesi, an energy expert based in Rogaland, an oil and gas-rich region in the south-west of the country, says cautiously. She, like many others in Norway, credits the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report in August for the shift in attitude. “In the last two months, the conversation has moved more than in the last two years,” she comments.

Nonetheless, Kalesi is “not expecting to see anything radical” in the next four years. “We are a very democratic country and will now take time to build a consensus for the transition.”

There should be “no further investment in new fossil fuel supply projects” if a global net-zero emissions target is to be met by 2050, insisted the International Energy Agency in May. Similarly, a paper published in the science journal Nature on 8 September concluded that nearly 60 per cent of the world’s oil supplies must stay in the ground if the world is to have a 50 per cent chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Yet, despite these conclusions and its newly found climate consciousness, Norway is unlikely to end its long-standing love affair with oil any time soon. 

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The MDG (Green Party) was the only party standing in the elections to have called for a complete end to fossil fuel exploration, but fell just short of the 4 per cent election threshold, which gives political parties a chance to compete for seats in the Norwegian parliament.

“I believe that calling time on our oil and gas industry is the wrong industrial policy and the wrong climate policy,” Støre said on 12 September. 

Internationally, particular attention will be given to what the country does with its oil fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, which holds 1.4 per cent of all listed companies. Støre has said he plans a change of mandate, which will set a net-zero target for all companies in which the fund invests.

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One part of the energy transition where Oslo and its suburbs are leading the world is in the move from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles. While the EU has set 2035 as the date by which no new internal combustion engine cars must be sold, Norway is aiming for 2025. “This goal is supported by virtually all political parties,” says Jaap Burger, senior adviser at the Regulatory Assistance Project, a non-profit organisation that advocates for renewable energy. Only the far-right Progress Party does not support the 2025 target, and it lost seats in the election.

Ensuring charging infrastructure catches up with car sales and that there are enough incentives to enable all households to make the switch will be important priorities for the new government. It will need to keep everyone onside – in particular, poorer households in rural areas – while ensuring the deadline is met.

A new government will not be formed overnight, but climate decisions will have to be swift if Norway is to achieve its goal of halving emissions in the next ten years. Clean energy advocates in the country are, generally, quietly confident the right change will come.

“Many said this would truly be a climate election if we saw the green parties progress in the polls,” says Steffen Kallbekken, research director at the Cicero Centre for International Climate Research. But for him, it is far more important the climate crisis was adopted as a key election issue by a majority of parties. 

“Climate change has become a key part of their [most parties] identity, and they have all made progress on the issue,” says Kallbekken. “As a researcher, I don’t just want to see policies introduced, I want to see they have longevity.”

Kalesi concludes: “In the 1970s, everyone thought the future was fisheries and sardines, and then came oil. The Norwegians are opportunists and I think the same thing will happen again. It is very hard to argue that after 2030 oil and gas is a safe industry.” 

[See also: The IPCC report is a warning to the world ahead of COP26]