In May 2016 the Norwegian government issued ten new oil production licences, opening new areas of the Barents Sea to exploration for the first time in more than 20 years. Just a few weeks later, it was celebrated for becoming the first industrialised nation to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global warming ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Norway is often praised for leadership on climate change, with lawmakers planning to make the country ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030. But there is an enormous caveat to the country’s apparent green credentials – as the world’s seventh biggest oil exporter, Norway is a massive ongoing contributor to global carbon emissions. It just doesn’t count those emissions in its domestic carbon budget.
Norway amassed its famous sovereign wealth fund in large part through oil and gas. Now the largest of its kind, the fund was initially established to invest Norway’s surplus oil revenue. The country is quietly trying to maintain that source of wealth even now, undermining efforts to limit global warming.
No room for new oil in the global carbon budget
Even if there were a complete moratorium on all new coal, oil and gas exploration globally, sites currently operating already contain enough carbon to put the world well beyond the Paris target. In fact, at least two thirds of proven reserves would need to stay in the ground to have any chance of meeting the target, let alone whatever is found under the new licences.
The new areas covered by the licences have only now become accessible thanks to persistent decline in Artic sea ice coverage in recent decades, with the Arctic warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
With the world already 1.1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels, the effects of anthropogenic climate change are increasingly seen in extreme events like heat-waves, drought and coral bleaching. Human-driven feedback loops – exploiting the consequences of recent warming to pursue activities that will bring yet more warming – are now an indefensible form of climate denial.
Wealthy high-emitters like Norway consistently and enthusiastically promote abstract commitments to reduce emissions at international forums, while completely denying any legal liability for past emissions, or any strict rules on how to reduce emissions going forward.
While oil exports currently account for roughly 14 per cent of Norway’s GDP, the cheapest way for Norway to meet its emissions targets would be by keeping untapped oil in the ground. The granting of new exploration licences is therefore a hypocrisy: they support other countries making commitments to reduce emissions, but do not consider it a domestic priority.
Global warming knows no borders
Norway is able to claim low emission status today largely because it exports most of its oil and gas products to other countries, while sourcing 97 per cent of domestic electricity from renewables. This is one of the biggest challenges of global climate change action: countries frequently deny any responsibility for carbon technically emitted outside their borders, even when they supplied the material.
The argument goes that fossil fuel producers have no control over what other countries do with the products once they are exported. But in the case of oil and coal, there is only one thing anyone can do with it: burn it and turn it into environment-choking carbon emissions.
This evasive argument was used recently by the Olso District Court to reject a case brought by Greenpeace and Nature and Youth (affiliated with Friends of the Earth), who argued that the new oil licences violated the right to a healthy environment under the Norwegian constitution, as well as contravening the Paris Agreement. Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace in Norway, described the new licences as emissions ‘smuggling’.
Hope in the courts
The question of legal liability for contributing to climate change or transboundary environmental harm is being tested in courts around the world, both national and international.
The Norwegian Greenpeace case, though in this instance a victory for the oil companies, was also an incremental victory for climate activists by recognising the constitutional right of future generations to a safe and healthy environment. The plaintiffs have announced they will appeal to the Supreme Court of Norway, arguing that Norwegian oil production violates this right, regardless of where the product is ultimately burned.
The race for the Arctic is on. While oil companies press ahead, developments in the courts may yet catch up to them. We should remain deeply concerned, because courts are conservative by both habit and design. But the ongoing efforts of environmental NGOs, cities and communities around the world are making steady and real progress. The Arctic is not yet lost.
Tess Van Geelan is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.