Norwegian students organised their largest strike to date on 22 March, when thousands walked out of school to protest the government’s climate agenda. Joining them in Oslo, I found that like their peers globally, they have come to realise the need to voice their concerns in a country that has been one of the culprits of rising greenhouse gases. Some locals were nonetheless surprised at the masses the protest attracted, since they have seen and understood the Norwegian youth to be “submissive and well-behaved”. Most students have agreed with the need for radical action to tackle climate change, but they have not yet spoken out for their future. This has begun to change and carries wide-ranging repercussions for a society so deeply reliant on hydrocarbon revenues.
Norway is amongst the top fifteen oil producers in the world and the top ten producers of natural gas. The country has been able to uphold its social democratic values and saves most hydrocarbon revenues to weather future economic distress. Norway’s wealth fund has grown to NOK 8.9 trillion, just over USD 1 trillion (2.5 times Norway’s 2017 GDP), providing a country of a mere 5.3 million people a massive financial buffer. Despite this reliance on hydrocarbons, Norwegians have a firm belief that climate change is happening and a large portion of the population attributes this to human activity. Therefore, citizens are now pressuring the government of Norway—practicing oversight of the fund—to divest from its fossil fuel holdings. As a first step the government has decided to divest USD 7.5 billion from oil production. The move has been piecemeal at best, since it still continues to allow the fund to finance projects enacted by global oil and gas majors with diverse portfolios, such as BP or Norwegian Equinor.
Social resistance to hydrocarbon production comes at a crucial time in Norway, since the aging fields on the continental shelf are being depleted, requiring the government to grant concession in fields in northern territories of the Barents Sea well in arctic territory. The environmental impact of these activities may be especially detrimental to the vulnerable ecosystems in the region, while also making long-term allowances to produce oil and natural gas on Norwegian territory. This is increasingly being contested, given that the impact of global climate change is increasingly being felt in Norway as well through heightened precipitation. Calls to put an end to an age of hydrocarbon reliance are proliferating, as the government’s as well as the oil and gas industry’s narrative emphasising that Norwegian hydrocarbon production is cleaner—due to stringent regulations—rings hollow.
The Norwegian funds and domestic hydrocarbon production’s contribution to climate change are two key domains that protestors rightfully raise concerns over. However, there is a third area which also needs to be addressed: debunking the presumption that Norway’s energy demand is green. Indeed, Norway produces electricity from hydropower that would be enough to meet approximately half the country’s energy demand. However, it sells vast amounts of this to European buyers. The latter need to procure green electricity in order to meet guarantees of origin (GO) commitments i.e. a certain portion of the electricity they consume must be certified as renewable-based, which they can buy from green electricity producers such as those in Norway. This market allows Norwegian GO to be sold to European buyers, but Norwegian consumers can then buy back non-green electricity to meet their demand. Thus, Norwegians who did not buy GO’s (75% of the domestic market) relied on fossil fuels for 64% of their electricity demand—conveying just how “green” domestic electricity consumption is. In short, Norway is greening the overall European electricity consumption, but domestic demand is not quite as green as one would assume based on domestic production.
The youth’s call for action against climate change may fall on deaf ears though, as the government in power since 2013 has generally been pro-oil. The centre-right government has generally dampened climate action and catered to big oil. For instance, it actually shrunk the oil fund’s scope of divestment, initially proposed by the fund itself. For times’ being, this government may hinder substantial climate action, but its power is set to be challenged by the centre-left Labour Party in 2021 that holds a much more ambitious climate agenda, including the push to fully divest the oil fund’s resources from fossil fuels.
Norwegian climate strikes are raising awareness to these deeply entrenched problematics and forcing decision-makers to take some form of action. However, this is no easy task in a heavily oil-dependent society and in a global environment of competition for oil market shares. The typical response from policy-makers until now has been: if we stop producing oil and gas, additional demand will simply be met by US, Saudi or Russian production. On the other hand, Norway’s society is one that unequivocally accepts that action needs to be taken against climate change. In addition, a deep commitment to the country’s democratic values should provide the youth a platform to influence the decisions of their government. The question now is, how will the power struggle between a historically entrenched hydrocarbon legacy and the push from a younger generation pressuring their leaders to take action against climate change unfold?