climate change energy

Norway leaves it in the ground

Fossil fuels are destabilising the climate, and there is more than enough of them left in the world’s oil, coal and gas reserves to change the atmosphere beyond recognition. The safest place for them then, is in the ground.

Since they have such a high value, that’s a big ask for anyone with reserves on their books. Whether they are a country, a company or an individual, they would have to forego that income for the good of humanity – while watching others profiting handsomely from similar reserves. So it’s worth noting when it does occasionally happen.

This week, Norway has effectively ruled out oil exploration around the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic, after a majority of parties in parliament opposed it. This is likely to mean a decline in the country’s 1.6 million barrels a day production as other sources taper off. It might mean lower profits for state-controlled Equinor, and for Norway’s economy as a whole – oil and gas account for over half its exports. This is no small decision, despite being by far and away the right one.

As union leaders have complained, choosing not to exploit Arctic reserves will also affect jobs in the extractive industries, and they are portraying the decision as something of a betrayal by Norway’s Labour party. That highlights the need for a fair transition and for support for extractive industry workers. Jobs alone is not an argument for maintaining anything, let alone oil production.

In short, this is a brave decision. While it’s easy for climate campaigners like myself to demand that fossil fuels be left in the ground, it’s not an easy thing to do practically. It has political and economic ramifications. Decisions are not made lightly, even with the urgency of climate change – but they are not as impossible as some might claim. Countries can choose not to exploit their natural resources. It would be much harder in a poorer country, but in Norway’s case, perhaps it’s possible to say that they have profited enough from fossil fuels. In 2014 the value of the country’s sovereign wealth fund crossed a symbolic threshold, making every Norwegian a Krone millionaire on paper. A sure sign of Arrival in my book.

Because it’s difficult, stories like this are few and far between, and the vital task of leaving fossil fuel reserves unexploited is advancing through other tactics. Divestment is all about removing the legitimacy of profiting from fossil fuels. Without the divestment movement, it is unlikely that Norway’s political parties would be making this choice. The carbon bubble debate continues to highlight the risks of holding fossil fuels as assets. There are legal cases against fossil fuel development, as the Trump administration is facing at the moment. And of course there has to be confidence in the alternatives. Norway is the world leader in electric cars, which will soften the clamour for new and cheap supplies of oil.

If anyone could do this, it would be Norway, and most countries are a long way off this sort of commitment. Britain is pursuing what it calls ‘the maximising economic recovery strategy‘ to eke out every last drop from the North Sea, even though it conflicts with climate targets. Changing that will need divestment, legal cases, a just transition plan, and development of alternatives, so that the decision not to maximise extraction gets politically easier. In poorer countries, the value of the resources foregone is much higher, and some form of compensation may be needed as well.

Politics is politics, even in Norway. The oil lobby might still win and unlock the Lofoten Islands for exploitation and profit. We will have to wait and see. But this week, Norway offers us hope that maybe – just maybe – we can leave fossil fuels in the ground.

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