With more than 100,000 electric cars already on the road, oil and gas-rich Norway aims to phase out fossil fuel cars altogether by 2025. Can it be done? Lars Bevanger reports from Oslo.
A measly 321 electric cars were registered in Norway in 2007. By the end of last year there were more than 100,000 of them on the roads in the Scandinavian nation, population 5.2 million.
No other country in the world comes anywhere close to that level of electric vehicle (EV) ownership per capita.
"I think ten years ago [today's situation] would have been regarded as science fiction," said Erik Figenbaum, a chief research engineer at the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics in Oslo.
"When I talk to researchers and politicians in other countries they cannot believe what is happening in Norway. It has been a tremendous development."
Cheap and convenient
If you ask electric car owners in Norway, they will tell you the huge success of plug-in EVs is down to two factors: they are cheap and very convenient.
"You pay much lower taxes, so it's cheaper than a normal diesel or gas car, and also you can drive in the bus lane all the way to town, which means it's really, really fast to get to work," explained Inger Sethov, as she brushed snow off her VW e-UP! before getting ready to whiz past the queues on her way to work in Oslo.
Thanks to a government incentive, she paid no VAT on her car, instantly wiping a whooping 25 percent off the sales price. Then there is free city center parking and charging, free ferry crossings and access to use the bus lanes.
"It's a no-brainer," she said.
No fossil fuel cars after 2025?
Norway's EV market has nearly doubled year-on-year since 2011. Right now, nearly 40 percent of all new cars sold are electric, and sales are edging towards a 50 percent tipping point.
There are still more than two million fossil fuel vehicles on Norwegian roads, yet buoyed by the success tax cuts have brought to EV sales so far, Norwegian politicians now want to phase out petrol and diesel cars altogether by 2025.
"We should also make it more expensive to drive a fossil fuel car to give people more incentive to change," said Eivind Trædal, a city council member for the Green Party in Oslo.
"I think the most important thing is that we have a balanced approach with both the carrot and the stick."
That is not just wistful thinking from the Greens. There has long been broad political agreement to electrify Norway's private car pool, and there is a parliamentary majority in favor of looking at ways to further tax fossil fuel vehicles according to a "polluter pays principle".
Carrot and stick approach
"We can tax the gasoline and diesel cars even higher if we want to, so I think it is potentially possible to transition to a more or less fully electric passenger vehicle sector in the future," said Figenbaum at the Institute of Transport Economics.
Yet he is doubtful the 2025 deadline is achievable.
"I think that's a bit of a stretch, because you still have remote areas in Norway, you still have people who drive long distances."
The EV uptake has been phenomenal in Norway by anyone's standards. Foreign politicians and car manufacturers have started to visit in order to see for themselves how a mass electric car market works.
"Car CEOs come to Norway to understand what happens when we have mass adaptation of electric vehicles," said Marius Holm, who heads the environmental foundation Zero Emission Resource Organisation, which works exclusively on emission issues.
"They come to study infrastructure, charging networks, how it all works. In the beginning we were an initial market that created volume. Now our role is to be the 'lab' where we see how things work."
Still a large polluter
Yet even a 100 percent electric car pool would not be enough for Norway to cut its emissions in line with what the country signed up to at the Paris climate summit.
The country is one of the world's largest oil and gas producers and exporters, and depends on carbon trading and support against deforestation to meet its emission commitments.
"Norway is still one of only two countries in Europe where emissions are still increasing," said Nina Jensen, head of WWF Norway.
"There is limited political will to talk about our biggest emitter, which is the oil and gas sector. Emissions from oil and gas have increased in Norway by 80 percent since 1990," she added.
"So if we really want to do something about climate change, and we want to get serious, we really need to start doing something about our oil and gas production," Jensen said.
If the sales of electric cars continue to grow at the current rate, not much of Norway's oil production will go to power the country's car fleet.
Like the majority of Norwegian electric car owners, Sethov is very happy with her experience. For now, her second car is a regular petrol engine people carrier.
But with a new generation of bigger, longer range electric cars coming out, she is ready to go all-electric.
"The next time we buy a car, in probably not too long, our big car is also going to be an electric car. In a year or two, we'll have two electric cars."