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Norway's climate hypocrisy: Clean at home, dirty in the Arctic

Norway trumpets its low carbon footprint, but a new report says plans to ramp up oil and gas production in the Arctic will increase its emissions by half again - making a mockery of its Paris Agreement promises.

At the United Nations annual climate summits, Norway is often the darling in the room.

Although it is an energy-producing country, Norwegians are keen to stress their bold emissions-reduction measures at home. The country has adopted legislation to become "climate neutral" by 2030 - far earlier than other countries. It's a frontrunner in electromobility - and will also ban the use of fossil fuels to heat homes from 2020.

However, a new report from the Washington-based research organization Oil Change International is challenging Norway's reputation as a climate champion.

Though it may be adopting laudable emissions reduction efforts domestically, it is exporting 10 times the amount of its domestic emissions to other countries though the extraction and export of North Sea oil and gas. It is the 6th largest gas producer in the world, and the 15th largest oil producer.

Growing oil exploration

The main thing worrying Friends of the Earth Norway, which sponsored the report, is that these exports are set to grow.

Norway is issuing oil and gas exploration permits within its territories in the North Sea and the Arctic at a rapid pace. According to the report, these proposed and prospective new oil and gas fields would increase Norway's emissions by 150 percent from what it is today.

"Norway wants to be a climate leader - but every lease sale, every piece of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and every expansion into new carbon to be burned elsewhere says otherwise," Friends of the Earth's Silja Ask Lundberg told DW.

Statoil's Troll B oil platform next to a supply vessel in the North Sea (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hagen)

Norway carries out an enormous amount of fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea

The report represents the first calculation of Norway's planned oil and gas extraction expansion, compared with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

The research says 12 gigatonnes of carbon could be added by exploration sites in the Barents Sea and other parts of the Arctic over the next 50 years, and concludes that the plans are incompatible with the Paris goals to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The spotlight on oil policies in Norway comes at a strategic time, just one month before a general election that could bring in a new government there.

The report calls on the new government to freeze further leases or permits for new oil and gas extraction projects, or for transportation infrastructure that would incentivize further exploration.

The 'good producer'

Norway has long insisted that continued extraction in its territories - particularly of gas - fits into a global emissions reduction strategy because Norwegian gas emits far less emissions than Middle Eastern oil.

"This report assumes that reduced production in Norway will lead to a fall in requests for oil and gas equal to what we produce," Tommy Hansen, director for industrial policy at the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association, told DW.

With the association believing the amount of oil and gas that the market will demand will be in line with what the International Energy Agency is predicting, Hansen said the question is: Who's going to produce that oil and gas?

"We believe there are a number of reasons that Norway should be one of the countries to produce it."

An inside fjord in Lofoten archipelago, Arctic Circle (Getty Images/AFP/O. Morin)

Norway has been issuing exploration permits in the Lofoten archipelago, within the Arctic Circle

One of the reasons is that gas, which makes up the bulk of Norway's fossil fuel exports, is a far cleaner fuel than oil or coal. Increased imports of Norwegian gas has enabled Norway's European neighbors to decrease their emissions by using less oil and coal - as has been the case with the United Kingdom.

"This spring, the UK will have a coal-free day for the first time since 1892 - and the reason they can do that is because of Norwegian gas, which has half the emissions of coal," said Hansen.

The other reason Norway believes it should continue producing is that it does so in what it says is the cleanest way possible, under strict restrictions not in place in other producing countries.

"The world needs energy - and Norway produces oil and gas resources very efficiently," Jens Frølich Holte, a political adviser to Norway's minister for climate and environment, told DW.

Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg speaks in Oslo (picture-alliance/dpa/V. Wivestad Groett)

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg is holding the position that Norway should not stop extracting fossil fuels

He points out that Norway is subject to the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, and producers are thus subject to a CO2 price of about 50 euros. This incentivizes production to be very efficient, he explained.

"We have very strict regulations on emissions from oil production," he said. Of Norway's gas, 95 percent is exported to Europe - to "countries that are subject to a very strict climate regime."

Holte also said that Norway's long-term emission-reduction policies at home carry forward the shift away from fossil fuels.

Arctic invasions

The report counters this argument, asserting that Norway's continued extraction efforts are hurting the global effort to wean the world off of oil and gas.

It raises particular alarm about the country's plans for oil development in the Arctic. "Much of this proposed development pushes further into the fragile and remote Arctic ... where a spill would be catastrophic," the report warns.

Last year, Oslo issued 56 new licenses to allow 36 companies to explore near the Lofoten Islands - home of some of the world's richest cod stocks. Statoil, the national oil company, also plans to spend $6 billion developing the Castberg field, an stretch of Arctic ocean to the north of the country that could hold as much as 650 million barrels of oil equivalent.

However much of this exploration is on hold pending the election on September 11 - particularly any extractive activity at the Lofoten Islands. So far, conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg has remained unconvinced by the argument that Norway should stop extraction. But green groups are hoping that a successor government might be more open to their message.

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