Norway’s ‘Climate Election’ Puts Center-Left in Charge

Global warming and the future of the country’s oil and gas industry dominated the election campaign, yet smaller parties with ambitious approaches on climate fared less well than expected.

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Voters in Norway ousted their conservative prime minister on Monday, turning instead to a center-left leader following an election campaign dominated by climate change, and the growing contradictions between the country’s environmental aspirations and its dependence on its vast oil and gas reserves.

The vote came at the end of a tumultuous summer in Europe, marked by scorching temperatures and flooding in many countries. Once a distant prospect for many Norwegians, global warming became a more tangible reality that all political parties in the wealthy Nordic nation of 5.3 million could no longer ignore.

Though smaller Norwegian parties with the most aggressive stance toward fossil fuels fared less well than expected Monday, the vote offered evidence that the climate issue may be shifting the balance of power to the left in some European countries, among them Germany, which is holding its own election in just two weeks. The Social Democratic candidate there has been leading in the polls, and the Green candidate is ranking third.

In Norway, the Labour party, led by former Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, won around 26 percent of the votes in the country’s parliamentary elections and was poised to form a coalition with the Center party. But he may also have to include a smaller left-wing party that has demanded a more aggressive response to tackle climate change, and that could make any coalition deeply divided over fossil fuels and taxes.

The release in August of a United Nations report on the irreversible impact of global warming put climate change at the forefront of the Norwegian vote, buoying green parties in the polls and leading observers to describe it as a “climate election.”

Deadly floods in Germany and Belgium, and fires in Greece and Italy, made the climate emergency more real for many Norwegians, who have called on their leaders to confront the environmental cost of Norway’s oil and gas industry.

“Norway tries hard to act as a pro-nature, pro-diversity society, but our main source of wealth comes from oil and fossil fuels,” said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. “That tension became increasingly visible with this climate election.”

While several smaller parties with ambitious approaches on climate appeared to be gaining momentum in the weeks leading to the election, on Monday they enjoyed only mixed results.

That raised questions about Norway’s readiness to take a hard look at its economic dependence on fossil fuels. Several parties shared a pro-climate platform but differed on other issues, scattering green votes and keeping the parties under 8 percent.

With electric cars now accounting for 70 percent of new vehicle sales in the country, with an already ambitious tax on carbon dioxide emissions that could triple by 2030, and with emission goals in line with those of the European Union, Norway, which isn’t part of the bloc, has tried to champion a range of environment-friendly policies.

It is electrifying its fleets of ferries, and Oslo’s city center has become car-free. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the Conservative Party leader defeated on Monday, Norway has also sought to establish a global and legally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution, and it has been a leader in rainforest conservation.

But such efforts are dwarfed by the environmental cost of Norway’s fossil fuel activities, according to climate scientists, who say that only concrete measures designed to move away from oil and gas exploitation will make a difference. Norway is the leading petroleum producer in Western Europe, and the world’s third-largest exporter of natural gas behind Russia and Qatar.

The country has built so much of its wealth on oil and gas fields discovered in the North Sea in the late 1960s that most politicians argue it will take decades to transition from an industry that brings 14 percent of Norway’s revenues, employs nearly 7 percent of its work force, and has fed a $1.4 trillion sovereign-wealth fund, the world’s largest.

Still, Bard Lahn, a researcher on climate and oil policy at the Oslo-based Center for International Climate Research, said Norway reached a turning point in May, when the International Energy Agency called for a halt to new oil and natural gas projects.

“The International Energy Agency had been an important source of expertise and credibility for both the government and oil companies in justifying the continuation of oil and gas exploration,” Mr. Lahn said.

The energy agency’s conclusions and the U.N. report on climate change both shifted the debate during the campaign, Mr. Lahn said. “Climate wasn’t necessarily supposed to be such a central issue, and all of a sudden, it was,” he said.

Despite the soul-searching, the four main political parties all back continued oil exploration and production for the moment, as economic inequalities also dominated the campaign. Mr. Store argued that the revenues from oil could be used to finance a transition, but that stopping exploration and production would only hurt the country’s economy.

Five smaller parties, including some that could participate in a coalition led by Mr. Store, have pushed for an end to oil and gas exploration. The Greens, which made gains in the polls after the release of the U.N. report, even campaigned for an end to all such activities by 2035 But on Monday, they won less than 4 percent of the vote.

A former foreign minister, Mr. Store, 61, had long been a prime contender to lead the country, but he was defeated twice by Ms. Solberg, in 2013 and 2017. During her two terms, Ms. Solberg lowered taxes and increased public spending. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Norway has had one of the lowest death rates in Europe.

Ms. Solberg will also be remembered for having formed a coalition with the anti-immigrant Progress party that joined her government in 2017. It then left the coalition in January 2020 in protest against the repatriation of Norwegian families who had joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Since then, Ms. Solberg had been leading a minority government.

Critics and climate scientists say Ms. Solberg did too little to address climate change during her time as leader. But her successor will also face considerable challenges in trying to take climate change policies to the next level, like how to support workers in the oil and gas sector.

“Until now, Norway had been picking the low-hanging fruit in climate change mitigation policies,” said Fay Farstad, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research. “Now that we may be getting into the harder part, there has been more attention to the fairness of such policies, and making sure that the costs are being shared.”

In a victory speech on Monday, Mr. Store vowed to lead a “fair environment policy” and to deliver on the fight against climate change, although he may have to compromise with other parties that may make up his coalition and have diverging interests on oil and taxes.

Mr. Hylland Eriksen, the social anthropologist at Oslo University, said another challenge will be to reconcile all Norwegians with the fact that their oil bonanza may have to come to an end.

“Many feel that it’s too little too late,” he said, “Others who are in favor of oil argue that we’re only five million. But if we, as the richest people in the world, don’t make efforts, then who is going to?”

Henrik Pryser Libell contributed reporting.

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