Norway’s environmental performance: “Are we as green as we think we are?”

by Julia Wanjiru Nikiema, OECD Environment Directorate

Credit: VladOrlov/Shutterstock

“We, Norwegians, are we really as green as we think we are? Do we live up to the national and international environmental commitments we made?” some Norwegian stakeholders wondered. This has been the starting point of the OECD Environmental Performance Review of Norway launched today in Oslo, which provides some answers to these questions. The review examines Norway’s environmental performance over the past decade and how it compares with other countries, offering insights and lessons for other OECD members and partner countries.

A frontrunner in many environmental areas such as air, energy, low-carbon transport…

Norwegians enjoy good overall air and water quality. The country’s four major cities rank in the top 20 of the European City Air Quality Index. Premature death attributed to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure is less than one-third the OECD average. Norway has abundant water resources; about 90% of Norwegians have access to treated drinking water from waterworks with high quality standards. The country has excellent waste treatment facilities, with cutting edge technology for waste sorting. Nearly half of municipal waste is treated by incineration with energy recovery, and landfills are becoming a thing of the past.

Norway’s energy transition is well advanced. The country has a low-carbon energy mix thanks to its plentiful hydropower resources. It is a world leader in electric vehicle adoption, and is advancing the decarbonisation of all transport sectors. In 2021, two-thirds of new passenger vehicles sold in Norway were fully electric, and 86% of sales have been electric vehicles in early 2022. The country has already electrified a third of its domestic ferries and aims at introducing zero-emission requirements for all new public procurement of ferries in 2023. Energy efficiency of Norway’s buildings is excellent in international comparisons, with high energy standards for new homes. In 2020, it became the first country that formally prohibited the use of fossil oil for heating in existing buildings and in new buildings altogether.

The country invests heavily in technological development and innovation to support its green transition. In 2021, Norway spent nearly twice as much on environmental protection as the OECD average (0.9% of GDP). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Norway’s recovery package included many green measures. For example, it set up a Green Platform (NOK 1.1 billion, about USD 119 million), which aims to stimulate “bigger and more rapid investments from companies in green sustainable solutions and products”. This cross-cutting initiative involves participation of five ministries, further demonstrating the integration of environmental concerns into other policy areas, which has been at the core of policy making for several decades.

….but there is room for improvement to develop more sustainable consumption patterns and to curb biodiversity loss

Despite progress in many areas, the country still faces multiple challenges, including strengthening sustainable consumption patterns and biodiversity protection.

Norway has abundant water resources but needs to tackle water losses. The country’s ageing water supply and wastewater infrastructure requires substantial upgrades. Climate change brings new challenges, such as increased precipitation, floods and rising sea levels. The rate of improvement in infrastructure has been slow despite substantive investment. Leakage from the drinking water supply system is estimated at 30%. Only 60% of Norway’s population is connected to advanced wastewater treatment plants, one of the lowest shares amongst OECD countries. In 2020, more than half of the population was connected to wastewater facilities, which do not comply with pollution permits. More inspections and higher fines could help to improve compliance.

Significant challenges remain to achieve a circular economy. The country has one of the world’s highest material consumption rates, a high material footprint per capita and low material productivity. Only a small share of products is cycled back into the economy. Norway is not on track to decouple waste generation from economic growth. Municipal waste per capita is among the highest in Europe. Many waste reduction schemes are handled through voluntary agreements with industry, which do not always reflect the full cost of waste to society. Norway has many opportunities to strengthen regulatory frameworks and provide stronger incentives to change business models, but moving towards a circular economy will also require behavioural changes.  The share of protected areas is expanding but still incomplete. Protected areas make up 17% of Norway’s mainland area, which is in line with the 2020 Aichi target and above the OECD average. However, protected areas do not represent all landscape types, and forest protection is only about half the national target of 10%. Nearly one-third of protected areas are at risk of degradation and require additional action to secure their conservation values. The OECD Environmental Performance Review recommends setting a specific timeline, with appropriate funding, for achieving national objectives regarding protection of representative or significant areas.

Mutual learning

“Nordic countries are very similar in many respects. In principle, we share many common challenges and similar circumstances. But when exploring the issues in more depth, we find surprising differences, particularly when it comes to political choices in the environmental field”, estimated Kaarle Kupiainen, a Finnish peer reviewer. For example, in terms of national climate policy, Norway aims to be carbon neutral by 2030; this is 5 years ahead of Finland, which is already considered to be “ambitious”. Norway’s plans to achieve net-zero depend on offsetting emissions via the EU Emission Trading System and other forms of international co-operation. In contrast, Finland relies more strongly on domestic carbon sinks provided by its forests. “It is therefore always interesting to get an inside view into our neighbours work, exchange information and learn about good practices”, Kupiainen concluded.

Facilitating peer-to-peer learning has been at the heart of the review process for several decades. The Environmental Performance Review process built a constructive and mutually beneficial policy dialogue between Norway and participating countries in February 2022. “I believe that the reviews are an excellent opportunity for us to receive inputs from other countries, and help us learn from each other. For example, I am happy to see that the OECD has managed to present and explain the Norwegian land use management policy in such a good way; and hopefully this will also be useful for other countries to see how we manage land in Norway”, declared Tom Rådahl, Secretary General of the Ministry of Climate and Environment.

With its highly educated population, well-functioning institutions, effective tax system and robust fiscal policy framework, Norway has the capabilities and financial means to accelerate a just transition within its own borders and abroad. So is Norway as green as they think they are? As one Norwegian citizen from Stavanger put it, “We can afford to be environmental-friendly. We seem to be quite advanced in many areas but we should commit to always give our best and live up to our international reputation”.

On 22 April 2022, the OECD released its fourth Environmental Performance Review of Norway. The review provides 30 recommendations to help Norway further improve its environmental performance, with a special focus on sustainable land use and biodiversity management. 

Further reading

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s