How Oslo Learned to Fight Climate Change

In September of 2019, roughly a dozen workers in Oslo, Norway, broke ground on the world’s first zero-emission construction site. They were widening a busy street into a pedestrian zone, using powerful machinery to break and lift slabs of asphalt. But the equipment was so quiet that nearby cafés and restaurants kept their front doors open. Passersby stopped to pose for photos, ask questions, and praise the project. Despite long hours in cold temperatures, the crew found the work energizing; the absence of deafening noise and noxious fumes was refreshing.

By using only electric excavators and machinery, the project avoided nearly a hundred thousand kilograms of CO2 emissions. But its larger goal was to help drive the market for electrical heavy-construction equipment. When work began, so few electric excavators existed that engineers had to retrofit a diesel excavator with an electric engine and battery. But since the project’s completion Oslo has committed to making all municipal construction projects zero-emission by 2025. Private companies bidding to win contracts now receive extra points if they use zero-emission equipment, and more of these machines are entering the Norwegian market every year.

The project was just one of many ambitious and wide-ranging initiatives that the city of Oslo has undertaken in the last six years to decrease its greenhouse-gas emissions. Through an annual process known as climate budgeting, every department in the city identifies specific policies and actions to reduce its emissions. All of these separate interventions, with their impacts regularly quantified and monitored, are aimed at reducing the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions ninety-five per cent from their 2009 levels by 2030. It’s one of the world’s most audacious climate targets; at the same time, in its speed and scale, it accurately reflects the level of emissions reduction we need if we’re to prevent the most dire consequences of climate change. Look at Oslo, and you can begin to see what life will look like in a city that’s serious about its obligations to the future. The shifts are subtle but pervasive, affecting everything from cemeteries, parking, and waste management to zoning, public transportation, and school lunch. Rather than waiting for a single miraculous solution, Oslo’s approach encourages a dispersed, positive shift.

In its commitment, Oslo is an outlier. Following its lead, however, cities around the world are growing interested in climate budgeting. Last fall, eleven cities from the C40—a global network of cities whose members jointly represent twenty per cent of global G.D.P. and a thirteenth of the world’s population—joined a pilot program to study how climate budgeting could be adapted in their localities. Stockholm has already launched a similar program. The cities involved aren’t just progressive northern European capitals: Barcelona, Berlin, Los Angeles, Milan, Montreal, Mumbai, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Tshwane are also participating.

Cities are key to fighting climate change. They are often small and nimble enough to avoid the gridlock of national politics, and yet they’re also big enough to make a meaningful difference. Valérie Plante, the Mayor of Montreal, told me that municipalities can act more swiftly than national governments while inspiring them to emulate effective programs; they can also mobilize and motivate citizens directly. Montreal is currently aiming for a fifty-five per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, and for carbon neutrality by 2050. Plante cited Oslo as a source of inspiration, calling its 2030 goals “amazing.” Each city is different, and will approach the climate transition in its own way. But the model being pioneered in Oslo may well show the world a way forward.

Oslo’s climate budget isn’t one line item among others. Instead, it’s a process for measuring to what extent different policies reduce emissions, and for guiding decision-making across all municipal departments. Some policies require extra funding: electric excavators are more expensive than diesel machines. Others, such as increasing tolls and parking prices for non-electric vehicles, are money-makers. “The climate budget is a tool to operationalize our climate goals and the climate strategy on an annual basis,” Heidi Sørensen, the head of Oslo’s climate agency, told me. The budget process establishes exactly what has to be done when, who has to do it, and what it will cost. It brings specificity to a sweeping goal.

Climate budgeting requires the accurate measurement of emissions. If you don’t know the quantity of emissions that different activities cause, it’s impossible to assess the efficacy of different proposed measures. According to the Norwegian Environmental Agency’s most recent studies, nearly eighty per cent of emissions in Oslo come from three sectors of the city’s economy: waste incineration and energy supply (twenty-three per cent), private cars and vans (thirty-three per cent), and other “mobile combustion,” including construction machinery (twenty per cent). The statistics aren’t perfect—among other things, they lag behind the present by two years—but they let the city focus on policies that are likely to have the largest impact. Debates about climate policies can become contentious; people have lots of ideas for how to reduce emissions. Einar Wilhelmsen, a vice-mayor of Oslo, told me that the budget lets the city settle arguments: “We can calculate it, we can say, ‘Yes, we can do that—but that won’t cut emissions much at all.’ ”

Many of Oslo’s climate-focussed policies are incentives-based. The city has created more and cheaper parking for electric vehicles, for example. But measures have also escalated, over time, from nudges to prohibitions. Non-electric vehicles already have to pay more to enter and park in the city; the newest climate budget will go further, creating an “emission-free zone” with entrance and parking for zero-emission vehicles only. These kinds of escalations can be powerful: a delivery company might be willing to pay higher parking fees for its non-electric vans, but the prospect of losing access to a whole section of the city could motivate the switch to replace its entire fleet. The same pattern is unfolding in construction—zero-emission machinery will be mandatory for work that is commissioned for the city by 2025—and in home heating: after several years of using grants to encourage people to replace their oil-fired furnaces, the city banned them outright in 2020. “I can’t remember anyone missing them,” Sørensen, the head of the climate agency, said.

Procurement is another far-reaching tool. Oslo spends roughly three billion dollars each year buying goods and services. Climate budgeting insures that much of this money flows to businesses that reduce emissions. Private companies that provide services from transportation to locksmithing are more likely to win contracts with the city if they use electric vehicles. Seven high schools, which hire outside venders for their cafeterias are taking place in a pilot program serving only vegetarian or pescatarian lunches. Emissions “don’t care about budgets or borders,” Sirin Stav, another vice-mayor, told me. People still fly into Oslo’s airport, emitting carbon—but local changes do matter. The city can encourage its residents to come home from the airport using electric taxis or public transportation, and it can push venders that work in multiple cities to change their approaches.

Between 2009 and 2019, total emissions in Oslo dropped by sixteen per cent, and its progress has been accelerating as it more fully embraces the climate-budget process. This year, the city set a record for electric-vehicle sales—nearly eighty-three per cent of all new cars sold in Oslo in the first quarter were electric—and it is set to transition its bus fleet to one that is virtually all-electric by 2023, ahead of its 2028 goal. At the same time, new obstacles are always arising. The pandemic has frightened many people away from public transportation; to meet its targets, the city will now need to lure a significant number of riders back. In 2018, a proposal to eliminate free parking spaces for municipal employees sparked such an outcry that it had to be shelved; raising the toll fees paid by non-electric cars was another source of bitter contention, although in the end the rate increases were enacted. The success of the over-all project is far from guaranteed. The city’s most recent modelling predicts a decline in emissions of seventy-two per cent by 2030, falling short of its ninety-five per cent target. This would still be a worthwhile failure—it would involve sweeping changes to many aspects of urban life.

After the success of the emission-free construction pilot, Norwegian national authorities began considering expanding it to the country as a whole. The national government is now proposing its own system for sector-by-sector emissions targets and measuring progress toward them. “It’s another way of describing a system that would be very similar to a climate budget,” Karine Hertzberg, a special adviser in Oslo’s Department for Environment and Transport, told me. Oslo can achieve a good deal on its own, but national engagement would enable swifter progress; raising toll fees beyond a certain point, for instance, requires parliamentary approval. “It would work much better if we could change the regulation on the national level a little bit so we could get more formal authority on the municipal level,” Vice-Mayor Wilhelmsen said. The creation of an over-all emission-free zone may also require legal approval from the national authorities. There’s also the matter of funding: upgraded waste-incineration facilities are essential if Oslo is to come close to meeting its 2030 goal, and the city needs funding to implement it.

The popularity of many climate measures within Oslo suggests the political feasibility of national policies. Oslo’s Climate Agency has found that approximately seventy per cent of the city’s residents consider the climate goals important and embrace them; in the last local election, the Green Party has nearly doubled its representation on the city council. Despite considerable grumbling over parking policies, many people also seem to enjoy how the city now has fewer cars. “Just a few years ago, some streets were packed with cars,” Vice-Mayor Stav said. “Change is always a bit scary, you know, so it’s understandable, but then people see the result, and they’re O.K. It’s actually nice.”

One particularly popular set of changes has occurred in the city’s cemeteries. Every Norwegian citizen is legally entitled to a free grave; this means that cemeteries are partly managed by municipal governments. In the course of the last few years, most of the tools and machinery used in Oslo’s twenty cemeteries—from lawnmowers and hedge trimmers to trucks, earthmovers, and excavators—have gone electric. Cemetery staff are also allowing lawns to turn back into wild meadows; flowers in the meadows attract insects, which in turn draw birds and owls. Foxes, deer, and elk have begun returning to the cemeteries. As part of a broader goal to plant a hundred thousand trees in Oslo before 2030, hundreds of new trees have already been planted in graveyards. During the pandemic, people have been using the cemeteries more, for exercise, meetings, and to enjoy the resurgence of nature. ”The city is kind of a hard and concrete area,” the director of Oslo’s cemeteries, Magne Hustavenes, told me. But in the graveyards “it’s green. It’s soft. It has a different light, a different peace.”

One day last fall, Hustavenes received an angry phone call from a woman whose husband had been buried the day before. When she returned to his grave, she said, she’d found that all the flowers she’d left were gone. She assumed that someone had stolen them, or that the staff had tossed them. But Hustavenes explained that this was now a common occurrence—deer love eating fresh roses from graves. “They’re just animals. They have been eating our roses,” he recalled telling her. “And then she turned around and said, ‘Oh, that’s a wonderful thing.’ And she asked, ‘What kind of flowers should I bring? What will the animals like the best?’ ”

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