From Outstanding Oslo to the Norwegian Normal. How Oslo’s Climate and Energy Strategy can inspire the boldest possible climate action worldwide

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40

The mission of C40 is to spot world-leading best practice in climate action by individual cities and use it to inspire others. Many of these best practices begin as ideas in a city’s climate action plan.  It might not be everyone’s idea of entertainment, but while my fellow passengers were enjoying films on a long journey earlier this month, I was transfixed by the Climate and Energy Strategy for Oslo, a contender as the most impressive example of the genre anywhere in the world, and which deserves to be shared far and wide.*

It’s not just that Oslo’s targets are demanding in both the short and long term, but the plan is backed up by an annual climate budgeting process that makes these targets entirely achievable. Oslo's governance process also makes decisions and priorities on climate much more transparent. If the City is not on track, it spurs a discussion on the allocation of the financial resources needed to deliver the carbon reduction objectives laid out in the strategy.

Oslo’s goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 36% below 1990 levels (the year the Kyoto Climate Protocol came into force and thus a widely-used base year) by 2020. That doesn’t sound so dramatic and many cities established similar goals ten or twenty years ago. But as Oslo’s emissions at the end of 2015 were roughly the same as in 1990, Oslo’s impressive current Governing Mayor, Raymond Johansen, has committed to deliver close to 10% emissions reductions for each year of his term. 

I don’t know of any other major city where the mayor has set such an ambitious near-term goal that they will be personally mandated to deliver (although I’d loved to be proved wrong). By 2030 the goal is to have cut emissions by 95% from 1990s levels, which again is off the scale of most cities’ aspirations. Even more impressively, Oslo have front-loaded their commitments, rather than hoping to deliver the steep reductions in the later years of the plan.

Of course, targets are all well and good, but action is what really counts. As C40’s ‘Deadline 2020’ analysis makes clear, the world and each city within it has a finite carbon budget to use if we are genuinely attempting to stay within the ‘safe’ boundaries of climate change defined by climate scientists. Oslo’s climate budget gives me confidence that the city really will deliver on its commitments.

Launched in 2017, the climate budget process is managed by Oslo’s finance department, rather than the environment team, running simultaneously with the annual financial budgeting process. The governance system that has been put in place means the city council can only approve spending plans which have a realistic chance of delivering GHG reduction outcomes, consistent with the goals of the climate strategy. Thus climate goals are given primacy in the financial budgeting process. 

This is exactly the type of rigorous and innovative policymaking that we need from all levels of government and businesses if we are serious about achieving a climate safe future.

Having established a climate budget, the Governing Mayor and his coalition partners, including Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, Vice Mayor for Environment and Transport for the City of Oslo, have committed to policies which stay within its boundaries. Thus Oslo’s 2018 Climate Budget includes tough measures such as:

  • Introducing new rush-hour toll-road traffic charges, with exemptions for low and zero-carbon vehicles;
  • A 5% increase in public transport capacity in 12 months, while keeping down fares, so that mass transit is cost-competitive with car travel;
  • A program to deliver a zero-emission public transport fleet by 2020;
  • Phasing out oil-fired heating systems;
  • Stringent climate requirements for municipal procurement;
  • Increased capacity in the city planning department “in order to ensure climate-friendly urban development.”

Many successes have already been recorded and the city is constantly ramping up ambition. In 2016, for the first time, more journeys in Oslo were made by public transport than by car.

In a week when C40 released new research that consumption based emissions – those generated from all goods and services consumed in a city - can increase the carbon footprint of cities by more than 60%, Oslo’s Department of Environment and Transport is examining how its 2030 climate strategy can take account of such emissions. This would make Oslo one of the first cities in the world to address the total carbon footprint of the city.

Challenges also remain. The city is growing fast and the construction boom is still largely powered by dirty diesel generators. New city procurement rules will require zero-emission power on municipally-run developments, but it will be a bigger task to apply this universally and even more so to reduce the emissions embodied in construction materials. The Governing Mayor has already asked C40 to consider how it can help cities address this issue. A challenge I was pleased to accept.

A further sobering thought is that while Oslo’s climate plan represents the absolute pinnacle of ambition amongst the world’s cities, its 10% per year reduction target is actually about the level we need from all advanced (post)industrialised countries for the next decade. After around 2030 the cuts need to get even steeper – about 20% per year – for the world to finally achieve the necessary emission reductions to ensure a long term sustainable future.

In the finest C40 tradition, today’s outstanding best practice in Oslo needs to become tomorrow’s business as usual across the whole C40 family.

*I write this in the hope and expectation that quite a few friends in other C40 cities will indeed challenge this assertion! Good – we need competition and a race to the top in climate ambition.