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Zero Carbon Norway?

Posted by in blog November 30, 2012

I’m just back from another week long visit to Norway where I was speaking at the Zero conference and running workshops on sustainability communications for business groups in the southern Agder (‘Edge’) region. I have of course come back armed with both those infamous Norwegian delicacies – brown cheese and Aquavit. Such treats!

Norway is the surreal crucible of the developed world. Absolutely awash in glorious, filthy, dirty oil and gas money the Norwegians in a wonderfully guilty Scandinavian fashion aren’t quite sure what to make of all this enormous wealth. In 1958 the Norwegian Geological survey merrily pontificated that there was ‘no evidence for hydrocarbon reserves on the Norwegian Continental Shelf’, marvellously misleading the Government until the massive reserves they’re currently ploughing through were discovered in 1969. Moral: Never trust a geologist (they arrest them in Italy for this type of mistake) )

So while California was teaching the world to ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ our Nordic brethren and sistren were busily embracing ‘Drill down, strike (black) gold, get minted’. In typical sensible Scandinavian style however they have spent the last few decades merrily banking this wealth for the benefit of the nation, the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF – the biggest of it’s kind in the world) is now worth $654 BILLION! Yes, that’s correct, and not bad for a country of 5 million people…which of course begs the question WHAT ON EARTH DID WE DO WITH OUR NORTH SEA OIL AND GAS REVENUES?! Answers on a postcard please…

The Zero conference with Kofi Anan as headliner was pretty sizzle. I kicked off proceedings in the morning session pointing out to the Norwegians their ‘neutral’ partly-government owned ‘friendly’ fossil-fuel flogger Statoil has been spending big bucks (£2M on London billboards alone) to influence UK ‘National Energy Strategy’. Norway’s lobbying is to secure UK future commitment to buy their gas (the dash!) which will be charmingly supplied by this little installation called ‘Troll’, hilariously described as “Unusual amongst oil platforms, from some angles the Troll is actually beautiful”. Well, we’ve all been there after a few pints…

Zero’s (the low carbon future NGO hosting the event) CEO Marius Holm gave a passionate address. His main point was that the SWF MUST be politicised. It is currently invested in benign, future-proofed assets like, well…Canadian tar sands. Hmmm. Marius argued, using our old friend Jeremy Leggett’s ‘Unburnable Carbon’ report that this is pathetically Machiavellian and that the Norwegians should be investing in a future they want not some nasty, brutally pragmatically, real-politik option. If we assume the world is headed to a ‘Climate breakdown’ scenario – then the current policy is OK, but depressingly grim. Any other effective climate mitigation scenario requires change. ‘Which scenario is most probable?’ he demanded. ‘For which scenario are YOU working?’ he challenged. ‘We must invest in what we WANT. We must invest in what we BELIEVE!’ he posited.

Marius’s barnstorming ‘NOW is the time’ speech was followed by David Blood, Al Gore’s (remember him?) business partner in Generation Investment Management (yes, they wanted to call it ‘Blood & Gore’ arf arf). A former Chief of Goldman Sachs (in which case the surname ‘Blood’ was probably quite apt for being part of the ‘Vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity sticking it’s blood siphon into anything that smells of money’ or whichever charming way you choose to describe everyone’s favourite wunch of bankers). ‘I trained as a child psychologist – which was perfect for managing my team’ he dead-panned…

As silky, silvery-haired smooth as you would expect he made some good points: “Paraphrasing Winston Churchill – Capitalism is the worst system…apart from all the rest” and “If you don’t change direction you’ll end up where you’re heading”. But perhaps most usefully he questioned ‘the business case for sustainability’ arguing we’re asking the wrong question: ‘Why does an absence of sustainability NOT damage business and society?’ Answer? It does! Citing BP and the lovely lads and ladies at the lately departed Lehman Brothers as examples. Asking the wrong questions became a theme as he challenged BP’s scenarios in which fossil fuels will still be 80% of the energy mix in 2030. ‘These forecasts MUST be wrong, because the wrong questions are being asked!’ 

Later that night I got into what you might charitably call an ‘informed discussion’ with a Senior employee of Shell Norway. ‘The question you’re asking’ I argued ‘is how can we defend and justify what we currently do and make large amounts of money from for the next few decades? NOT how can we secure a clean, safe energy future?’ He then suggested Shell’s disinvestments from renewables were to ‘focus on what we’re good at and allow better qualified others to do what they’re good at’. I wasn’t entirely convinced by that unselfish international oil giant generosity, because of course Shell has no expertise or experience in engineering that might be handy for developing something like, say, offshore wind does it? We ultimately begged to differ.

David Blood’s real point was that ‘inaction is a choice’ that we have to make consciously with full awareness of the implications. Suffice to say there was some discomfort in the room. The Norwegian Prime Minister followed (at half the population of London Norway is a small country, it seemed most of the government was at the event) and pontificated about how being a ‘climate nation and an oil nation’, two aims that like oil and water seem immiscible but are actually, in his mind at least entirely ‘reconcilable’. Next up was Kofi Anan, who highlighted the $400B annual global SUBSIDY for fossil fuels, and on political short-termism explained that “All politicians know what they have to do…they just don’t know how to get re-elected once they’ve done it”. ‘It’s called LEADERSHIP’ I just about managed to stop myself from standing up and shouting.

The Environment Minister was on afterwards, deliciously contradicting the PM (it’s a coalition don’t you know – and ‘debate’ is healthy) echoing Marius Holm’s call to ‘assert to get the future we want, the future we need’ not the one most likely on current trends. He highlighted the risk of the SWF being fossil-fuel hedged, again citing ‘Unburnable Carbon’ and likening the fossil fuel reserves we can burn to beer – ‘there’s a six pack we can drink without getting drunk…but there’s another case in the cellar that we can’t or rather shouldn’t’. He also suggested the oil industry might have its own ultimate ‘Kodak Moment’ which I enjoyed as part of my personal campaign to redefine ‘Kodak Moment’ from a collection of treasured polaroid snapshots to the the moment when a business in denial watches its commercial model collapse beneath them.

His best gag however was about former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on his death-bed. His successor Yuri Andropov comes to pay his last respects. ‘I’m worried Comrade’ wheezes the expiring Brezhnev. ‘What are you worried about?’ asks Andropov. ‘I’m worried that the people won’t follow you’ says Brezhnev. ‘Have no fear Comrade’ replies Andropov ‘the people who don’t follow me, will follow you’. And so it will go for business in denial…

The crowning moment of the whole day though was Hans Rosling (I’m skipping some financial analysts and a Canadian guy and his Carbon Capture & Storage plant in some god-forsaken, flat, freaking nowhere-ville stretch of remotest Saskatchewan). If you haven’t ever seen this most sizzling of statisticians (yes, that’s not a typo) then watch this

An ‘infotainer’ he was hilarious whilst making an extremely serious point about how we discuss a world we don’t know about because we base our views and opinions on how we preconceive the world not how it actually is with all the biases and malformed secondhand opinions and prejudices that entails. Our views are often ’20-25 years’ behind reality he proves…

I won’t steal his thunder, but he pretty much emphatically demolishes the ‘population growth is the problem’ argument, a point I made in my, ahem, somewhat controversial’ ‘Death of Champagne Environmentalism’ blog in the Guardian last year. 

He also argued powerfully that carbon MUST be measured per capita not by country. ‘Does India have a urine problem?’ he demanded. ‘It emits more urine than the US!’ The answer of course, for the more beleaguered amongst you (this is turning into a rather unexpectedly long post – but like Magnus Magnusson ‘I’ve started ’cause I’m Finnish’, actually no, he was Icelandic wasn’t he?) is ‘no’.

So after all this fun and games in Oslo I headed south to run a couple of Masterclasses in a theme park closed for the winter, which all felt a bit ‘Scooby Doo’. As oil men of the future may come to rue ‘We would have got away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids’.


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