Wednesday 16 October 2019

Geraldine Herbert: 'How Norse code can fuel green city revolution'

Oslo is close to becoming the world's first zero-emission capital, so what lessons can Ireland learn from the Norwegians, asks Geraldine Herbert

Geraldine Herbert on the traffic-free streets of Oslo
Geraldine Herbert on the traffic-free streets of Oslo

Geraldine Herbert

Within minutes of meeting the Transport Mayor of Oslo, Europe's Green Capital, it is clear Arild Hermstad is a man who believes that Oslo can make a real difference internationally.

He has just presented Oslo's climate strategy that aims to reduce emissions by 36pc in 2020 and 95pc by 2030. Oslo is close to being fossil-fuel free already and 97pc of electricity generated in the country comes from renewable sources.

"What happens in Oslo can happen elsewhere, we need to think globally and act locally," says Hermstad.

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Oslo's streets are virtually car free and filled with bikes, walkways and parklands. Beyond the backdrop of mountains, fjords and stunning lakes, it is a city that strives to protect its natural heritage, improve living and economic conditions.

It is little wonder that it is Europe's Green Capital for 2019, the highest recognition the European Commission awards in the field of sustainable city development. To date, 11 cities have been awarded the title of European Green Capital since its inception in 2010.

Arild Hermstad is justifiably proud of what has been achieved, their ambitious environmental and climate policy is beginning to produce results - 90pc of the buses in the city are low emission and three island ferries are going electric this year.

Norway is the world leader in electric cars and Oslo is the 'Electric Vehicle Capital of the World'. In 2016, 30pc of all vehicles sold in Oslo were electric, today that figure exceeds 70pc.

Cars in Norway are heavily taxed, so by exempting electric cars from tax, the green option became the cheaper one.

Electric car owners do not pay ferry fees, can park for free, drive in some bus lanes and, until recently, were exempt from tolls.

But Oslo is looking beyond the car after generations of city centre gridlock. Since 2016, over 700 car parking spaces have been removed and hundreds more converted into bicycle parking stands.

"The quickest way to cut emissions is to reduce cars," advises Hermstad "transport is the biggest contributor to emissions in Oslo, but reducing cars is not just about emissions, it is about making cities a space for people and a better place to live in".

The heart of the Norwegian capital is not yet a car-free zone but it has returned traffic to numbers that allow for scooters and bikes to flourish.

There are still challenges, the city's emissions still need to decline and only 10pc of the inhabitants in Oslo cycle.

Despite 60km of new cycle infrastructure constructed in the past few years and another 26km added this year, Hermstad is acutely aware that Oslo lags well behind Copenhagen and many of the Dutch cities.

Like many European cities, cycling was the most prevalent mode of transport in Oslo until the late 1960s. Cycling master plans were drafted in the 1970s but were not seen through to completion.

However, in the past decade, Oslo has been reversing this trend and cycling is prioritised with Bicycle Hotels and incentives for businesses to use cargo bikes for deliveries.

But it has not all been smooth sailing and the move towards a fossil-free future has attracted its fair share of cynicism and critics. Many residents are unhappy and some claim it's costing taxpayers dearly.

Parking charges rose 50pc in the last few years, a congestion charge was introduced in 2017 and toll charges have risen more than 60pc.

Many local businesses complain that the abolition of free street parking is proving a challenge. Opposition parties have also united against a recent toll increase and an anti-toll political party is emerging.

There is also the issue of how Norway can reconcile the CO2 emissions elsewhere from their export-driven oil and gas industry while imposing climate restrictions on its citizens.

For many, Oslo may sound too virtuous to be true, but it is a leading example for other cities. One of the main aims of the European Green Capital award is to share both successes and failures with other cities.

There is much that Ireland can learn from Oslo. Daniel Rees, the mayor's political adviser, believes that politicians need to be bold and think beyond re-election.

"Climate goals are not set in stone, but rather they evolve around what works and what doesn't," he says.

The hugely successful take-up of electric cars in Norway has resulted in a huge loss of motor tax revenue for the government, so political support for battery-powered transport is dwindling.

The entire EV policy is likely to be overhauled in favour of investment in public transport which will provide more cost-effective reduction of CO2 and congestion.

If there are key lessons from Oslo, it is that setting targets for 10 and 15 years is futile. Selling green initiatives is as much about outcomes as it is about consumer and citizen engagement. As it invariably brings opposition, it is crucial that changes are flagged well in advance, introduced slowly and alternatives are made affordable.

Oslo is a city rich in resources, in a country with abundant access to renewable energy. On the train journey back to the airport, I was struck by an advert for Audi's new E-tron - the all-electric SUV - it costs 652,062 Norwegian Krone to buy, that is just over €67,000.

In Ireland the starting price for the same car is €99,750. The price disparity highlights just how much Norway is spending on incentivising electric cars.

There is no doubt it has been a successful policy, but it has come at the expense of investment in other modes of transport, including cycling and public transport. In Oslo it is cheaper to drive an electric car than to use public transport.

Ireland has limited resources and stimulating mass take-up of electric cars requires substantial investment and will do little to alleviate transport problems such as congestion or the inefficiency of single occupancy car use.

It is not a battle between fossil-fuelled cars and electric cars, in the long term, the aim of any climate action plan has to be fewer cars not cleaner cars.

Sunday Independent

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