In September 2021, Norwegians went to the polls after 7 years of Conservative leadership under Erne Solberg. On September 13th, it was announced that the social-democratic Arbeiderpartiet, the Labour Party, won 26.3% of the vote. The issue of climate change played a prominent role as one of the main topics of discussion leading up to the election. Despite this, the election was not the environmental win many had hoped for.
Norwegian Political System and Parties
Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, has 169 members, each elected for four-year terms during general elections. Norway uses proportional representation, meaning the number of seats a party gets should be as close to the number of votes received. Notably, the 4% threshold is the amount smaller parties need to be granted “leveling seats,” which recognises parties that receive solid support but not enough to win a seat. There is also a system in place to prevent urban populations from being able to outvote rural constituencies.
In order to form a government, the Arbeiderpartiet’s chairman, Jonas Gahr Støre, will have to form a coalition and work with other parties such as the Senterpartiet (the Centre Party) and the Socialist Venstre (Socialist Left) parties. Other significant parties include Fremskrittspartiet (Progress Party, the most far-right major party in Norway), Høyre (Conservatives), Venstre (Liberal Party), Kristelig Folkeparti (Christian Democratic Party), and Rødt (Red Party).
Progressive Image Challenged by Environmental Policies
With the left-leaning coalition having ousted Erne Solberg and her Høyre party, all five Nordic countries now have left-leaning governments. And yet, radical attitudes towards the environment remain stalled.
The now-majority Labour party may have rejected ending oil exploration, but it has at least agreed to gradually move away from oil. For a country that bases 18% of its GDP and 62% of total exports on this commodity, even this gradual stance will have an impact. Additionally, the oil sector has allowed Norway to attain the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world valued at around 12 trillion NOK, approximately 1.2 trillion USD. For context, a sovereign wealth fund is defined as a “state-owned investment fund comprised of money generated by the government.”
Although Norway presents itself as a very progressive country, its dependence on oil would suggest a different reality. The nation’s pioneering efforts to create car-free cities, for example, is admirable, but it is overshadowed by the country’s dependency on fossil fuels. As Thomas Hyllan Eriksen, a professor at the University of Oslo, explains, “Norway tries hard to act as a pro-nature, pro-diversity society, but our main source of wealth comes from oil and fossil fields. That tension became increasingly visible with this climate election.”
Interestingly, Norway’s emission rates remain relatively low due to a detail in how these numbers are logged. In 2017, Norway’s domestic emissions hit 53 million tons but its exported emissions totaled around 470 million tons. Minister of climate and environment, Sveinung Rotevatn, explained that “emissions related to the consumption of exported oil and gas products in other countries are covered by the importers’ emission accounts and targets.” This difference in numbers is problematic, as it allows Norway to seem “not so bad” in regards to climate degradation when in reality it is simply dumping what should be its own emission totals onto other countries. This is especially crucial when we learn that Norway only lags behind Russia and Qatar on the list of largest exporters of natural gas in the world. In rebuttal to the argument that “workers support oil,” Marie Sneve Martinussen, a recently elected Rødt representative for the district of Akershus, explains that “the transition from oil should not be a transition to unemployment. But to make that possible we need to invest in new industries. The choice isn’t between work or nature – we should use part of the oil fund to invest in new green energy.”
As a result, all of these issues combined make it challenging and controversial to introduce radical climate policies, especially when it comes to the phasing out of oil.
Was It Truly a Climate Election?
Many news outlets outside of Norway framed the election as one centred around the climate – and while that may be the case, the ousting of the right-wing government may not be the grandiose environmental triumph that we would like to imagine. Kacper Szulecki, a researcher at the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo, warned that this election “was not so much a triumph of the Left as a defeat of the Right,” explaining that “…the question of oil and gas phase-out and emissions reductions was dominant and all parties were forced to take a stance.” The pressure was on for all parties.
Despite this election’s supposed focus on the environment, no party with a radical vision for climate change is expected to hold much sway for these next four years. The Greens are the loudest anti-oil party in Norway but, in a disappointing show, failed to meet the 4% threshold. The farmer-supported Centre Party has captured many votes previously promised to the Progress Party, meaning that the latter now has less power in parliament. However, to capture those votes, the Centre Party ended up adopting some populist ideas, including anti-immigration rhetoric and hesitancy to any radical environmental policies.
Szulecki also points out that both the Conservatives and Labour “talk a lot about their commitment to mitigating climate change [but] their policy proposals are almost identical and include indefinite protection of the domestic oil and gas sector from any ‘radical’ moves that might harm its interests.” After crunching the numbers, we sadly see that 64% of total votes were for parties with very lukewarm stances on climate change, none of whom have a desire to take radical steps towards climate justice.
Small but Significant: The Case of Rødt
Only formed in 2007, the Red Party (Rødt) was founded on a radical platform to remove Norway from NATO, in line with its other anti-imperialist stances exemplified in its public rally in solidarity with Afghans following the Taliban takeover. Rødt doubled its share of votes in the recent election, allowing it to secure eight seats in Parliament, which is more than both the Greens and the Christian Democratic Party. Toni Usman, an Oslo-based activist, explained that the shift to the left in Norwegian politics can be attributed, among other things, to the credibility Labour gained by aligning with the Socialist Left.
Marie Sneve Martinussen attributed Rødt’s success to “having a coherent analysis of capitalism and what’s wrong with it – and this, of course, includes feminist, anti-racist and environmental issues.” Though the Labour Party was able to form a government without Rødt, in an attempt to gain votes, Labour “took a huge leap to the left,” making promises to trade unions and the environmental movement – promises that it is now expected to deliver on.
Despite a lack of political will from other parties to take steps to meaningfully fight climate change, Rødt is remaining optimistic that it will be able to make some change. There have been previous examples of oil exploration being halted due to political pressure, like the case of the Lofoten Islands, but the momentum needs to remain.
It would be an exaggeration to claim this election was a win for the environment. However, a lot of change is incremental – which is better than nothing at all. Though the main party may not be radical enough, with parties like Rødt gaining momentum, the establishment may not be able to escape criticism as easily anymore.