Oslo Mayor: Here’s how we plan to become a carbon neutral city

15% of Oslo's planned emissions cuts are expected to come from a carbon capture and storage project at the Klemetsrud waste and energy incineration plant. [Arbeiderpartiet / Flickr]

The city of Oslo surprised observers last year by announcing plans to introduce a “carbon budget” with the objective of halving its global warming emissions by 2020 and becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The city’s Mayor, Raymond Johansen, told EURACTIV.com how he intends to achieve this ambitious objective.

Raymond Johansen is a Norwegian politician from the Labour party who has been mayor of Oslo since 2015. He spoke to EURACTIV’s editor and publisher Frédéric Simon during a recent visit to Brussels.

In January, Oslo became the first city in the world to introduce a so-called “climate budget”. Can you tell us more about how this works?

The overall aim is to count CO2 emissions in the same way that we are counting money.

We listed 42 different measures that fall under different parts of the city’s administration for which they had to report back. For example, do homeowners rent places which have a climate budget? Or what type of car people own – is it electric or not? Which sectors have the highest emissions?

The main reason for doing this is that we want to make emission cuts more down-to-earth, more practical. It’s not just wishful thinking – it’s practical policy.

How did you identify the 42 measures?

It was the Department of Finance in the Norwegian government. The criteria weren’t political – they were more objective.

I don’t know if we’ll do everything right in the first year, but I think we will gain a lot of experience which will be valuable for the next budget. Next year we will be much more professional.

The aim is to halve the amount of greenhouse gases within four years, by 2020, which seems incredibly fast. How can you ensure you get those results that quickly?

I have to say it’s very ambitious. But I’m confident that by then we will have a CCS [carbon capture and storage] installation at the Klemetsrud waste and energy incineration plant. Our plan relies on this for 15% of the overall cuts, so it will be difficult because reaching that goal will also depend on funding from the state.

But it also means we have to cut emissions by 35% across all other sectors, and that’s very ambitious – it’s a part of the green shift. In January, 50% of all the cars sold in Oslo were either electric vehicles or hybrid cars, which we found very promising.

On heating, we need to replace the woodstoves, which are an important part of the pollution in Norway. There is a financial system to support this switch. In housing, we give support to insulation. That’s the carrot, so to say.

Regarding sticks, we will charge vehicles so that it becomes more expensive to drive during rush hours. And we will have three different circles in the centre of Oslo where driving cars will become more and more expensive.

We will also ban diesel cars. This season we prohibited them for one day because of the air pollution.

Will diesel be completely banned?

Not before 2025, but they will probably be totally forbidden after that. Some parts of Oslo are in the so-called “red zone” for air pollution, so we will ban these cars from entering Oslo. We have already done it one day this winter, which was a mild winter. If it’s colder, it would probably have to last for many days.

We will also tackle pollution from big ferries and cruise ships that pollute the equivalent of around 15,000 cars. Shoreside electrification for ships needs to be standardised, which calls for greater cooperation between different harbours.

The line going between Oslo and Kiel, in Germany, already has the very first ships to convert to onshore power supply, so it’s possible. But we need to standardise this at international level. We are organising a conference in Oslo with the harbours of Gothenburg, Bremen and Rotterdam.

At EU level, the standardisation process of shoreside electricity is part of the EU’s Clean Power for Transport package.

What is the overall cost evaluation of your plan, across the 42 areas? Norway happens to be a rich country, so maybe not all countries can afford to do this?

It’s really not that expensive, it’s more about changing behaviour. For example, at the municipality of Oslo, we buy goods and services worth 26 billion Norwegian krone each year. So in the way we buy – in public tenders for example – we can put forward precise demands.

This can apply everywhere – in hospitals, in schools or in construction, where we can put forward demands on fossil-free construction sites. It’s costly, but it’s not the municipality bearing the cost, it’s the constructor.

But they will pass on those costs to the municipality. They will charge you more, I suppose?

These are competitive tenders. We use our purchasing power and then it’s up to them to deliver. They say the future is here. If they continue to deliver the less environmentally-friendly products, they will not meet the requirements of the future. You see?

Talking about fossil-free building sites, the city of Oslo went out and demanded to see if there were alternatives to diesel-powered machinery. One provider actually came up with battery solutions, which allowed to really cut down on diesel costs for the excavators. Since electricity is cheap, it’s not as dramatic as you might think.

We have also supported people for buying electric bicycles, a small fund worth 7 million Norwegian krone. And we have also increased our climate fund in order to make be possible for people to buy environmentally-friendly products. So it’s up to the people themselves. Some things like diesel will be a little more expensive and others will be cheaper thanks to public support. On balance, I don’t think it’s that expensive for the municipality.

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What about the ICT aspect of all this? Are you also digitalising some processes to gain efficiency?

Yes, digitalisation is an important part of it. Everything that can be digitalised should be digitalised, across all sectors. We have set aside 1.2 billion Norwegian krone to implement it, and we are looking for small wins, small gains, in different sectors, you can almost mention all sectors within the municipality.

At the same time, we want to communicate much closer to the people of Oslo, using smartphone applications. We want to establish a lot of push services. For instance, when you register your newborn child, you will receive push messages telling you about the kindergartens in your neighbourhood. Or you will receive notifications about the leisure activities in your area.

Later, at school or in the health sector, in the transport sector, apps are very advanced and can provide lots of practical information. They can wake you up in the morning and tell you where you can catch the bus, or whether the bus is late. Public transport companies are now becoming mobility companies. So digitalisation goes hand-in-hand with this development.

This is so important. New technologies are essential for the efficiency of the public sector. Because if we don’t do anything, the public sector as we know it will be overtaken by Facebook and Google who know much more about you than the municipality. And if private companies are better at offering public services in the health sector for instance, then people will wonder why they should continue paying taxes­. The same goes for schooling: Why go to a public-funded school if you can get a better teacher elsewhere?

So you believe the government needs to digitalise its services because otherwise, the private sector will take over?

Yes, give us five years, not more.

You want to digitalise all public services within five years?

Everything. Estonia has done it and they started from scratch. From telephone cables they immediately went to mobile. Now public services are fully digitalised, from electronic voting down to healthcare services.

Estonia is much more privatised than Norway. So, for me, it’s about paying taxes. People in Norway are still in favour of paying taxes because they feel that they get something back – from public transport to health, school or the military services.

But in the future, we cannot take any of that for granted. Digitalisation is the answer.

Back to transport: Oslo’s carbon-cutting plan relies on tolls for cars and also cutting parking spaces. Will there still be a place for the private car in the future, or is the intention to ban them entirely eventually?

No, this is not the intention. From 2003 until 2016, the number of private cars in Oslo increased by 120,000. If we want to establish a car-free city, it’s more to do with space allocation in the city of Oslo than it is about climate or pollution, because not that many people actually live in the inner cities.

We want other kinds of activities than parking places in these areas – like restaurants, cultural life, kindergartens, elderly care, etc. And areas for pedestrians, of course, as well as cyclists.

Of course in a transition, it will be a challenge to replace parking places immediately with other activities. We don’t want an empty, dark inner city centre. This is why I am meeting all the merchants and shopkeepers in the city of Oslo. We will discuss in detail about how to take away 620 parking stations in the inner city. It’s a lot, but at the same time, we will also allow lorries, which deliver goods, to come into the inner city. And we need to find solutions for the disabled and taxis.

But the overall aim is to improve the use of the existing space we have and to create a more friendly, lively and vibrant city.

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In Brussels, the local merchants complained because of accessibility problems for their clients. It’s less convenient now to access the shops, and also for deliveries.

We have been to Brussels to study how they imposed traffic restrictions there and introduced the pedestrian zone in the city centre.

I think it’s important for us to impose this gradually and in close contact with the merchants. That’s one of the lessons we learned from Brussels. I want to have a careful approach and close contact with local population and shopkeepers. If we see it creates too much conflict, then we will slow down in the way we impose it.

One difference is the consultation process that Oslo went through. In our case, all the different actors were consulted – real estate organisations, transport authorities, the different departments within the city were involved in developing the car-free city.

In Brussels, they just went and did it, and then they got sued. So we learned a lot from what they did in Brussels.

But there are also differences. A lot of people in Brussels live in the inner city. That’s not the case in Oslo, very few people actually live there – around 600 people – so very, very few.

Regarding buildings, I saw the plan for Oslo was to phase out completely fossil fuels in heating by 2020. But not everyone is able to afford replacing their old boilers. How do you manage that?

We have special loans, both within the municipality and through the Norwegian state. The replacement is very successful. People are more than willing because it also increases the value of their property if they replace old boilers with more energy-efficient ones. And if we aren’t able to support all households, then there will be exceptions.

What’s the cost for the municipality?

It’s covered by the climate fund, which people can apply from. We have a system where households pay one cent or so from their electricity bill into a fund which covers all this. And we have also put some extra money into this fund. The fund is then topped up with 50 million Norwegian krone.

What about your plans to expand district heating in Oslo? Is the infrastructure already in place?

The infrastructure is already there, about half of Oslo is covered by it. It started actually when I was a plumber in the beginning of the ‘80s.

Covering the entire city isn’t part of the plan because the heat is coming from the incineration plant and there isn’t enough garbage to burn. But we are currently discussing with the UK and from Sweden to import some garbage from them.

You don’t produce enough garbage?

No, we are too efficient. It’s a bit of a contradiction.

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You said that you learned a bit from the experience in Brussels. What do you think others can learn from Oslo?

We want to be a pilot city. In climate budgeting, in the way we develop our public transport system, or when it comes to electric vehicles and the circular economy, Oslo is playing an important role in the EU agenda. I actually spoke to the EU’s Environment Commissioner about this.

So hopefully we can have ten or 15 different projects when it comes to environmentally-friendly energy. One is the carbon capture and storage project that we will install at the incineration plant. Hopefully, we will export this technology to all the waste management plants throughout Europe. In a small city like Oslo, this could reduce our carbon emissions by 15% so imagine what it could achieve here in Brussels.

CCS is notoriously expensive…

It’s probably expensive. But you can also look at the other side of the coin: CO2 emissions are too cheap. This is definitely an issue.

We’re doing a test now for which we’ve received 40 million krone from the Norwegian state. And then, of course, we will also allocate our own money into this project.

The technology is already there, it’s very well-developed. And then we will strive for CO2 to be more expensive in the future.

In the beginning, of course, it will be difficult for us to export this technology because it’s still so expensive. But I think the Chinese will be desperately willing to buy such a technology.


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