A conversation with Ambassador Aas

“A healthy ocean is a wealthy ocean”

Ambassador Aas

Photo courtesy of the office of Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib
Ambassador Kåre R. Aas speaks with Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib at the Nordic Innovation Summit held at the National Nordic Museum on May 16.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

With its long coastline and a strong maritime industry, Norway’s interest in the oceans is self-evident. Eighty percent of all Norwegians live close to the sea, and Norway has always been a maritime nation, starting in the time of the Vikings. Surrounded by huge ocean areas, including the Barents Sea, 65% of Norway’s national revenues come from the ocean: from fishing, maritime, minerals, oil and gas, and tourism. The Norwegian merchant fleet is made up of 1,447 vessels that visit 80,000 ports a year.

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas at the Sons of Norway headquarters in Minnetonka to talk about the health of our oceans, a topic that Prime Minister Erna Solberg has identified as a top priority for her country. Ambassador Aas had just come from the Nordic Innovation Summit at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle, where he sat on a panel about ocean health and signed a memorandum of understanding with the State of Washington for agreement to promote economic cooperation and trade relations with Norway. While Aas sees it as his job to promote Norwegian interests abroad, he also takes a strong interest in environmental issues, and a lively conversation ensued.

An ocean of challenges

Today, Norway and the rest of the world, faces a multitude of challenges connected to the bad health of the oceans. Climate change is real, as we see that the oceans are getting warmer. Aas explains the there is a direct implication for the Norwegian fishing industry: fish are no longer living in traditional waters and are going out north and farther out. In addition, there has been a depletion of the fish stock from both overfishing and illegal fishing. At the same time the oceans are rising, presenting a serious problem for island nations.

We also talked about the problem of ocean pollution. All over the world we are faced with the massive pollution of our seas with microplastics, defined as any type of plastic fragment that is less than 5 millimeters in length. No longer can the world see the ocean as its garbage dump, where the plastic waste is “out of sight, out of mind.” It is estimated that each hour, 57 tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean. Fish species are endangered, and microplastics also enter into our food chain.

The question for Norway and the rest of world is how to re-establish a healthy ocean. “A healthy ocean is a wealthy ocean,” states Aas. Here he stresses the need for international cooperation. His country is at the forefront, as Solberg is chairing a high-level panel at the United Nations, which will present its recommendations to the UN Security Panel next summer. Aas laments that not all countries have stayed with the Paris Agreement, for there is “very little time left.” (The United States will withdraw in 2020.)

Innovation leading the way

Ambassador Aas

Photo courtesy of the office of Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib
Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas (sixth from left) and other stakeholders celebrated the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Innovation Norway and Washington state to promote clean energy and innovative maritime technology for ocean health at the Nordic Innovation Summit at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle on May 16.

But that does not mean that Aas is not optimistic about the future, and he knows from experience that taking measures in a timely way can turn things around. Back in the 1960s, the Norwegian fishing industry was at risk when the herring stock was overfished. The government was able to put adequate regulation in place, and the herring are coming back. Norway has also solidified cooperation with Russia regarding cod fishing in the Barents Sea, and those fishing waters are now among the healthiest in the world. If illegal fishing could be stopped all over the world through enforced regulation, everyone would benefit.

Norway is also leading the way in research on ocean health and the Blue Economy, combining political ambitions with science and research. Aas assured me that the Norwegian workforce is being trained to meet the challenges of the future, including issues faced in the Arctic. Part of the University of Tromsø is located in Svalbard. With 10% of its population and 80% of its oceans in the Far North, Norway is an Arctic nation, and it wants to preserve the Arctic as a stable and predictable region. The Arctic is the single most important foreign policy area, and its issues are directly related to the health of the oceans.

Ambassador Aas and I also talked about the necessity to reduce carbon emissions and what is being done in Norway. Last winter, I had the experience of traveling on The Future of the Fjords, one of Norway’s state-of-the-art electric ferries, and I was happy to learn that by 2015, all ferries will be electrified in Norway. Similar technical innovation is being put in place for cargo ships. With generous government incentives, in 2018 nearly one in every three cars in sold in Norway was electric, more than in any other country in the world. By 2025, the Norwegian parliament wants all new cars to be emissions-free. Norway is now also exploring how to go from gasoline- and diesel-driven aircraft to planes powered by electricity.

Toward a new world

With visionary innovation in research and science, coupled with sound governmental regulation and cooperation, Aas believes that we are “headed in the right direction.” He points out that with the challenges, there are also great opportunities. Even with the melting of the polar ice caps, new maritime transport routes are opening up between Europe and Asia, reducing sailing time by 11 days, all of which can ultimately be good for the climate and environment. With the new blue technology, there are incredible opportunities for both innovators and investors—and Norway intends to stay at the forefront.

Aas maintains an exhausting schedule—his whirlwind Syttende Mai tour included stops in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Chicago all within four days—but he shows an amazing ability to connect, wherever he goes, with politicians, scientists, businesspeople, and everyday citizens. I was happy to have the opportunity to talk with him personally, and here at The Norwegian American, we look forward to covering his ongoing efforts to share Norway’s contributions in the area of ocean health and the environment.

Read more about Ambassador Aas on the website of the Royal Norwegian Embassy at www.norway.no/en/usa/norway-usa/about-embassy/#AmbassadorK%C3%A5reR.Aas.

This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.