How green is green?
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“Vi elsker bomringer!” (in effect, “We love road tolls”) was the rallying cry of Lan Marie Nguyen Berg from Oslo’s Green Party, Miljøpartiet De Grønne (MDG), after Norway’s recent local elections. Ecstatic over their vote share increase of 7.1% in Oslo and 2.6% nationwide, a sea of flag-waving supporters enthusiastically cheered these words.
Could this be MDG’s springboard toward success in Stortinget (the National Parliament)? They assumed so after substantial gains in the 2015 local elections. This momentum fizzled in the 2017 national elections, leaving MDG with just one national seat, matching exactly what they had before.
After the 2015 local elections, though, MDG more or less held the balance of power in Oslo with Berg being lauded as a hero (and villain) in launching environmental issues to the forefront. Negotiators in the Oslo City Council reached an agreement that transformed the city’s transportation: bike lanes increased substantially, more car-free areas were created, and charging points for electric cars sprouted up. These changes were part of a wider-ranging package aiming to make Oslo greener.
In all this work, how much did science guide the politics and policies? Encouraging electric vehicles and hybrids helps to clean the air locally. But where does the electricity come from? In Norway, a lot of it is from hydropower.
What would be the reaction from those who, before Berg was born, fought against the Mardøla and Alta-Kautokeino hydropower projects? Who is tracking the origins of key metals used in the vehicles’ batteries to check that brutal conflict is not being fueled by the rush for resources for these new cars? Are plastics based on fossil fuels being monitored in the vehicle design? What are the carbon footprints and life-cycle impacts of manufacturing, operating, and decommissioning different vehicle types for Oslo and elsewhere in Norway?
The scientific questions go beyond the technology. Who is studying whether or not people will drive more because they think their vehicle is environmentally friendly? How long until we get used to the different noise patterns and adjust how we cross the street to avoid being hit? Ethically, why encourage any form of private vehicle ownership?
Does taxing individual vehicles or their use make driving the domain of the rich, further marginalizing the poor? Does favoring bicycles force those who cannot cycle or walk to remain at home more often? Or are these questions spurious because such trends do not appear or because other mechanisms counter them?
After all, tolls, taxes, tax breaks, incentives, and subsidies for transport and planning decisions exist within wider social structures, including other tolls, taxes, tax breaks, incentives, and subsidies. We do not really have any fixed or certain answers, because so few detailed scientific analyses for Oslo and Norway have been on these topics. Which means that MDG’s campaign and policies emerged within a knowledge gap and without a strong scientific basis.
Yet perhaps science, or even equity, do not matter for such politics. The people of Oslo and elsewhere in Norway have responded to the proposed agenda by giving MDG a much larger mandate. The full consequences of implementing what they were elected to do might not be as relevant as achieving immediate, local, short-term appearances of greening.
With nine of Oslo’s 59 seats in an otherwise fractured Council, MDG could wield a lot of power. Using power wisely is the perpetual challenge. Will necessary compromises alienate core supporters or will continuing, visible actions (irrespective of their effectiveness) continue to propel their voters?
Now they have two more years to try to prove yet again that they are worthy of expanded national representation, while never forgetting that there is much more to Norway than Oslo.
Science especially might be neglected in striving for power, but if the electorate wants evidence-based policies, then they must demand them. Not just from MDG, but from all political parties.
Ilan Kelman (@IlanKelman on Twitter; www.ilankelman.org) is a Reader in Risk, Resilience, and Global Health at University College London, England, and a fellow at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research.
The opinions expressed by opinion writers featured in “On the Edge” are not necessarily those of The Norwegian American, and our publication of those views is not an endorsement of them. Comments, suggestions, and complaints about the opinions expressed by the paper’s editorials should be directed to the editor.
This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.