The rapid growth of wind and solar will make decarbonising grids look easy, but transport remains a problem around the world. Combustion engine vehicles are ubiquitous, companies are selling bigger, more emissions intensive vehicles and consumers are buying them, and there seems to be a firm reluctance to engage with change on the scale we’ve seen it in the power sector. It’s going to be a hard road – we know that for sure. It is therefore worth looking to the world leader in the electrification of transport: Norway.
It is a country known for two key climate things: oil and electric vehicles. When it comes to EVs, they’re incredibly hard to miss (actually, they’re quite easy to miss, as they’re mostly silent and thus require some extra caution if you’re a cyclist or pedestrian). This alternative to combustion engine vehicles has been aggressively incentivised by the Norwegian government, and consequently, Norway easily leads the world in their deployment. Living in Oslo, easily the region of Norway with the highest concentration of EVs per vehicle, it’s easy to see how the country’s aggressive government policy has resulted in change.
Of the total new cars being purchased each month, an increasing proportion of those are electric. In recent months, these proportions just keep increasing. This is extremely good news: these vehicles will stick around for decades, and they’ll run on Norway’s clean electricity grid. In October, just over 60% of new vehicles were pure electric.
Norway repeats September's high sales of EVs again in October, with 61% again. So far in 2020, 51% of new passenger cars registered in Norway are electric.
Total registrations were down 17% on last month, but still 24% higher than October last year. pic.twitter.com/7LABnb6Sss
— Robbie Andrew (@robbie_andrew) November 2, 2020
However, Norway’s excellent new car statistics reflect a hidden challenge: cars stick around for so long that existing fossil fuel vehicles still dominate most of the fleet, despite some great numbers on new car purchases. This conundrum is shown on Norway’s core statistics website, Statistisk sentralbyrå (SSB), which show the small but noticeable shift in the country’s fleet of vehicles:
The total number of vehicles in Norway is steadily rising, as the country’s population rises too. That increased demand is being met almost entirely by vehicles in the ‘electric’ and ‘other fuels’ category. However, it is also clear that something is happening to the emissions footprint of road transport in Norway:
In fact, Norway’s total emissions for 2019 were at their lowest level since the 1990s (though with plenty more work to do to reach targets). The 7% decline in road traffic contributed most to the decrease between 2018 and 2019. But there is a problematic nuance buried in this data: it isn’t just electric vehicles that are classified as ‘zero emissions’ in this data set. Cars running on biofuels are also classified as zero emissions.
“The reasons for [the drop in emissions] were a reduction in sales of petrol and autodiesel combined with an increased share of biofuels in the fuel mixture in 2019”, wrote the SSB. It is very notably an unsustainable alternative to electrification of transport, with controversial and extremely harmful palm oil. “[A voluntary survey of biofuel sellers] shows that 36 million liters of liquid biofuel from the four players we know were sold for road transport in 2019. Of this, around 15 million liters were palm oil”, wrote the Norweigan Environment Agency in September 2020.
As Norwegian climate researcher at CICERO Glen Peters writes, the emissions impact of electric vehicles is being obscured by the involvement of biofuel-powered vehicles in Norway. It is clear that the drop in emissions from transport needs to accelerate, and that the proportion of this drop that relies upon controversial biofuels needs to decrease. This my seem like a tough call for a country that’s already doing so much, but several options are available, including simply reducing the demand for private vehicle usage by incentivising active transport alternatives like walking and cycling, or increasing public transport services. Other ideas include ‘cash for clunkers’ schemes to get the oldest, most emissions intensive vehicles traded in and replaced with cheap, simple electric alternatives.
When the world’s next climate meeting (COP26) was delayed to November 2021, the date seemed eons away. But many countries are now gazing at their emissions profile and asking hard questions about the success of existing programs. For Norway’s electric vehicle roll-out, it is very clear that what has happened so far is extremely effective, but it is also clear that these efforts need to be doubled or tripled to hit the country’s climate targets within the next decade. The country is well placed to take the next steps towards an electric transport future.
Ketan Joshi has been at the forefront of clean energy for eight years, starting out as a data analyst working in wind energy, and expanding that knowledge base to community engagement, climate science and new energy technology. He writes for The Driven’s parent site, RenewEconomy, and has also written for the Guardian, The Monthly, ABC News and has penned several hundred blog posts digging into climate and energy issues, building a position as a respected and analytical energy commentator in Australia. He’s spoken at the Ethics Centre IQ2 debates on the need for urgent decarbonisation, he’s served as an subject matter expert on national television, and has a wide following on social media around energy and climate.