Food for Thought: Norway’s cautionary tale — Federal EV promotion vs. more impactful local climate action 

Electric car rally in Geiranger, Norway. Credit: Norsk Elbilforening, Flickr

By Elise Nam, Alliance Intern from Barnard College ‘24

Norway’s world-leading success in electric vehicle (EV) adoption may be a poster child for short-sighted thinking that doesn’t ultimately lead to sustainability. While EV policies were well-intentioned to help the climate, its federal government EV push has fueled a car-centric addiction that has countered the more impactful climate initiatives of its major cities.

Norway provides a cautionary lesson for the US about the danger of adopting a silver bullet technology like EVs instead of more integrative, local and cost-effective transit-related climate approaches.

While enjoying my home in the suburbs as a break from student life in NYC, I have realized one aspect of NYC that I have taken for granted: the city’s walkability. I’ve calculated my carbon footprint and was happy to find my emissions from driving were lower than average.

In the US, cars emit 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, EVs often dominate climate change initiatives and incentives. This is true in Norway, which is “the world’s undisputed leader in electric vehicle adoption,” wrote Harvard visiting fellow David Zipper in his Vox article.

87% of the country’s [Norway’s] new car sales are now fully electric, a share that dwarfs that of the European Union (13%) and the US (7%),” writes Zipper. This tremendous EV growth has been enthusiastically supported by the federal government. 

Norway’s path to gas car and now EV addiction

Norwegians first became car-obsessed after World War II, as the car became an integral part of daily life. Automobiles enabled citizens to continue living in the suburbs while participating in the growing economy.

As such, the government began to build bridges and roadways. Bergen abolished its extensive tramway, even dumping trams into the ocean. This was similar to what took place in cities across the US as they eliminated their tram systems.

In the mid-2010s, the Norwegian government sought to address climate and began to heavily subsidize EVs and provide benefits. On its face, this would seem like a very progressive climate action. Consequently, the market began to grow.

Norwegians quickly realized the bargain that they were receiving in buying an electric car – free tolls and parking, a subsidized vehicle, low electricity costs, and bus lane usage. Some similar actions have taken place in the US as well.

Bjørne Grimsrud, director of the transportation research center TØI, noted that “Norwegians owned 10% more cars per capita at the end of the 2010s than they did at the decade’s outset, in large part due to the EV incentives.” So the net effect was to increase the number of vehicles owned and encourage Norwegians to drive.

Electric vehicle adoption has led to a drop in the country’s surface transportation emissions by 8.3% between 2014 and 2023. The Norwegian government celebrates their efforts. “When it comes to electrical vehicles, I’m quite proud,” said Norway’s State Secretary for Transportation Cecilie Knibe Kroglund to David Zipper. Wouldn’t we be proud of achieving this in the US?

I am certain that when people imagine their ideal city, it would not be a dream of polluted air, cars jammed in endless traffic, or streets filled up with parked cars.
— Hanne Marcussen, Oslo’s former Vice Mayor of Urban Development (in Fast Company)

Inside the battle between the feds and locals over EVs while equity suffers

Federal EV subsidies and local public initiatives are facing off on the battleground of Norway’s cities. While Norway’s federal government is claiming victory in its climate efforts, its cities are struggling to overcome the government’s EV car-focused promotion with common sense, lower cost transportation alternatives.

The federal government’s commitment to lowering emissions is impressive, but ironically, its EV adoption has widened inequality, increased car dependency and interfered with local climate initiatives, such as public transit and mobility infrastructure.

It is important to emphasize that 67% of households in the lowest income quartile in Bergen do not own any vehicles. Additionally, a recent study found that Norwegian households’ likelihood of purchasing an EV rose 26% with each $11,000 increase in annual income, demonstrating that EV adoption is directly correlated with higher-incomes. EV ownership is simply much less accessible to lower income people.

Further, federal government subsidies reduce available funding for local climate initiatives, resulting in reduced support for urban planning.

A study about EV subsidies in Bergen demonstrates that EV adoption is hindering the ability of cities to “build dense neighborhoods that shorten trips and strengthen transit,” writes Zipper. Cities are seeking to remove parking spots and provide better public access for all its people while the federal government is promoting more vehicles.

Despite Norway’s successes, Ulrik Eriksen, author of A Country on Four Wheels, warns that “climate change gave Norway an opportunity to change how we travel,” said Eriksen. “I worry we had this once-in-a-generation chance to fix our transportation network, and we blew it.

Norway’s resilient cities continue towards more equitable, effective climate solutions

In spite of the government’s heavy promotion of EVs, Norway’s cities are remaining steadfast in their commitment to encouraging alternative, accessible transportation. Norway’s four largest cities — Bergen, Oslo, Trondheim and Stavanger — are growing public transportation, biking, and walking.

Oslo has removed over 4,000 parking spots since 2016 while also building bike lanes, widening sidewalks, and adjusting traffic patterns to reduce through traffic. Those efforts helped the city achieve a remarkable milestone in 2019: For a full year, not a single pedestrian or cyclist was killed in a crash,” writes Zipper.

Although these local initiatives reduce emissions more than EVs and do not require intense mining of natural resources, they are not supported by the federal government.

Shockingly, the feds still don’t get it — what we can learn from it

Moreover, Norway’s National Transport Plan fails to mention the need to reduce vehicle trips. Norway’s Transportation State Secretary, Cecilie Knibe Kroglund maintains that “we don’t have a specific goal [to reduce driving]…of course, we would like to get more people on public transportation and bikes. But that is more something that cities work on.”

The federal government’s blatant disregard for a holistic approach is shocking, especially for a country that touts climate and social justice

In conclusion, what seems to be Norway’s success in widespread EV adoption has some significant and deeply problematic lessons for the US and world, underscoring the danger of a single-minded approach, EVs as the only solution to climate change, with complex downside effects. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year by the US Congress, subsidizes EVs in a similar manner.

While EVs certainly play an important role in combating the climate crisis, Norway’s experience highlights that they are not the most efficient, equitable or cost-effective ways to do so. We can learn from their mistakes and assure that our cities are walkable with affordable, accessible and non-polluting transit options.

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