Norway last year became the first country to sell more electric vehicles than gasoline, hybrid and diesel engines put together, new data show, with battery electric vehicles (BEVs) accounting for two-thirds of sales in the final months of last year.
Norway has one of the world’s most ambitious green targets, planning to phase out sales of all new fossil-fuel vehicles by 2025, five years earlier than the UK.
It is quite a contradiction in a country that has become one of the richest in the world on the back of its oil and natural gas revenues, has made itself dependent on oil and clings to further production even as the world increasingly rejects fossil fuels in pursuit of zero emissions.
While on the one hand the government is auctioning oil exploration licenses for fields in the fragile Arctic, on the other it is aiming for a carbon-neutral national vehicle park by 2030.
On Friday, it submitted its national climate plan, which included this ambitious aim and the promise that, from next year, the public sector would be required to procure zero-emission vehicles only.
While Norway is still one of the world’s big oil producers, it gets more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric sources. This goes some way to explain why the introduction of electric vehicles has been such a winner: As long as the rivers and waterfalls do not run dry, this is an infinite source of power that can also be applied to vehicles.
Even up north, where distances between settlements are vast and the winter cold extreme, electric vehicles are gaining a stronghold.
“During the autumn of last year, we saw an increase of up to 40 percent of the market share in the northernmost districts of Norway, Tromsoe and Finnmark,” Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association secretary-general Christina Bu said.
Behind the success lies a long-term political strategy, she said.
“One might assume this is all about subsidies. It is not. It’s all about taxing what we don’t want and promoting what we do want,” Bu said.
Norway has some of the highest taxes in the world on what it regards as luxury goods, which includes vehicles. So reduced taxes on vehicles, with numerous incentives, is bound to entice car buyers.
There are a range of incentives and exemptions including: no vehicle purchase tax — a big levy that helps push up the average price for a vehicle in Norway to US$58,308 to US$62,369, compared with an EU average of US$35,242 to US$39,309; no VAT, which is usually 25 percent; zero road tax; free parking in some municipal car parks; reduced tax on company electric vehicles (at a lower rate than fossil-fuel vehicles); reduced or free tolls in some areas; driving in a bus lane if carrying a passenger; and a 50 percent discount on some car parks, tolls and ferry fares.
The ambitious political strategy goes back to the late 1990s, when it was introduced to stimulate production of Norwegian electric vehicles and to reduce emissions.
It has not entirely worked out that way. Norwegian-produced BEVs are still noticeable by their absence, to the delight of foreign auto producers, but the number of electric vehicles sold has soared, from 3 percent of total sales in 2012, to 54 percent last year.
There are 2.8 million vehicles on Norway’s roads and more than 260,000 are fully electric, nearly 9 percent of the total vehicle stock.
Next year, nearly 40 new BEV models are set to go on the market in Norway, more than the number of fossil-fuel and hybrid models.
“Norway has certainly paved the way for the industry,” said Per Espen Stoknes, a lawmaker for the Green Party, a TED global speaker and an assistant professor at BI Norwegian Business School, as well as a psychologist, whose latest book is on the psychology of climate action.
Stoknes described the process of expanding the national BEV park as “a green tax shift,” which he said any country could afford if they focused on the right things.
As a psychologist, he also emphasized the power of social pressure, in particular in densely populated cities.
“We have been able to prove statistically that there is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect. That is to say, if someone in a street buys a BEV, the neighbors are more likely to follow suit. It can turn into a greener-than-thou competition in which envy, as always, is a powerful driving force,” Stoknes said.
As in the UK, the big challenge is the installation of charging points around the country. There are now 3,200 rapid charge points, run by about 10 companies, which are working to develop ever-faster chargers.
There are still problems, particularly on the busiest travel days, with BEV drivers facing long queues and chargers that are out of commission.
“We have to constantly encourage the development of further and more reliable chargers,” Bu said.
The more electric vehicles are sold, the harder it is for critics to be heard.
However, although BEVs are environmentally friendly in a local context, globally they still leave a big climate footprint. The manufacture of BEV batteries requires expensive and rare metals, while the secure disposal of used and broken batteries is a problem.
Both concerns are conveniently palmed off on poor, vulnerable countries — such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which produces 60 percent of the world’s cobalt — that lack the legislation to deal with them.
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