Earlier this month, more than 200 countries, including India, signed a United Nations resolution in Nairobi to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, a move that could eventually lead to a legally binding treaty. Norway, which initiated the resolution, has seen the evidence of the damage the pollution causes first hand, according to Norway’s environment minister, Vidar Helgesen. In an interview with The Indian Express, Helgesen indicated that Norway, a leader in e-mobility, would be open to sharing its experiences and foster collaborations. Edited excerpts:
How significant is the Nairobi resolution and would there be a follow-up treaty?
When we presented the draft resolution… there was some pushback from a number of countries. Which was expected because it is a very ambitious resolution. But in the end there was unity behind it, including on the language behind it, that in the long-term we need to prevent the discharge of plastics into the ocean.
And, that is an expression of a zero plastic waste mission. Because it provides us with a horizon for it, that’s where we need to go. It’s long term, but we need to get there as soon as possible — we can’t go on treating oceans as a waste dump.
And then (at Nairobi, on December 7) there was also an agreement that we would establish these open-ended working groups… A legally binding treaty is still one of the options. But I’m very mindful of the fact that even if we were to hypothetically get a global agreement that we need to have a binding treaty, negotiating such a treaty will take a very long time. If you look at previous examples on mercury, it has taken more than 10 years and we can’t spend more than 10 years negotiating a treaty and keep waiting for that to happen. So whichever option we choose, we need to have early action and we need to have a better international framework for action… So we need to look at mobilising states, mobilising civil society, businesses…
Since India is moving on e-mobility, do you envisage some degree of cooperation from Norway?
It’s an issue that we discuss when I meet my Indian counterpart. We have a very good environmental collaboration with India which is getting more and more active. I don’t think we have an operational collaboration on this. There is great deal of interest from all around the world in Norway’s experiences and we are more than happy to share our experiences. And with India’s incredibly important role, we would be happy to share our experiences.
We have a good environmental dialogue at the level of ministries and our environmental agencies are also active. We have a very active collaboration on HFCs, the medium they use for air conditioners and refrigerators. We have worked together on waste, a Norwegian institution working with CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) on co-processing organic waste, including in the cement industry… then POPs (persistent organic pollutants), we have a framework agreement with TERI.
On electrification of transport, we haven’t gotten around to a partnership… Latest numbers show a reduction in transport emissions by 3.6 per cent from 2015 to 2016. Partly due to biofuel, partly electrification and partly due to public transport
Is there a contradiction in the fact that Norway is a climate leader and most of the revenues are coming in from oil & gas?
Obviously, it’s a bit of a paradox. My perspective of this is transformation. When the combustion engine came, it was seen as an environmental improvement over horse-driven carts. Now we know better and we know that we have to move away from fossil fuels. But we can’t stop that overnight. Firstly, our oil & gas industry has a carbon price, which is one of the highest globally. Secondly, it is also part of the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), which is also a carbon tax. So, in effect, there is a double taxation on it. Participation in ETS means that oil production finances correspondingly emission reduction elsewhere in Europe. Ultimately, demand will define the pace of reduction in the scale of the oil industry. This will evidently take time…
So far, we have seen that natural gas has been the single biggest reason for emission reduction in the US and Europe. And because it is replacing coal, natural gas has an important role to play. Then there is a solar revolution that would probably undercut gas at some point. And oil is predominantly about transportation… And though Norway is a small market for cars, we are leading the way in demonstrating that you can electrify transport, and we are doing it with shipping as well.
Norway is an early adopter of electric mobility and has an all-electric target of 2025. Does India’s target of 2030 appear to be ambitious, given that practically everything has to start from scratch?
Things can move fairly quickly when technology gets widespread… And since cars are as important for many people as the mobile phone, we can see much more rapid shift to electric vehicles that what we are able to do today. But price is a key factor, some estimate that battery capacity and price will be competitive on a purely market basis. The reason Norway has such a high rate is heavy tax subsidy but over time, we believe, it can be handled on a market basis. For that, some incentives on purchase is a good thing and should be considered by governments that have high ambitions. But the charging infrastructure is what should be given the highest priority, and of course connecting the charging infrastructure to renewables and not coal.
In Norway, we’ve had a heavy dose of investments into the charging infrastructure. We’ve now got charging infrastructure along all major highways nationally. Then we see car companies, at least European car companies pooling their efforts. And standardisation is a big issue here, since if every car company has its own system, it’s not going to be functional. Since Norway has come far on this, you see them do some pilots here… We now have a public programme to support hydrogen stations as well.
Some of the incentives for electric cars, do you see them being pulled back eventually. A proposal to tax heavier electric cars moved by the government did not pass muster in Parliament. Do you see that coming through eventually?
It (the proposal to tax heavier electric tax) didn’t come through this time… what we suggested this time is to apply the normal registration tax for heavier electric vehicles. It would have affected only two cars — the two heaviest Tesla cars (Model S and Model X). The Parliament did not approve that. But we’ve pledged that we will have the VAT exemption till at least 2020. We have set a principle that parking, toll roads and ferry transport will be maximum 50 per cent of the regular price (for e-vehicles)… What I envision is that we’ll have incentives but they might be adapted.. But they will be meaningful till such time that the electric vehicle is the only sensible thing to do from a market basis. And in Norway, I don’t think we’re far from there.