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Oslo District Court says yes to arctic drilling

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By Ludovica Longo, BA Politics and Geography

The Oslo District Court has recently declared the opening of the last untouched area of the Barents sea to new oil extractions as constitutional and as compatible with both the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees ambitious objective and with the newly strengthened Article 112 of the Norwegian Constitution. Norway was one of the first countries to sign and later ratify the Paris Climate Agreement. It is the country with a long history of formal commitments to the development of a sustainable economy and to limit the amount of local emissions by investing in renewable resources, but it is also the country that has, only a year after the Paris Agreement, announced it is granting 75 oil drilling licenses (45 in the North Sea, 22 in the Norwegian Sea and 8 in the Barents Sea ) to 34 companies on the country’s continental shelf for the first time in 20 years.

Article 112 advocates for the consideration of long-term implications when the state is to take decisions in regards to natural resource management and assigns to the government the role of using all of its means to make sure people can enjoy their rights to live in an healthy, productive and diverse environment. Bolstered by an ambiguous Environmental Paragraph (which had never been invoked in courts prior to this development) NGOs, namely Greenpeace Norway and Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom), have filed a lawsuit in June 2016 claiming the government’s inconsistency violated both the Paris Agreement and Article 112.

As the polar ice cap keeps melting, new areas of the continental shelf become available to oil extracting companies. However, reports released by the Oil Change International think tank reveal that Norway is the world’s seventh largest exporter of emissions. Critics have stated that if Norway wants to be aligned with the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, it must consider the oil buried underneath the Arctic sea as unburnable. Nonetheless, the verdict suggests that the constitution has been interpreted to mean that Norway is responsible only for the emissions it directly produces and not for those caused by the burning of the oil exported from the country. The court has therefore controversially adopted a very nation-based framework to approach an issue affecting the whole planet. Furthermore, the Government contended that if oil needs to be extracted somewhere, it is better if the process takes place in a country with strict climate regulation such as Norway, notwithstanding the idea that the failure of global suppliers to limit their production of oil will be self-defeating to the commitment to mitigating the consequences of climate change. The increasing interest in the exploration of new areas of the continental shelf has also been defined as “positive” and “exciting” by Wenche Tjelta Johansen, assistant director responsible for exploration in the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate.

Despite the ultimate legal loss, the lawsuit also had a highly symbolic meaning in that it was part of a recent international trend which has seen environmental litigation’s accession to the judicial arena and the gathering of enough support from the side of environmental movements to represent a real threat to governments that have not proved to be responsive enough for climate change mitigation. Among the more than 884 exemplary cases of collective movements mobilized against the allegedly inefficient and insufficient government’s action in the past 20 years, the most remarkable are found in the Netherlands where the claims of the NGO Urgenda in 2015 were not only heard by the court but also resulted in the Court releasing an order that forced the government to cut its emissions by 25 % by 2020. The widening of the emission gap (the emissions reductions necessary to achieve the targets agreed in Paris) and the likely emissions reductions from full implementation of the Nationally Determined Contributions has provided environmentalists with increasing incentives to push governments for amendments of their targets or to translate their formal commitment into effective action.

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