Oslo offers a blueprint for net-zero cities: 3 stories you may have missed

© Jørn Eriksson

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. How Oslo learned to fight climate change

Norway’s capital offers large cities a blueprint for cost-effective climate action.

The story: In late 2019, the city of Oslo broke ground on the world’s first net-zero construction project, excavating tons of asphalt using all-electric machinery. There were no noisy jackhammers, no suffocating diesel fumes — and, most importantly, there was no significant carbon footprint. 

By rewarding low-emission contract bids, the city hopes to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent within the next eight years. 

“Look at Oslo, and you can begin to see what life will look like in a city that’s serious about its obligations to the future,” writes Nick Romeo for The New Yorker. “The shifts are subtle but pervasive, affecting everything from cemeteries, parking, and waste management to zoning, public transportation and school lunch. Rather than waiting for a single miraculous solution, Oslo’s approach encourages a dispersed, positive shift.”

The big picture: Each year, Oslo’s municipal departments are asked to outline specific ways to reduce their carbon footprint, a distributed process, known as “climate budgeting.” Between 2009 and 2019, the city’s emissions fell 16 percent, and they’re projected to drop 72 percent by 2030 — shy of the 95 percent target, but unprecedented, nonetheless.

Oslo has relied heavily on incentive-based policies, encouraging individuals and companies to play an active role in green transition. Many of these changes — like restricting the use of oil furnaces or charging higher tolls for gas-powered vehicles — have been minimally disruptive, yet massively effective in aggregate.

Cities have a unique opportunity to lead on climate, unencumbered by many of the political and logistical constraints that national governments face. Other municipalities — including Barcelona, Berlin, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Tshwane — are following Oslo’s lead and implementing climate budgeting policies of their own.

Read more here.

Oil companies are shifting aging wells off their carbon ledgers — and into the hands of firms with no clear plans to go green.

The story: As climate change accelerates and oil companies come under pressure to cut their carbon emissions, some are getting rid of old, high-polluting wells. In the coming years, energy giants are poised to sell off US$ 100 billion in land holdings to make good on pledges to reduce their carbon footprint. The problem: The buyers of those wells often have very different priorities.

“[Energy companies] frequently sell to buyers that disclose little about their operations, have made few or no pledges to combat climate change, and are committed to ramping up fossil fuel production,” writes Hiroko Tabuchi for The New York Times. New research finds that roughly two-thirds of the 3,000 oil and gas deals cut between 2017 and 2021 involved this type of transfer — from operators with climate pledges to those without. For companies with public net-zero commitments, this is a convenient way to remove emissions from their personal balance sheet, without meaningfully reducing fossil fuel production, according to Andrew Baxter of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The big picture: Old, neglected wells tend to “flare,” a process that ignites gas, sending soot and potent methane emissions into the atmosphere. Ordinarily, when a well reaches this stage of its lifecycle, companies permanently plug it to prevent flaring — and stop toxic chemicals from leaching into groundwater. However, these wells often have decades of gas remaining in small quantities. When companies put them on the market instead of retiring them, they tend to sell for low prices, making them an appealing asset to smaller firms.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the annual emissions of a single inactive well are equivalent to driving a car between 27,350 and 80,500 kilometers (17,000 to 50,000 miles). There are 1.6 million unplugged wells in the U.S., many abandoned entirely.

Read more here.

Moderate investments in nature could prevent future pandemics — and save trillions of dollars.

The story: The transfer of pathogens from animals to humans — known as “spillover events” — has caused most viral pandemics since the early twentieth century. The Spanish flu of 1918 left 50 million people dead; HIV has killed 36 million; and COVID-19 has taken 15 million lives and counting. The financial cost is equally gargantuan. But, according to researchers, modest investments in spillover prevention could substantially reduce the risk of future pandemics.

“Many of the international efforts to better defend the world from future outbreaks, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, still fail to prioritize the prevention of spillover,” argue six authors in the journal Nature, led by Conservation International’s Neil M. Vora and Lee Hannah. “[A World Health Organization] panel was convened in September 2020… In its 86-page report released last May, wildlife is mentioned twice; deforestation once.” 

The authors suggest that US$ 20 billion in sustained annual funding would slash deforestation in disease hotspots in half, significantly reduce wildlife trafficking and bolster pathogen detection in farm animals.

The big picture: Deforestation is the leading driver of zoonotic spillover. As habitats are cleared for farming, logging and mining, disease-carrying wildlife must migrate elsewhere — often into human communities. 

“While we must focus on protecting these tropical forests, zoonotic diseases can emerge wherever there is wildlife,” Dr. Vora, Conservation International’s pandemic prevention fellow, told Conservation News. “We should therefore reduce deforestation and forest degradation around the world, restrict the global wildlife trade and reform unsafe livestock farming to prevent future pandemics.” 

Matthew Ribel is the executive writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Oslo at night (© Jørn Eriksson)