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Norway's emissions exports

First published: 1 November 2016. Updated 16 May 2019, with additional text 17 July 2019. Updated 29 October 2019.

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The emissions of CO2 that occur within Norway's territory are dwarfed by the emissions that result from combustion of all the oil and gas Norway produces. Because these fossil fuels are exported before being combusted, the emissions are allocated to the accounts of other countries. If Norway had generated electricity from the gas and then exported the electricity, for example, then emissions from that electricity generation would be allocated to Norway's accounts. There is therefore an element of artificiality associated with this allocation. It takes two to tango.

Norway's territorial emissions of CO2 were about 45 Mt in 2017, and over 1971–2017 totalled about 1.8 Gt. In comparison, emissions from Norwegian oil and gas since 1971 have been about 15 Gt. A similar amount (~15 Gt) will be emitted if all remaining Norwegian oil and gas resources are extracted from the continental shelf. In 2017, emissions from Norwegian oil and gas amounted to 85 tonnes of CO2 for every person in Norway.

Norway is responsible in the international arena only for emissions that occur within its territory. But responsibility is only this black and white in international negotiations where responsibility is strictly accounted. In other areas Norway takes responsibility beyond what is required by regulations and accounting rules, including the significant divestment of the pension fund from unethical activities.

In real life responsibility is more than just what we are told to do. That is the baseline, and does not excuse us from taking steps to address additional responsibilities. By signing the Paris Agreement, Norway has not only pledged to reduce territorial emissions, but to do its best to help hold the level of global warming below 2°C. Nobody likes double-counting, because it makes management more difficult, but the reality is that Norway has some responsibility for the emissions resulting from all of the oil and gas it extracts and sells. Norway has that responsibility, but the question is whether it will accept it. The transition to a fossil-free Norway must accelerate rapidly.

What does it mean to 'take responsibility'?

Some appear to interpret taking responsibility for exported emissions as meaning the same responsibility we currently have for territorial emissions. That is, that we have sole responsibility to reduce exported emissions to zero, that we should pay for them, that those who consume Norway's oil and gas should not pay or have any responsibility. But this is neither what I have said nor what I mean. Obviously it would be nonsensical to take all responsibility from those that actually burn the fossil fuels, that ought to go without saying.

Taking responsibility simply means acknowledging that one's actions have contributed to an outcome, or that one's actions are right or wrong in whatever sense. Acting on that responsibility then means doing something in response to that recognition. If Norway were to act on its larger climate responsibility, then that could take many forms, such as more rapid reduction of territorial emissions, more assistance to other countries in their emissions reduction efforts, and (yes) phasing out oil and gas extraction in Norway. Saying this does not mean I advocate these measures.

And then there's the argument that this is an open market, and if Norway didn't sell oil and gas, then someone else would. This argument is based on what's known as Teleological ethics, whereby if it cannot be shown that the consequence would not have happened without one's own actions, then one is not responsible. (Note that ethics tends to talk about "good" versus "evil", but we need not restrict ourselves to such a judgemental landscape, and can instead simply talk about "beneficial" or "detrimental" outcomes.)

This argument could be described as "it's ok because everyone else is doing it."

As a rule, economists thrive in the world of teleological ethics, despite the common argument that economics is agnostic to ethics. Utilitarianism and Pareto Optimality both derive from teleological ethical principles. In contrast, justice (both as codified in law and common sense) gives numerous examples where responsibility for outcomes is held jointly, deriving from deontological ethics, where the nature of the action, rather than any consequence, is the determinant of whether it is right or wrong.

What about double counting?

Counting something twice is, in and of itself, not a problem. It only becomes problematic in a context. If that context is that each party should have sole responsibility for something, then double counting obviously is problematic, and one can easily envisage situations where each party blames the others when nothing is done.

Double counting would be a problem in emissions accounting if, for example, both France and Norway had responsibility for cutting France's emissions. How would Norway reduce France's emissions when it has no sovereign rights in that country? How would you ensure that policies don't interfere with each other? But did I say anything about Norway cutting France's emissions? No, I did not.


Territorial emissions data are sourced from SSB. Emissions from 1990 onwards are from the current official series, while pre-1990 data come from an older publication.

Emissions from Norway's extraction of oil and gas, both historical and forecast, are calculated from production data published by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, combined with default emissions factors from the IPCC. Emissions are adjusted downwards using data from the International Energy Agency to account for non-emitting uses of oil and gas, such as asphalt. The estimates of emissions here are approximate. For the figure I have combined condensates and NGLs in with oil, for simplicity, but these are available separately in the data file.

The graph and calculations are inspired by an original effort by Glen Peters in 2014:

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