Norway has made a vital climate leap. This is how Britain can do the same

April 23, 2024
Tessa Khan
Norwegian Embassy

There has been a dramatic change in how oil drilling rights are approved on one side of the invisible line that divides the North Sea between the UK and Norway.

On the Norwegian side, after a groundbreaking decision by the Oslo district court on 18 January, the government must now take into account the emissions that come from the burning of oil and gas reserves in addition to the impact of getting the reserves out of the ground, before they approve a new field. The legal win, which applies for the first time the reasoning of a separate case in the Norwegian Supreme Court, was a result of Greenpeace Norway and Young Friends of the Earth Norway challenging the approval of three new oil and gas fields by the government. They argued the government had not been properly vetted for climate harm. The court agreed.

Meanwhile, for UK-based oil and gas projects such as Rosebank, our government only takes into account the damage wreaked by extracting reserves rather than by combusting them. But there is hope among climate campaigners that this position will become untenable. The judgment in Norway has set an example that provides fertile ground for the government’s position to be challenged in UK courts.

And, alongside Greenpeace, that is what we at Uplift are doing. In September, the British government gave the Norwegian company Equinor permission to drill at Rosebank – and failed to consider the climate impact from the burning of the nearly 500m barrels expected to be extracted in its lifetime. The burning of these reserves would produce more CO2 pollution than all of the world’s 28 low-income countries emit in a year. We will argue that, alongside other ignored considerations, those emissions should have been central to whether or not Rosebank was approved.

Case by case, field by field, the legitimacy and legality of continuing to drill for oil and gas during the climate crisis is being successfully challenged

What the win in Norway puts beyond doubt is this: the oil and gas industry and its champions in government can no longer assume that courts will overlook the true climate impact of new oil and gas fields. An evolution in the legal approach to drilling is happening even in a major oil-producing country like Norway.

Significantly for the Horse Hill case, Rosebank and other challenges in the UK, the recent Norway decision is clear and emphatic that the EU’s environmental impact assessment rules, which have also been implemented in UK law, require decision-makers to take into account what happens when we burn what we drill.

It is beginning to feel like the net is closing in. The reality of the repeated conclusions of the world’s climate scientists, the International Energy Agency, the UN secretary-general and many others – that if we want a safe climate, there is no room for new oil and gas projects – is finally being brought to bear on the growth ambitions of oil and gas companies.

The legal win has already had a seismic impact in Norway, where opposition MPs are now calling for any oil and gas development approved after 2020 to be invalidated. This is incredible progress in a country whose population is invested in oil and gas production in a way not seen in the UK, given that its huge national wealth fund is built on oil and gas profits.

If Norway can do it, then so can we. Case by case, field by field, the legitimacy and legality of continuing to drill for oil and gas during the climate crisis is being successfully challenged. And with it the power of the oil and gas industry to undermine a livable climate is showing signs of waning.

Comment first published in the Guardian.