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How Oslo manages carbon emissions like it manages money

The city is planning to be a zero-emitting city by 2030 and is using a “carbon budget” to lower the amount it can use every year until then. It’s encouraging other cities to do the same.

How Oslo manages carbon emissions like it manages money
[Photo: Darya Tryfanava/Unsplash]

Too often, climate pledges are made with a target date set far into the future, requiring someone else to be responsible for the meeting of that target. With our climate budget for the City of Oslo, Norway’s capital, we do the opposite.

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Just like a financial budget has a ceiling on how much money the city can spend, our climate budget sets a ceiling on the volume of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in the city in the same year. It’s not a separate document that collects dust on office shelves but is fully integrated into the most important document of any city, or nation for that matter: the fiscal budget.

Here’s how we did it, and what happened as a result.

We first introduced it in 2016, the world’s first at the time. Since then, the climate budget has energized climate action throughout our entire municipality. Yes, climate change was already high on Oslo’s political agenda, but this new governance instrument transported the issue from the periphery of environmental departments to the center of attention and mainstreamed it into daily operations and decision making.

Here are the six ingredients that made this possible:

1. Set goals

We rolled out climate strategies and goals that were in accordance with the most aggressive temperature targets in the Paris agreement, which limits warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. For us, that means the City Council agreed, in 2016, to become a near zero-emitting city by 2030, or a 95% reduction in emissions. We used 2009 as a baseline year because this was the first year the environment agency had detailed data about emission sources at the municipal level. Then we figured out the level of reductions needed by 2030.

[Photo: Darya Tryfanava/Unsplash]

2. Calculate

We mapped out the annual carbon math for each year over a period of 4 years as this corresponds with the election term and a target for 2025. We identified what a realistic emission ceiling would look like for the forthcoming budget year, and here’s what we came up with. In 2018, for example, the ceiling was set at 1,054,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents. In 2019, the emission ceiling is set at 932,000 tonnes of CO2e, and next year’s proposal is 809,000 tonnes of CO2e. This aggressive annual agenda ensures that climate action is not postponed and that action is taken now.

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Each year, we are always checking and course correcting. We know we missed our target in 2017, for example, by around 85,000 tonnes CO2e. Based on that feedback, we corrected and improved estimates and analysis and increased attention and resources to find more effective measures to close that gap.

3. Reduce

We created a list of emissions-reducing actions that we’ll take each year, the estimated impacts each action is projected to have, how much more will be spent that year on each action, and which government entity is responsible for implementation. This is the critical part. If you do this thoroughly, it’ll stimulate public awareness and discussion and support for climate-action planning, evaluation, and adjustment. In Oslo, we identified more than 40 measures and instruments at national, regional, and local scales. We expect some to directly reduce emissions, while other measures are softer instruments, such as communication and engagement, yet still helpful in reducing emissions.

4. Monitor

We created a feedback system to monitor and evaluate if our climate budget is working properly. To inform us whether we are on/off track in delivering expected reductions in real-time, we developed “a climate barometer.” Our barometer has 14 indicators that are updated three times a year. It tracks any changes in activity—for example, the number and type of vehicles passing through the toll-ring, delivery of fuel for consumption in the city, bicycle traffic, and number of passengers using public transport.

The barometer has proven useful in identifying any need for increased action. It helped us identify a not-insignificant gap in how we measure carbon, for example, a gap that represented 100,000 tonnes of CO2e. This illustrates just one of many benefits of the climate budget. When a gap is identified, the system triggers the need to take immediate action.

5. Explain

We made sure the climate budget communicates quality-of-life benefits to city residents. Our budget describes how climate actions contribute to making Oslo a better city in which to live. And we make it easy for city residents to follow the progress in decarbonizing the city and understand what it will take to achieve deep reductions in the long term.

6. Prioritize

We made sure the climate budget sits in the right city office. By allocating responsibility for the climate budget process to the vice mayor of finance, Oslo managed to create cross-municipal ownership of the climate agenda. Every agency or unit needs to report on progress, as they would need to under a financial budget. The climate budget defines who is responsible for acting and at what cost.

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We can’t think of a better tool for cities to adopt. It’s extremely flexible and adaptable and can fit any toolbox size or scale of implementation. For us, the climate budget is now efficiently managing our mitigation measures, ensuring that they are identified, prioritized, costed, and that effects are measured and reported. And it’s allowing us to be constantly informed on how we are doing. Perhaps you would think there is a downside to this, that we’re extremely exposed to failure. But it works in quite the opposite way. It triggers faster action to decarbonize. And it’s pushing our city government to show how it will deliver, year-by-year, on our longer-term climate-strategy.

While a climate budget is no guarantee that we will reach our targets, it’s strengthening our chances of doing so. No more punting of targets to future leaders, then, allowing frivolous carbon spending in the short term. Time to start budgeting.


Morten Nordskag is the special advisor, International Climate Cooperation for the City of Oslo.

Oslo is a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of leading global cities cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80-100% by 2050 or sooner. This is a seven-part series featuring bold actions by cities to accelerate progress toward carbon neutrality, based on CNCA’s Game Changers Report.
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