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This is what a zero-emissions city looks like

Oslo has an ambitious goal to cut emissions by 95% by 2030. Here’s how it will do it.

This is what a zero-emissions city looks like
[Photo: Ingar Sørensen]

On streets in downtown Oslo, former parking spaces are now bike lanes and parklets with benches and gardens. Since the city made the change, converting hundreds of parking spaces in 2017 and 2018, car traffic has steeply dropped, falling 28% by 2019. At rush hour in the city center, people walk, bike, and wait for trams and buses instead of sitting in traffic.

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It’s one of several changes that the city is making to reach an ambitious goal: By 2030, the city’s government plans for it to be essentially a zero-emissions city, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 95% compared to 2009, something that city leaders see as necessary to meet the world’s climate goals. “It’s still possible to combat climate change in alignment with the Paris agreement,” says Hilde Solli, a senior advisor in the city’s climate agency, which released a new climate strategy earlier this summer. Cities like Oslo, she says, have a key role to play, because the majority of the world’s emissions come from cities.

[Photo: Ingar Sørensen]
Norway already runs on renewable electricity, so Oslo has some advantages. But it will still have to radically change. Transportation accounts for roughly half of the city’s direct emissions; one part of the strategy is to make it more appealing to walk, bike, or take public transit than to drive, and to make sure that the cars left on the road are electric. A large part of this involves tolls on cars entering the city, which give the city more money to pay for new projects. “We have an ambitious cycle strategy,” says Solli. “We make it cheaper and more attractive to travel by public transport by financing parts of it with public money, and through the toll ring. The toll ring in Oslo makes is more expensive to drive, makes it more expensive to choose a [gas] or diesel car than an electric car, and it finances public transport and bike lanes.” As car traffic falls, it’s also safer to walk or bike: The city had no pedestrian or cyclist deaths in 2019. In Portland, Oregon, with roughly the same population and similar traffic safety goals, 49 people were killed by cars in the same year.

[Photo: Ingar Sørensen]
Oslo now has dozens of electric buses and is transitioning to electric ferries; by 2028, all public transportation will be zero-emissions. DHL and Norway Post, the national mail service, have already started testing electric cargo bikes to deliver packages. (Cargo bikes have the second advantage of making it easier to move through traffic, so it’s possible to make more deliveries in the same amount of time.) Every car on the road will be required to be electric by the end of the decade. Nearly a quarter of the cars passing the toll ring into the city are already electric, and 60% of new cars sold are electric, with sales spurred by policies like a national exemption on taxes and cheaper parking rates inside Oslo. At the Port of Oslo—a major port that now aims to be the first zero-emissions port in the world—ships will be able to plug in and run on electricity while they sit at the shore.

[Photo: Ingar Sørensen]
Construction is another source of emissions, and the city is working with the construction industry on a shift from diesel equipment to electric. A network of construction companies has set their own climate goals, and the city also uses public procurement to help shift the market. “Municipal construction projects represent as much as 20% of the total construction market in Oslo, so the city itself has considerable market power,” says Solli. “We now have common tender criteria for all municipal projects that reward zero-emission construction equipment in all tender competitions. Giving these kinds of incentives to roughly 20% of the market will contribute to shifting the whole market.” The city is also partnering with other cities to generate demand for new, zero-emissions construction equipment.

Buildings will have to become more efficient and run on more local energy, including installing solar panels on roofs and creating heat from sources like the local sewage system, waste incineration, and data centers. At local incineration plants, the city plans to capture and store CO2 emissions, while also working to reduce overall waste.

Though the city’s goal focuses on the emissions that happen directly within the city itself, it’s also beginning to tackle the problem of emissions baked into products made elsewhere and sent to Oslo. When the city buys products, it looks at the carbon footprint; it’s also working to educate citizens to do the same, and to reduce consumption overall. “The city has measures to facilitate increased sharing, reuse, and repairs,” Solli says.

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[Photo: Ingar Sørensen]
In the forests and moors surrounding the city, the government plans to protect the capacity of nature to store CO2, increasing the amount of carbon stored there by 2030. It’s also working on ways to make the city more resilient to climate change that is already happening—green roofs and other green spaces, for example, can help absorb rain in the torrential storms that are becoming more common.

None of this is easy. “The biggest challenge is that it is such a [large] shift, and we still do not have all the answers to how to achieve our goals,” Solli says. “Therefore, we work continuously together with other stakeholders to develop our policies and measures. It is also a challenge that not only requires technology development but also wide-ranging societal changes.” Some of the work is also constrained by what is happening nationally. Still, the government expects to reach the goal. A handful of other cities is also moving quickly, such as Copenhagen, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2025. In the U.S., cities are moving much slower: Boston, for example, plans to be carbon neutral by 2050.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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