Oslo says “no” to cars

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In mid-September, Oslo hit the headlines in many newspapers. The new coalition between the Labour and Green parties that will run the city following the latest local elections has given a commitment to completely ban cars from Oslo city centre by 2019.

The move is part of a broader plan to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 – not from today’s levels but from those of 1990 – and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s a particularly ambitious goal.

Such innovation is already showing up in all aspects of public life.

Energy savings of around 30%

For example, the new trains that are being phased into operation on the city’s rail network are equipped with systems to convert braking energy into electricity which can then be transferred to the grid; their aluminium bodies are particularly light, and the trains’ heating system regulates the temperature based not only on the outside temperature but also the number of passengers on board. This yields energy savings of around 30%.

The city’s opera house is fully equipped with light emitting diodes (LEDs), which are almost four times more efficient than classic incandescent bulbs; specially adapted dimmer switches allow the light levels to be varied according to requirements. Public lighting systems will also be equipped with LEDs with a similarly high efficiency output.

A systematic renovation programme aims to make all municipal buildings compatible with zero energy consumption standards.

Finally, a new organic waste treatment plant is enabling the city to recover the equivalent of 6 000 tons of CO2 as bio-methane which, after processing, is used as fuel for public buses. Its capacity needs to be increased.

Will the project stand up to the pressures it comes up against?

However, these technical innovations, whether existing or planned, are not enough; ambitious and binding measures must be taken if the declared objective is to be fulfilled. It is to this end that the newly elected councillors have decided to ban cars from the city centre.

Will they withstand the various pressures that the project will inevitably come up against? Will town centre retailers see the ultimate benefit to their businesses of the creation of a huge pedestrian zone? Will major car parks be built on the city outskirts to enable motorists to park their car before going into the centre, or, conversely, will the project represent an opportunity to consolidate and strengthen the existing public transport network across the entire city area? How will goods be transported into the city centre? What kind of vehicle would cover the “last mile” from people’s homes to their transport hub? What effect will the project have on the development of teleworking?

No one yet knows the exact answers these questions. However the mayors of major cities in Europe and beyond will no doubt be curious enough to watch closely to see how the Norwegian experience evolves over time, what kinds of difficulties arise and what solutions work. Certainly, Oslo remains a city of modest size with only 550 000 inhabitants and only a thousand of these living within its centre; the problems to be solved in leading cities such as Paris or London will inevitably be of a different scale and require measures appropriate to their size. Nevertheless, the analysis of what will have been undertaken in Oslo will inform the decisions that the councils of these major cities will have to take.

Useful demonstration of practical solutions

This initiative usefully illustrates the challenges of the COP 21 which will be held in Paris from late November. It demonstrates practical solutions, whether existing or yet to be developed, to restrict global warming. It also raises awareness of this issue, of the political need to identify clear and realistic objectives and demonstrate a firm belief that they can be achieved. Finally, for politicians around the world, it is an invitation to act and to sign up to driving change in a coherent manner over the long term. It creates a precedent that cannot be ignored.

The Oslo initiative is certainly only the start of a vast movement to redefine the appearance of cities. Others should follow suit, judging by enthusiastic responses from mayors of capital cities. Some companies in the energy or recycling fields will know how to profit from this huge embryonic market. Environmental funds, already available to both individual and institutional investors, rightly invest in these companies and provide them with the capital they need to grow. These funds should, in the long term, achieve a superior performance in view of the extraordinary growth that can be expected from the sector.

Image: Oslo city centre
Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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