We recently returned from Norway. Some of what we saw there bears on the discussion here in Minnesota about Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal to increase the gas tax.
The price over there is more than $7 per gallon, about half of which is tax. Central Oslo is clean, quiet and very pleasant compared with downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul. Diesels are not allowed in the center, and many streets are completely car-free. Those streets are full of street-level shops, restaurants, bars and pedestrians (in all weather). Oslo has committed to go car-free and is eliminating parking spots, replacing them with bicycle and transit lanes. Public transit options (bus, tram, light and heavy rail) are excellent, and it seems like everyone uses them. The few cars on the road stop for pedestrians at every corner.
We took a short trip on Sognefjord — aboard a battery-powered electric ferry. We traveled to the fjord on a train — the Norwegian railway system is electrified. Norway is also looking at electric air travel. Electric vehicles are encouraged with several incentives: no purchase/import/lease or value-added tax, no charge on toll roads or ferries, free municipal parking, and access to bus lanes, among others. Norway has the highest per capita sales and ownership of electric vehicles of any country. It can do this and remain carbon-neutral because it has developed hydro, wind and tidal power sources that generate 98 percent of the country’s electricity. It is true that Norway has abundant offshore oil and gas reserves. Most of it is sold abroad, providing revenue that is being used to consciously transition away from fossil fuels. Norway is moving toward a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
Back home, more Minnesotans (and Americans) are beginning to realize the threats posed by fossil-fuel use. Business as usual will result in an enormous ramp-up in damages, costs and human displacement and suffering, far beyond what we have seen so far — costs that will be far higher than taking preventive actions now. That’s why so many young people are expressing their concern — they will inherit these problems. But so far we haven’t come to grips with the threats. We continue to build out fossil-fuel infrastructure and encourage the use of fossil-fueled transportation with low gas taxes, subsidies to industries that produce and use fossil fuels, construction of more roads and failure to build alternatives. The transportation sector is now the greatest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. It seems incongruous — we cannot simultaneously move toward carbon neutrality and continue to develop systems that use fossil fuels. Increasing the gas tax is one small way to discourage fossil-fuel usage and encourage movement toward alternatives while providing revenue for the maintenance of transportation infrastructure (and it can be done in a way that will not disproportionately hurt businesses and the poor).
Surely there are many reasons for it, but the atmosphere and the people in Norway seem calm, patient and respectful. Perhaps their transportation structure has something to do with it. Arriving home, we noticed the contrast in terms of noise, pollution, impatience and sometimes downright rudeness. On our second day home, Greg went for a bike ride. There were plenty of cars about, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Approaching one intersection, he was nearly run over by a driver who made a right turn in front of him. He braked heavily, and as she finally saw him, she waved at him with the cellphone in her hand. Yes, using a cellphone while driving, unless hands-free, is banned in Norway.
Of course, Norway is not Eden — the country has its problems — but the ambience there is very appealing. I hope that we Minnesotans can take a page from the Scandinavian countries, where the forebears of many of us once lived, and start down the path to become sustainable and carbon-neutral. Our grandchildren will appreciate it, and it will make our lives better, too.
Greg and Pat Pratt live in Minneapolis.