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How Norway’s government made electric cars irresistible

May 29, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Norway's vast wealth comes from decades of gas and oil production, yet its citizens are turning their backs on fossil fuels and embracing electric cars like nowhere else. In fact, the Norwegian government is planning to end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2025. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on the Scandinavian country’s investment in a greener future.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But first: President Trump announced over the weekend that he will decide this week whether the U.S. will remain part of the Paris climate accord.

That accord, signed last year by 195 countries, commits those nations to significantly reduce their carbon emissions to combat climate change. But President Trump has long argued that environmental regulations cost American jobs, and he’s vowed to undo them, and he’s also described climate change itself as a hoax. European leaders last week urged the president not walk away from the accord.

In Scandinavia, which is a world leader in green technology, politicians and environmentalists want the president to follow their lead, and increase investment in environmentally friendly technologies like electric cars.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Norway, the world’s fastest growing electric car market.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Norway prides itself on being one of the world’s most pristine countries. Yet, amid the stunning scenery, there are reminders that its vast wealth comes from decades of gas and oil production.

But Norwegians are turning their backs on fossil fuels and embracing electric cars like nowhere else.

Ann Kunish, who moved from Wisconsin 30 years ago, is one of the new converts.

ANN KUNISH, Music Librarian: This car is a no-brainer. There’s no question about it. It’s very, very easy to choose electric cars. The Norwegian government has made it much more financially feasible to buy them. They don’t have the same fees, free parking in municipal spots. More and more charging stations are being built, lower yearly fee to use the roads, no tolls.

MALCOLM BRABANT: New electric car sales in Norway have now passed 100,000, giving it the highest per capita ownership level in the world. In comparison, there are over half-a-million electric cars in the U.S. To have the same percentage as Norway, America would require 6.25 million electric cars on the road.

This is Oslo’s rush hour, as electric car drivers hunt a parking spot at the city’s biggest charging station. The energy is almost completely renewable energy, as 98 percent of the country’s power comes from hydroelectric plants.

Norwegians endure some of the world’s heaviest taxes, and removing sales tariffs from electric cars has been irresistible. The government aims to end sales of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2025.

PETTER HAUGNELAND, Industry Advocate: There has to be a big difference if you choose a zero emission car or a polluting car when you buy it on the tax system.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Industry advocate Petter Haugneland argues taxes on fossil fuel vehicles should be increased to speed up the process.

PETTER HAUGNELAND: In Norway, transport sector is a key element to lower the emissions. We need to cut our emissions very fast if we’re going to do something about the climate problem.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In March, President Trump canceled a fuel economy ruling put in place by the Obama administration requiring automakers to achieve 54 miles a gallon by 2025, double the present level. Environmentalists claimed higher standards would boost sales of hybrid and electric cars.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The assault on the America auto industry, believe me, is over. It’s over.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Norway’s environment minister, Vidar Helgesen, belongs to a center-right party that once aligned with the Republicans. It now has more in common with the Democrats. Helgesen didn’t criticize President Trump directly, but sent a clear message not to turn back the clock.

VIDAR HELGESEN, Foreign Minister, Norway: Our position is very much that we very much need to build competitiveness for the future. We also need to care about the jobs that don’t exist today that need to exist in the future. We know that the Chinese are investing massively in renewable energy. We know the Chinese and other major up coming economies are investing a lot in electric vehicles. I think they’re building green competitiveness for the future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And this is precisely what the minister is talking about: an electric car start-up in southern Sweden which is reinventing the steering wheel to be more like a game console.

LEWIS HORNE, CEO, Uniti: This is not how we will mechanically achieve it in the car, because this is not very nice for the user. There are different ways we will mechanically achieve it, which will be unveiled later this year.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The CEO, Lewis Horne, has taken on 30 engineers and hopes to employ 1,000 people once production begins in early 2019 on a compact car that’s still under wraps.

LEWIS HORNE: So, you can see a little hint of two models which are the result of a lot of research and design. In the future, the jobs are just different. Historically, when we have had an industry that’s so damaging to our health now, that’s not a place where you should be creating more jobs. We should be creating more jobs in the future of these industries.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There is no more beautiful sight than an American-made car.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The owner of this ’56 Chevy Bel Air couldn’t agree more. Henning Kjensli works for the American Car Club of Norway.

But while he’s sympathetic to the need for job creation, he’s also in favor of going green.

HENNING KJENSLI, Commercial Manager, AMCAR: Developing and researching new technology costs tons of money. And right now, the best earnings in the American automobile market is in the full-size pickup and SUV segment.

They should still make those cars and sell them and make money off of them, but they need to sort of reinvest the profits from those cars into new and modern technology.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Fuel prices are the crucial difference between the U.S. and Norway. Norwegians pay about $7 a gallon. Gas is roughly five dollars cheaper in America, reducing the financial incentive to drive electric.

This is a partially American-made electric car, the $35,000 Ampera-e. It’s a collaboration between General Motors and South Korea’s L.G. GM’s European arm, Opel, launched the car in Norway in May.

Impressed by its range of more than 300 miles on a single charge, so many Norwegians have been ordering the Ampera-e, that there’s now a 15-month waiting list.

MAN: We are not going back. We are heading into the future. I think, in 10 years, we will see that at least half of the sale from Opel is electric, if things are moving in the direction we are seeing right now.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Norway may be a world leader when it comes to electric cars, but its environmental record is far from perfect. Its greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. Most of those are coming from oil and gas production, which provides Norway with its wealth.

And critics are very unhappy that Norway is pushing to expand fossil fuel production in the Arctic and believe that its climate change policies are inconsistent.

FREDERIC HAUGE, Bellona Foundation: It’s schizophrenic, because Norway is a nice little country of petroholics.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This top-of-the-range electric SUV is the pride and joy of Frederic Hauge, a veteran eco-warrior who was a pioneer of electric cars in Norway.

FREDERIC HAUGE: You can say maybe that the electric car is a Trojan horse towards the Norwegian oil industry. The battery revolution will bring down the oil price to $20 to $25 a barrel before 2030. And then the stupid things Norway is doing in the Arctic, the oil drilling, will also be stopped because of economic reasons.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re setting up a task force in every federal agency to identify and remove any regulation that undermines American auto production and any other kind of production.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Such statements alarm environmentalists in Denmark 300 miles to the south. Denmark generates about 40 percent of its electricity from wind power and is on track to hit its target of 50 percent by 2020. But these and other renewable energy efforts need to be increased, according to Danish climate scientist Sebastian Mernild.

SEBASTIAN MERNILD, Nansen Environmental Center: Regarding this green development, we can hardly see any impact so far, because the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing year by year. We are for sure helping the environment, but not enough. And we need to speed up this green development.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The European Union, whose environment agency is based in Copenhagen, is fully committed to the Paris climate agreement, which requires signatories to tighten up emissions by 2020 and beyond. Its dismayed that the president may leave the accord.

Climate change specialist Magda Jozwicka.

MAGDA JOZWICKA, Europe Environment Agency: It is, of course, very important that countries around the world stick to the Paris agreement, because, overall, we need to work on our long-term de-carbonization goals and the long-term well-being.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The Scandinavians doubt that environmental arguments will change the president’s mind, but they hope the economic case for electric cars will have more success.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Norway.

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