Norway's reliance on the oil industry is challenged by a UN human rights expertThe UN expert on human rights says Norway can't reconcile its fight against climate change with its heavy economic reliance on oil drilling and exportation. Photo credit: Pierre-Henry Deshayes/AFP/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

Ahead of a November court hearing in a lawsuit challenging the Norwegian government’s approval of offshore oil drilling, a UN human rights official is calling on Norway to cease new oil exploration and to “accept substantial responsibility” for addressing the climate crisis. 

“To provide international leadership on climate change—the paramount human rights challenge facing humanity today—Norway should stop exploring for additional oil and gas reserves, stop expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, and harness Norwegian wealth and ingenuity to plan a just transition to a fossil-fuel free economy,” David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, wrote in a statement issued Monday. Boyd’s statement followed a 12-day visit to Norway to assess the country’s progress in safeguarding human rights and the environment. 

Boyd highlighted what he called “the Norwegian paradox:” a country that prides itself as a leader in environmental sustainability and climate action while at the same time remaining a major petroleum producer. Norway is the world’s 15th largest exporter of oil and second-largest exporter of natural gas.

“However, the Norwegian paradox is that its leadership in some aspects of addressing the global climate emergency is enabled by wealth generated by a large petroleum industry,” Boyd wrote. “Emissions from this sector are well above 1990 levels and exploration for additional oil and gas continues in Norway, despite clear evidence that human society cannot burn existing reserves of oil, gas and coal while meeting the targets established in the Paris Agreement.”

Norway’s government also owns 67 percent of the country’s largest oil company, Equinor (recently renamed from Statoil).

The Norwegian government is being sued by environmental groups Greenpeace and Nature and Youth, which argue that the country’s new petroleum drilling licenses contradict Norway’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and violates Article 112 of the Norwegian constitution that guarantees the right to a healthy environment. The Oslo District Court recognized this constitutional right while concluding that offshore oil licensing does not violate this right. The environmental groups appealed the decision and that appeal will be heard Nov. 5-14 in the Borgarting Court of Appeal.

Boyd referenced the lawsuit in his statement and is urging the Norwegian government to accept the district court’s interpretation of Article 112 as a “clear expression of the human right to live in a healthy environment,” rather than an abstract principle.    

“At this time in human history—faced with a global environmental crisis of unprecedented severity—recognizing, respecting, protecting and fulfilling the right to a healthy environment has never been more important,” Boyd wrote. 

Countries around the world are under increasing pressure to take more ambitious climate action, including curbing fossil fuel production, on the basis of honoring their international human rights obligations. UN human rights treaty bodies, leading environmental and human rights organizations, and young people around the world are demanding that governments be held accountable for insufficient climate policies in the context of human rights law. 

“In Norway and all over the world, the young generation is deeply worried about the climate crisis and what the future can bring, especially when a government like the Norwegian government is gambling with people’s health and safety by looking for even more oil,” said Gaute Eiterjord, head of Nature and Youth in Norway. “At the same time, young people are taking action both in the streets and courtrooms. We are looking forward to confronting the government in court and call for true climate action. The government needs to live up to its commitments and the Norwegian constitution and it is high time to stop the reckless drillings for more oil.” 

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