How Norway’s Roads Have Become Dominated by Zero-Emission Electric Cars

The tiny Scandinavian country recently bought more electric cars than vehicles with combustible engines.

10.07.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo of a Tesla electric car by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Photo of a Tesla electric car by Jp Valery on Unsplash

It’s not really fair for a country to compare itself to Norway. The tiny Scandinavian nation is, first of all, just that — tiny — and built on top of crashing natural splendor, allowing 99% of the country’s electricity to be covered by hydropower.

It’s also incredibly rich in fossil fuels. Being the world’s second-largest exporter of natural gas—and having virtually all profits from the business go into government coffers—is more than a slight advantage over most countries.

But Norway’s success in grappling with the ogre of air pollution, particularly emissions generated by vehicles, has a lot to teach the world about political collaboration, taking the public along for the ride while it addresses pressing ecological challenges and the sorts of incentives that work when making people switch to greener ways of living.

One third of all electric vehicles (EVs) currently sold in Europe go to customers in Norway. In 2018, the Nissan Leaf was the best-selling new passenger car, the first time an electric vehicle had ever dominated a category. Wired reports that plug-in electric vehicles, such as Jaguar I Paces, VW E-Golds, Hyundai Konas and Audi E-tron SUVs, outsold gas and diesel cars for the first time in the country this spring, with Forbes adding that there was actually a backlog as suppliers could not provide electric cars fast enough to meet demand.

There’s a widespread charging network, appearing at least every 30 miles on the main roads in the country, and an EV culture through car-sharing apps including Turo, Nabobil and Sixt.

The roots of this success began almost 30 years ago, in the 1990s, when the country proposed a series of EV subsidies. Somewhat surprisingly, the country has managed to maintain support for the initiative despite changes in governments—a definite change from the reaction to ecological policies in other European countries: Madrid, Spain, was recently on the verge of undoing its relatively unambitious low emissions zone as power in the capital switched from the left to the right.

In 2016, the country announced plans to completely ban petrol-powered cars by 2025—a measure actually proposed by Norway’s populist right-wing Progress Party. This commitment was helped through by Climate and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen, who said it should “always be cheaper to have a zero-emissions car than a regular car.”

This has developed into a favourable driving regime for those with electric-powered vehicles. EV drivers are able to avoid paying toll taxes on some roads and passenger ferries, park for free in some car parks, enter areas that higher emitting cars cannot and even drive through cities in the bus lanes. Sales tax has been dropped from EV purchases, and the country has become committed to using electric batteries in passenger ferries and even short haul plane flights.

Perhaps to be expected, this has generated some backlash. There are those, as quoted in Forbes, who see the incentives as principally benefiting wealthy individuals who have the financial power to purchase new electric vehicles. The second-hand market, primarily used by those without as much money, is dominated by older, higher-emitting vehicles, which now face additional strong fines.

Similarly, there are concerns that allowing EVs to travel in the bus lanes is clogging up urban travel, and that exemptions from charges on passenger ferries are simply hurting smaller business owners. Or that a rise in the number of people charging their cars at peak times could cause a demand surge that cities would be unable to sustain.

Nevertheless, the country ploughs ahead, committed to its goal of eradicating combustion engine vehicles by 2025 and developing the spread of the charging infrastructure. It’s even begun using the ability to zip around in emission-free and silent vehicles as a marketing tool to encourage tourists to visit the country.

As quoted in The Guardian, Norwegian MP for the Green Party Per Espen Stoknes said he thought it was a misconception that only rich countries like Norway could afford to invest so heavily in EVs. “I think that’s a misperception. I’m glad we’re doing it because it helps [bring] down the prices of electric vehicles, so it’s cheaper for other nations to follow us later. It’s part of a green taxation shift. Norway can do it because you’re rich? It doesn’t add up. It’s about what you tax.”

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