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Norway’s sovereign wealth fund backs away from fossil fuels

, July 12, 2019, 0 Comments

Coal and oil have long been sought-after investment targets, but that is changing. Norway is increasingly withdrawing its huge sovereign wealth fund from fossil fuels. But for finance, not climate protection.

norway-fossil-fuelsThe electric car pensioner Rune Faerbjorg parks by a supermarket in Oslo, Norway, is the fourth on the street — a typical scene for a country in which almost half of new cars registered are zero emission. Since buying an electric car, Faerbjorg says, he doesn’t need to pay for gasoline. “Electricity is cheap here in Norway.”

Parking is not. The ticket machine in the car park shows half an hour costs €3, an hour €6 and two hours €14 — a deterrent against driving for the weekly shop. Since the early 1990s, the Norwegian capital has used high parking fees to arm its city center against traffic.

Oslo showcases what in many European capitals has proved elusive: low-emission traffic. For several car companies, notably Tesla, Oslo has become a test laboratory for a future without fossil fuels.

Pragmatism defines Norway — a country that can afford it. It has cheap public transport, low electricity prices and a generous social welfare system. Norwegians, on average, earn €70,000 a year. Germans earn just €36,000. Norway is one of the richest countries in the world. With revenues from oil, gas and electricity from hydropower, the state tries to make the most out of its resources.norway-fossil-fuels

Electric cars are on the rise in Norway

Norway’s influential pension fund

Look on the website of Norway’s State Pension Fund, managed by the Norwegian Central Bank, and this becomes clear. Whether led by conservatives, as it is today, or social democrats, as it was when first founded, the fund is uncontroversial. Right on the first page, the fund presents a monstrous number: 9 314 807 748 613 Norwegian Kroner, or almost one trillion euros.

A de facto debt-free and climate-conscious Norway has just one problem: How to spend it?

The fluctuating oil price

From a spacious office overlooking Oslo’s rooftops, Egil Matsen, vice president of Norway’s central bank, looks like he is used to solving luxury problems. But after Norway’s parliament decided in March to remove another 134 coal and oil companies from the fund’s investment list, what should he do with the money?

Rather than talk about climate protection, ethical investments, or the central bank’s response to previous restrictions, Matsen plays his cards close to his chest.

The price of oil is fluctuating, he says, and so is our yield. Even though the last quarter brought record revenues? That only shows that you can make good money somewhere else, he says.

Until recently, Matsen had a well-paid but basically unspectacular job. Now, he realizes that his words are being weighted by the world media as if he were Europe’s central bank chief Mario Draghi. Markets move if he says too much. The companies in which he may no longer invest were his cash cows. Exxon, Shell, RWE and Glencore are the best-known ones. He knows some of their bosses personally.

We’re not definitely pulling out, Matsen says, but we’re setting deadlines and urging these companies to invest more in renewable energies. Buying time — somehow — is important to him. Through the state-owned energy firm Equinor, Norway, Western Europe’s biggest oil producer, feeds large sums of money into the fund. 170,000 Norwegian jobs depend on it. That is a weighty issue in Norway, a country of 5 million people.

For this reason, Matsen does not want to be seen as an actor in the global climate debate. He knows everything is moving too slowly for environmental groups. But his first criterion is not global carbon dioxide emissions. Matsen serves the gigantic number on the fund website.norway-fossil-fuels

Oslo is reducing cars in the city center by removing parking and promoting alternative transport

Hope for the climate?

In 1990, the fund started with the equivalent of almost €200 million. By 2008, when the global financial system crashed, the fund had grown to around €200 billion — a thousand-fold increase. While most countries were drowning in debt, Norway had the money to become a political force. They began to withdraw investments from nuclear weapons stocks. Money was taken from environmental polluters, tobacco companies and those accused of child labor.

Since the global financial crisis, the fund’s value has more than quadrupled. From around 2014, a redistribution of money under the term “divestment” gained political relevance. And because the Norwegians have long since demonstrated that the big money from pension funds can have an impact, they have become the hope of activists across the globe.

No new Scandinavian climate hero

NGOs such as Carbon Tracker in London calculated that Exxon & Co.’s coal and oil reserves must never be allowed to come out of the ground if the 1.5 degree climate target is to be achieved. They launched the campaign term “stranded assets” which in a carbon-neutral future may be worthless. And they recognize Norway as a pioneer of divestment.

Marianne Eikvag Groth, state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Finance, tries to dispel this impression. The parliament’s decision on Norway’s withdrawal from coal, oil and gas means nothing for the time being, she said. “We are not aiming to send a message to the world… This fund is not an instrument of environmental policy or foreign policy, it’s an instrument to take care of the Norwegian people’s savings.”

But isn’t that a signal to the world? Doesn’t that give hope that the targets agreed in the Paris Climate Accord could be implemented? Groth’s press spokeswoman, at this point, interjects to say Groth must attend a meeting.

“The Norwegian government is speaking with two tongues here — the ministry of finance can’t state often enough this is nothing to do with climate,” says climate activist Anja Bakken Riise. But in front of climate-striking school kids, said Riise, the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg stressed what the government had done to divest from oil companies.

But Riise acknowledges that the fund turning its back on fossil fuel companies — whether for financial or climate reasons — still has global appeal.