Oslo starts 2019 as Europe's eco capital

The Norwegian capital plans to cut emissions by 95 percent by 2030, despite being one of Europe's fastest growing cities. As European Green Capital 2019, it hopes to set an example for others.

Oslo's waterfront was once a mass of shipping containers and a vast intersection jammed with cars pumping out fumes.

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Today, traffic is diverted through an underwater tunnel, and much of it is made up of electric or hybrid cars. Above, the scene is becoming dominated by a new Edvard Munch art museum and central library — both due to open in 2020.

The new development has impressive environmental as well as cultural credentials, with all new buildings meeting energy efficiency standards for low energy use, explains Anita Lindahl Trosdahl, project manager for Oslo's Green Capital year.

Her office lies further along the waterfront, just a stone's throw from another cultural behemoth nearing completion — the new national museum.

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Meanwhile, new housing is shooting up across the city.

These buildings aren't just designed to function sustainably, the city council is also making sure their construction has a limited environmental impact, too.

"We're using our market power to introduce fossil fuel-free construction," Trosdahl told DW. "So not only will the build in its lifetime be as sustainable as possible, but also during the construction period itself."

Read more: Could oil nation Norway help save the climate?

It may not look like much yet, but Oslo's new waterfront development promises to be a cultural and environmental hub

Bees and local power plants

Further north, away from the waterfront, lies the Vulkan neighborhood — another hotspot for eco-conscious building. Back in the 1800s, it housed much of Oslo's manufacturing industry. Today, you can find bee hives on the rooftop of one of the modern buildings here — the Scandic Vulcan Hotel.

"This summer we had 500,000 bees which produced 271 kilos of honey," Monica Egeberg, the hotel's general manager, told DW.  

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The hotel chain likes to see the bees as a symbol of its wider approach to the environment. "We are also nearly self-sufficient with energy," Egeberg says.

Read more: Climate change: Greenhouse gas emissions decline in cities from Berlin to New York

The hotel was built in 2011, when the rest of the old industrial area was redeveloped into a hip and happening neighborhood with bars, restaurants, entertainment, offices and housing.

A power plant built into the basement of an old industrial hall, which now also serves as Oslo's largest food court, provides more than 80 percent of all the electricity needed for the entire neighborhood using a heat recovery system from the food court, geothermal wells and thermal solar panels.

Beneath this fancy food hall, a renewable power plant supplies 80 percent of the Vulkan development's electricity

Green role model

Green urban initiatives like these helped Oslo beat 13 other cities to the title of European Green Capital 2019. The competition, launched in 2008 by the European Commission, aims to showcase solutions that other cities might imitate or draw inspiration from.

On a global scale, Oslo is a small city. It has a population of less than 700,000. Its worthy efforts to cut emissions won't slow climate change much on their own. But Trosdahl says it's perfectly suited to pioneer ideas that could make a real difference internationally.  

"We're big enough that we can test solutions that can also be transferred to larger cities," she says. "We're world-class when it comes to the introduction of electric vehicles for instance, and other cities can use our model."

Nearly half of all new cars sold here are fully electric. There are trams, electric buses and ferries, all running on renewable hydroelectric power. During the icy winters, a waste incinerator plant heats many of the city's homes.

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Greening cities

The city aims to cut emissions by 36 percent from 1990 levels by the end of next year, and 95 percent by 2030. To achieve this, the city council has introduced its own climate budget — possibly the first of its kind in the world.

"We count carbon emissions in the same way as we count money," Oslo's mayor Raymond Johansen told DW. "All parts of Oslo need to report back how much they can reduce their emissions, on very clear significant goals."

The climate budget gives the council an overview of measures taken all across the capital, so it always knows whether Oslo is on track to reach its climate goals. So far, it is.

Will Oslo give up its cars?

Johansen heads a city government coalition comprising his own Labor Party, the Greens and the Socialist Left. Since coming to power four years ago, it has pushed its green agenda relentlessly, which some have resisted.

Businesses in particular have opposed making much of the city center car-free, and plans have been scaled back. Cars will be banned from some key streets, while in other areas more space will be given over to pedestrians and cyclists.

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Road traffic is Oslo's largest source of emissions.

Road tolls have already led to a considerable cut in traffic. But because prices have increased year on year — from €3.2 ($3.60) in 2016 to €5.6 in 2019 for a private car — critics say the breaking point has been reach for many.

"The main challenge for us going forward now, is to reduce the number of private cars," Johansen says. But he admits it's a tough sell and says the city can't put too much economic pressure on drivers.

Fully electric vehicles are exempt from the tolls, helping the rapid increase in sales of non-fossil fuel cars. But it's a tactic that favors the better-off, with many who can't afford to trade in their petrol or diesel vehicles feeling unfairly punished.

Today the Norwegian Road Federation announced that Norway has hit a world record, with one-third of new cars sold last year being pure electric. The country uses tax breaks for electric cars as part of its plan to end the sale of fossil-fueled vehicles by 2025.

Still, most Oslo citizens do support the city's emissions goals. A recent survey found that three quarters of residents agreed it was important to do what is necessary to cut emissions by 95 percent by 2030.

Just over half said they supported the aims of making the city center car-free, while 63 percent said the measures introduced to reach the climate goals would make Oslo a better city to live in.

The world's greenest cities

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen wants to become the world's first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Since 1995, it has reduced its carbon emissions by half. It stands out for its efforts on sustainable mobility, with large car-free zones, high quality public transport and impressive cycling facilities. District heating and cooling systems – some of which use cold seawater – do their bit to reduce emissions, too.

The world's greenest cities

Reykjavik, Iceland

The Icelandic capital already has a renewable supply of heat and electricity – mainly from hydropower and geothermal. An impressive 95 percent of homes are connected to the district heating network. The city is also aiming to make all public transport fossil-free by 2040 and strongly encourages residents to do without their cars.

The world's greenest cities

Curitiba, Brazil

In Brazil's eighth biggest city, around 60 percent of the population relies on the urban bus network. They also have 250 kilometers of bike lines at their disposal, as well as the country's first major pedestrianized street, Rua das Flores. Curitiba's green belt provides natural protection against flooding. But its rapid population growth is putting its green ambitions under pressure.

The world's greenest cities

San Francisco, United States

In 2016, San Francisco passed a law that all new buildings must set aside space for rooftop photovoltaic systems – the first major US city to do so. Plastic bags have been banned since 2007, and it introduced an urban food waste program in 2009. Now, it plans to go waste-free by 2020. Plus, the majority of its buses and light rails are zero-emission.

The world's greenest cities

Frankfurt, Germany

Germany's financial center was one of the first cities to adopt a roadmap towards a 100 percent renewable energy supply by 2050. New buildings must follow strict guidelines on energy efficiency. Controversial materials like PVC are forbidden, and it has drastically reduced its waste, thanks to a modern waste management system. Frankfurt also has ambitious plans for e-mobility.

The world's greenest cities

Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver is trying to become the world's greenest city by 2020. By then, it seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 33 percent compared to 2007. The city's electricity comes almost entirely from hydroelectric dams, but it still needs to move away from natural gas and oil for heating and transportation. The goal is to reduce per-capita ecological footprint by 33 percent.

The world's greenest cities

Kigali, Rwanda

Kigali has been described as Africa's cleanest city. It's planning to develop pedestrian and cycling corridors. Plastic bags are banned and citizens spend a day each month cleaning up the city, where it's rare to find litter. However, human rights groups have denounced the high price of this "cleanliness," which they say is as an excuse to impose a discriminatory control over the population.

The world's greenest cities

Ljubljana, Slovenia

The European Green Capital 2016 gets all its electricity from hydropower. It has a strong focus on public transport, pedestrian and cycling networks, and has banned cars from its city center. It was the first European city to aim for zero waste, and already recycles over 60 percent – one of the highest rates in Europe.