As cities boom, Oslo tests greener ‘zero emissions’

A nearly “zero emissions” building site in Oslo, using electric-powered machinery, could be a pioneer for greener construction as the world’s urban areas swell by the equivalent of a Dublin or Dallas, Texas, every week, city experts have said.

Plug-in diggers, saws for cutting stones and other electric-powered machinery have been used to create a pedestrian area in the center of the Norwegian capital — completed in time for Christmas.

The shift aims to help curb climate change, air pollution and noise, officials have said.

C40 Cities, a network of almost 100 of the world’s biggest cities working to slow climate change, called the diesel-ditching project by the left-wing municipality “groundbreaking and unprecedented worldwide.”

“Many cities are looking to Oslo to learn,” said Cassie Sutherland, program director for energy and buildings at C40 Cities in London.

Sitting in chill winter sunshine at the Oslo site, on a new wooden bench by a flower bed planted with purple heather, Oslo Agency for Urban Environment project leader Marianne Molmen said that the revamped street “has become really great.”

The area, lined with shops, cinemas and bars — many closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic — also has new bicycle parking racks and tree saplings. Fossil-fuel-powered vehicles have been banned in much of the area, which includes special chargers for electric-powered taxis.

The revamp project, which began last year, saved 35,000 liters of diesel fuel and 99 percent of greenhouse gas emissions compared with a conventional building site, Molmen said.

The project cost 64 million kroner (US$7.2 million), compared with an estimated 59 million kroner for a more traditional project, largely because electric-powered machines are scarce and cost more.

The “zero emissions” standard used was more stringent than a previous “fossil free” regulation in Oslo, which allowed the use of bio-diesel engines.

Norway generates almost all its electricity from hydropower.

Oslo leads the global “clean construction forum” for C40, whose members include big cities such as Beijing, New York, Tokyo, London and Paris.

In one C40 initiative last month, Oslo, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Budapest pledged to halve emissions from building sites by 2030.

The world’s construction industry accounts for more than 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, C40 said, so any cuts would help nations meet goals that they set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit global warming.

Urban areas, especially in developing nations, are expanding at a breakneck pace.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 2,500 scientists from more than 130 nations, said in its most recent assessment in 2014 that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas “and each week the global urban population increases by 1.3 million.”

That means adding urban areas the size of Islamabad, Harare, Dublin or Dallas, Texas, every week or so.

Priorities for green construction include upgrading existing buildings, rather than demolishing and rebuilding, improving designs and using better materials, such as recycled steel or low-emissions concrete, Sutherland said.

Oslo’s “zero emissions” policy seeks to cover all work within the perimeter of building sites, but a lack of specialized electric-powered machinery from suppliers means that the municipality sometimes grants exemptions and permits machines that are powered by fossil fuels.

For example, in its recent project, the municipality allowed a diesel-powered crane onto the site after failing to find an electric-powered one. The crane burned 16 liters of fuel. Also, asphalt was laid at the site by diesel-powered machines.

Among suppliers, Norwegian construction equipment maker Nasta refits excavators built by Hitachi with batteries, enabling them to operate for about four hours before losing power.

Norway, western Europe’s top oil exporter with a US$1 trillion sovereign wealth fund built on fossil-fuel wealth, paradoxically has some of the globe’s most progressive environmental policies.

For example, those have created the highest rate of electric vehicle (EV) ownership in the world. In the first 11 months of this year, 52 percent of all new vehicles sold in Norway were electric-powered, the Norwegian Road Federation said.

Oslo Vice Mayor Lan Marie Nguyen Berg of the Green Party said that cities can often be more ambitious than national governments because voters see the results of climate policies in their daily lives — more parks, cleaner air and cycling lanes.

Oslo was named Europe’s Green Capital for last year by the European Commission.

A problem is defining where the city’s authority ends and less-stringent national building codes — which allow fossil fuels — take over.

The city government only demands emission-free construction on sites that it controls, from roads to kindergardens.

“Four of five construction sites in Oslo are private or owned by the central government,” Berg said, adding that the city has written to the central government saying that it wants to demand that all construction sites in Oslo be zero-emission or fossil-free sites.

It has not yet received a reply.

Among other green changes in the city, the percentage of EVs passing toll points into Oslo has risen to 25 percent of all vehicles from 6 percent in 2015. Diesel vehicles pay a toll five times higher than EVs.

The municipality has built 55km of cycling roads since 2015, after only about 15km were added in the previous decade. More than 100 electric-powered buses operate in Oslo and the surrounding areas.

Those changes have stirred hostility from some vehicle drivers. A new single-issue party, campaigning to abolish road tolls, won nearly 6 percent of the vote in Oslo municipal elections last year.

Despite its greener policies, Oslo has fallen far short of a headline-grabbing goal in 2016 to halve the city’s greenhouse emissions by this year.

Under revised, less ambitious goals, Oslo estimates that emissions this year are to be 25 percent below 2009 levels, which were about 1.4 million tonnes.

A lack of government funding for carbon capture and storage — used to catch emissions and trap them permanently underground — at a municipal waste plant partly explains the shortfall, Berg said.

Revisions to historic emissions data have also played a role, she said.

“We will get there, but it will also be hard work,” Berg said, reaffirming a goal to cut emissions 95 percent by 2030, compared with levels in 2009.

(By Alister Doyle / Thomson Reuters Foundation, OSLO)