While the outcome of the United States presidential election this week could very well be a make it or break it moment for global efforts to address the climate emergency, this week will see another contest with critical climate stakes in Norway as the Norwegian Supreme Court takes up a climate lawsuit challenging the government’s licensing of Arctic oil drilling. That case, dubbed The People vs. Arctic Oil, is slated for a 7-day trial starting Wednesday, November 4 and concluding on Nov. 12 with all 19 judges of Norway’s Supreme Court presiding. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs – environmental organizations Greenpeace Norway and Nature and Youth – would for the first time invalidate new offshore oil drilling on climate change grounds and may set an important precedent for climate cases around the world.
Norway is one of the world’s largest exporters of petroleum; only Russia and Qatar export more natural gas. Norway ranks 7th globally in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel exports, and these “exported emissions” are 10 times greater than Norway’s direct GHG emissions. This contrast between Norway’s continued production of petroleum to ship overseas and its actions to tackle climate change domestically is known as the Norwegian paradox, and it provides the backdrop for the landmark climate lawsuit.
The lawsuit, originally filed in 2016, seeks to overturn the Norwegian government’s granting of new oil drilling licenses in the Barents Sea, part of the fragile and rapidly warming Arctic region. That 2016 licensing marked the first time in 20 years that Norway had opened up new areas in Arctic for oil drilling. This drilling may not even be profitable and could result in economic losses for the country, according to a secret report withheld from Norway’s Parliament that emerged through the litigation and in advance of the Supreme Court trial.
That potential scandal aside, the environmental groups are suing because they say opening up new areas to oil drilling is incompatible with the Paris Climate Agreement and a breach of Norway’s constitution under Article 112, which outlines the right to a healthy environment. Additional arguments on human rights grounds (under the European Convention on Human Rights) will be presented to the Supreme Court, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, has called on Norway to end new petroleum expansion.
The environmental plaintiffs agree that continued oil exploitation threatens further climate breakdown.
“It is obvious that Norway has a responsibility not to produce more oil and gas than what the climate can take. To explore for more oil and gas is to torpedo future generations chances of growing up in a healthy climate,” Therese Hugstmyr Woie, head of Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Nature and Youth), said in a press release.
The Oslo District Court initially ruled against the environmental plaintiffs in January 2018, finding the Norwegian government had not breached its legal duty under the constitution and further determining that Norway is not responsible for emissions outside its borders. The Court of Appeal upheld this ruling in a decision issued in January this year, though the Court said, in contrast to the District Court, that Norway must account for its exported emissions.
The Norwegian Supreme Court will be closely examining Article 112 of Norway’s constitution and determining what the right to a healthy environment means in the context of the government permitting new oil drilling, considering the associated carbon emissions tied to petroleum exports.
“Laws in over 100 countries explicitly recognize the right to a healthy environment. Because these rights are universal, judges around the world are taking into account how other jurisdictions are upholding these rights,” a background media briefing document on this case, provided by Greenpeace, explains. “In addition, affirming the responsibility of states for their GHG emissions, even after export and the responsibility to take measures to curb the expansion of production and supply of fossil fuels will be significant as civil society tackles the climate crisis in courtrooms around the world.”
The outcome of the Norwegian Supreme Court’s consideration of this case could therefore have significant implications for climate action and climate law worldwide. The Supreme Court is expected to make its judgment within 1-3 months following this hearing.
“Opening up the Arctic for oil drilling in the time of climate emergency is unacceptable, and the Norwegian government must be held accountable,” Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway, said in a press release. “We hope and believe that the Supreme Court will acknowledge the Norwegian State’s substantial impact on the climate crisis and judge the Arctic oil licenses invalid.”