Oslo’s goal to combat climate change in 2016 was as radical as it was unprecedented: to halve greenhouse gas emissions within four years.

Calling its plan “demanding but achievable”, Oslo gained global recognition as a model for bold urban initiatives and was named Europe’s Environmental Capital in 2019, a prestigious annual award from the European Commission.

The Norwegian capital with 700,000 inhabitants has worked hard to electrify public transport, limit diesel and petrol cars and build parks and dozens of kilometres of cycle paths.

Nevertheless, Oslo is far from the goal for 2016, to halve emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, writes the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A more recent target – to cut emissions by 95 per cent from 2009 levels by 2030 – now also looks set to fail.

Oslo is far from unique. Some of Europe’s other leading green cities are struggling to meet similarly high ambitions, having revised or dropped their climate targets in recent years.

Now that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, climate extremists have growing concerns about cities’ climate policies. These failures of zero-emission pledges and climate goals point to a lack of monitoring and control by governments and business.

In 2016, I thought I would eat my hat if Oslo reached that goal, said Borgar Aamaas, senior researcher at the Cicero Center for Climate Research in Oslo.

The city council’s excuse is that it could not evaluate its results against the 2016 target because public agencies had upgraded their methods of tracking greenhouse gases, which they said meant statistics from before 2009 were unreliable.

Oslo’s emissions amounted to 1.1 million tonnes in 2020 according to the new accounting method, approximately 10 per cent below the 1.2 million tonnes in 1990 which was calculated using the previous system.

The goal in the plan from 2016 was to halve emissions to 600,000 tonnes by 2020.

According to the new data, emissions in 2020 were 25 percent below a peak of 1.5 million tonnes in 2009, the first year calculated using the updated measurements.

This means that Oslo is far from its previous target of a reduction of 50 per cent.

The jury for the nomination of Europe’s environmental capital nevertheless placed Oslo at the top in eight out of 12 categories when it won in 2019, including local transport, air quality and biological diversity.

Stig Schjølset from the Norwegian environmental organisation Zero said that Oslo “does a fantastic job” compared to other capitals, and praised the city’s policies, such as emission-free construction sites with electric excavators and cranes.

But the goals Oslo has set are extremely ambitious, said Schjølset, adding that the city was “doomed to fail if you compare them to their ambitions”.

The UN has warned cities against making promises they can’t keep when it comes to climate policy, urging a balance between realism and ambition.

In a report on climate action in 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that all companies, investors, cities, states and regions must urgently “put action behind the promises of zero emissions”.

We cannot afford slow actors, fake actors or any form of greenwashing, he said in the report from a UN expert group.

Cities are responsible for more than 70 percent of emissions, which makes them an important part of the effort to combat global warming, he said.

An analysis by research consortium Net Zero Tracker, released last November, showed that of the 241 cities identified as having net zero emissions pledges, more than half had no reporting mechanism to track those goals and report progress.

Sirin Hellvin Stav, Oslo City Councilor for Environment and Transport and a member of the Green Party, said that Oslo’s 2016 targets were set in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

But to do this, she said, the Norwegian government “has not been ambitious or honest enough”.

We have done our part to follow the Paris Agreement, but we are completely dependent on Norway doing its part to help municipalities and counties from a national level, Stav added.

She noted that Oslo City Council, in its 2016 plan, said that a prerequisite for halving emissions was rapid government investment to capture carbon dioxide at the capital’s waste incinerators, which account for 17 percent of the city’s emissions.

Among the “green successes” is that in 2023 Oslo will become the first capital with an emission-free public transport system, said Stav.

Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, the winner in 2014, had planned to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025, but dropped this goal in 2022 after a municipal waste plant, inke, received government support to capture carbon dioxide.

Oslo City Council’s new target of reducing emissions by 95 per cent by 2030 from 2009 levels means that the city must emit less than 75,000 tonnes annually by the end of the decade.

It is of course highly unlikely that will happen.

After joking about eating his hat if Oslo met the 2016 target, Aamaas said he would go one step further if the 2030 target was met.

I will eat my bunad if they manage to do it, he said.

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