Leading the Charge: Why Are Electric Cars So Popular in Norway?

by SARAH LAZAROVIC  – Apr 18

54 percent of new cars sold in the Nordic country are electric. Credit smart climate policy, great infrastructure—and a pioneering pop band.

By now, you’ve probably seen the recent General Motors’ Super Bowl spot featuring Will Ferrell. (If not, go watch—we’ll wait.) Who would’ve imagined that one of the marquee ads of 2021 would be Elf exhorting Americans to compete with Norway to buy more electric cars? And yet, if you’d looked at the trends, you’d know Norway is the country to beat.

In 2020, EVs made up 54 percent of new cars sold in Norway

The small nation has achieved major momentum in the electrification of their citizens’ personal vehicles: In 2020, electric vehicles (EVs) made up 54 percent of new cars sold in the country.

Photo by Sung Wang on Unsplash

Why is this important? Well, globally, the transport sector relies almost entirely on fossil fuels and, consequently, accounts for about one-quarter of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. The sector’s GHG output has been trending upward, too, with emissions more than doubling since 1970—and around 80 percent of this increase is coming from road vehicles.

Changing the direction of this trend and moving toward clean energy are important if we want to hold off the climate crisis’s worst-case scenarios. The timeline for a turnaround is tight, so we’d be wise to learn from Norway how to supercharge this massive shift.

The A-ha moment: a publicity stunt that sparked a movement

How did Norway get such a huge swath of its population to go electric? Believe it or not, Norwegian pop group A-ha helped make it happen. After discovering a battery-operated electric vehicle while touring in Switzerland in 1989, the band brought it home, at one point racking up tickets driving around Oslo to protest the fact that it wasn’t even possible to register EVs—and therefore legally drive them—at that time.

To get around this rule, the band registered the car as a motor home. Their little Fiat Panda could travel no more than 45 kilometers (28 miles) before needing a charge, but the band was undeterred. Needless to say, their efforts became legendary.

Photo by Avis De Miranda on Shutterstock

The incentives now on offer aren’t paltry—they include free parking, zero annual road tax, no tolls, and even the luxury of driving in bus lanes

While it wasn’t a simple A-ha moment that catalyzed Norway’s shift, the band’s humorous publicizing of the unfair regulations hampering EV adoption did prompt the government to begin incentivizing EVs in 1990. And the incentives now on offer aren’t paltry—they include free parking, zero annual road tax, no tolls, and even the luxury of driving in bus lanes.

The power of public policy to address climate change

While the Ferrell commercial is funny, we’ll need more than a bit of healthy competition to ramp up adoption of EVs in the US (where they made up just about 2 percent of new car purchases in 2020) to rival Norway’s 54 percent. The Nordic country’s efforts have been sustained and durable, reaching a tipping point last year, when the average global price for EV batteries hit a new low—which made the decision to go electric easier than ever.

What’s more, Norway, an oil-producing country whose emissions peaked in the early aughts, has strategically worked to bring down its carbon footprint as part of its climate change policy. It has declared ambitious goals—such as pledging to end the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2025—as well as government incentives and subsidies to support them.

Photo by PatrickL on Shutterstock

Norway’s EV game is part and parcel of a holistic, strategic approach to decarbonization

With its National Transport Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from private cars, trucks, ships, aircraft and construction equipment by at least 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, Norway’s EV game is part and parcel of a holistic, strategic approach to decarbonization.

In other words, it’s good policy, more than good marketing, that prompts change. With so many subsidies and incentives to support the switch to an electric car, Norway made it an easy economic decision, as well as a painless experience. So credit fewer taxes for EV buyers, greater benefits, and giving people the feeling that they’re helping their country meet its climate policy initiative.

Of course, it should be noted that there are critics: Some argue that Norway’s EV push has been a waste of money, subsidizing the purchases of those affluent enough to afford EVs at the expense of taxpayers, and encouraging families to buy electric vehicles they otherwise don’t need. Rather unfairly, those who are unable to buy new cars often buy secondhand gas cars and have no access to the cost savings brought by incentives.

But despite such criticism, there’s no denying that Norway’s EV-friendly climate policy has swiftly taken a huge amount of emissions out of the equation.

Norway’s plug-and-play infrastructure for electric vehicles

Norway successfully tackled the two most pervasive fears of would-be EV adopters: range anxiety (running out of charge before getting to a destination, thereby being stranded somewhere) and battery frigidity (cold weather sapping the electric power).

As Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, told Bloomberg: “When we—a pretty rocky, pretty cold, and quite scattered country manage to succeed with electric car policy, then it’s obvious that it provides substantial ammunition to those in other countries who ask their authorities: Why can’t we do this?”

Photo by DariaRen on Shutterstock

There are now more than 16,000 public charging stations available for the country’s approximately 400,000 electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

So how did the rocky, cold and scattered country tackle range anxiety? They built a robust charging network. In 2017, the government committed to having fast-charging stations about every 50 kilometers (31 miles) on main roads. There are now more than 16,000 public charging stations available for the country’s approximately 400,000 electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

Of course, your electric car’s carbon footprint isn’t zero if your power grid isn’t clean. Even so, a recent study found that in places where electricity generation depends on combusting fossil fuels like coal, switching to electric cars still helps lower carbon emissions overall. And as more and more grids transition to clean power, the carbon footprint of EVs will shrink even more.

Norway’s ahead here, too: Over the years, the country has shifted to renewable energy, primarily by building hydroelectric power at scale. Which is important when your country has some of the highest per capita electricity usage in the world (thanks to all those EVs…and electric home heating, too).

A unified effort across parties and the people

Norway also had a couple of other things going for it when it came to its EV shift. For one, there was cross-partisan unity in the effort. While the incentive program was started by the social democrats, conservatives continued and expanded the policy.

Photo by Anna Jedyak on Shutterstock

“Even in 2013 or 2014, people were sceptical. Now, a majority of Norwegians will say: my next car will be electric,”

The populace has shown a willingness to change, too. “Even in 2013 or 2014, people were sceptical. Now, a majority of Norwegians will say: my next car will be electric,” said Christina Bu, Secretary General of the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association, to The Guardian. Indeed, EVs have become just part of the prevailing mindset around sustainability.

With populations all over the world becoming increasingly aware of the climate emergency, perhaps there’s an opportunity to quickly shift the consumer mindset elsewhere, too, even in countries currently lagging in their efforts to go electric.

The road ahead for cleaner transportation

Of course, electrifying passenger cars is great. But investing in public transit and encouraging climate-friendly ways to travel without a car—EV or otherwise—are also important goals for all countries. While Norway’s EV switch has helped curb the problem of air pollution in its cities, it doesn’t do much for traffic congestion, for instance, which swells commute times, decreases quality of life and spurs road construction.

Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash

At the same time, Norway’s successes can teach us so much: namely, that creating real change is about so much more than marketing. It takes forward-thinking climate policy, cross-partisan political will and great incentives to quickly shift hearts, minds and gas tanks.

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