“This is not a climate emergency, it’s a climate catastrophe” — An interview with Svein Tveitdal

Sasja Beslik
The Startup
Published in
9 min readDec 13, 2020

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In the midst of the pandemic, it’s critical that we don’t neglect climate change. Sometimes when people get pre-occupied with one risk, to the left of them, they don’t see what’s coming from the right. And then it hits you even harder.

Thankfully, climate change has not been forgotten. At the moment, we see a lot of nations declaring climate emergency, and green initiatives are somewhat embedded in COVID-19 support packages in many countries.

So what is the status on climate change? What is the problem really? What are the solutions?

I wanted to take a step back and get an overview or high level status on climate change, and I thought who better to interview and ask than Svein Tveitdal, former UNEP Director from Norway. Svein is still very active in the climate change debate, not least on Twitter. You can follow him here.

Here’s a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

Sasja Beslik: Svein, thank very much for taking time for this. You’ve been in this, I would call it a campaign for a better world for a very, very long time, and you are still very active. Can you tell me a bit about yourself — who you are, your career and your background?

Svein Tveitdal: Yes, I would like to do that. I actually grew up where I live now, in the countryside near Arendal in Norway. I grew up on a small farm. We had the three cows and a horse, and the nearest neighbour was pretty far away. We used our horse or our bike to get around, actually.

I spent most of my childhood in the surroundings here, and I think it taught me to love nature. Interestingly, at that time there were no worries about nature. We all thought that it would last forever. We hadn’t heard about climate change and so forth.

I took my education as a civil engineer and became a surveyor, until I started in a consulting company where I worked for a number of years. But the thing that really put me on track for what I’ve been doing later in my life is when I read the Brundtland report. It must have been in 1987.

In 1989, I created the UNEP-supported Global Resource Information Database (GRID) center in Arendal. Later, I became a Division Director in UNEP, in Nairobi, and also worked as UNEP’s Polar Advisor. One of my responsibilities in UNEP was overseeing the IPCC Secretariat in Geneva.

Then about 10 years ago, I came back to Arendal and started my own little consultancy named Climate 2020, which I’m still running. One of my most interesting task these days is that I visit Norwegian schools together with a colleague, who is a writer, and talk to young people in Norway about climate change and what they can expect things to be like when they are as old as me.

SB: Svein, when you look at where we are today compared to how it used to be with regards to the focus climate change… Do you see any big differences? Or are we still just in the world of words, a lot of talking and not so much action?

ST: In recent years, social media has of course made it more easy to spread the word and to come out with with facts to the public. On the other hand, we have also seen a lot of fake news. But when it comes to attitudes among politicians, I think that for instance 10 years ago they said approximately the same as they do today. But today they understand that it is reality. They are now convinced that we have a very big problem with climate change. What’s still missing is the action.

SB: If we take a step back and look at all of this. What is the main challenge here, would you say?

ST: In one word, the challenge is emissions. We need to reduce emissions. The train is gone for the 1.5 degree goal. And I don’t think we will reach the 2.0 degree goal either. As UN’s Secretary General said recently, with the current policies we are heading towards between 3 and 5 degrees in this century. This is not a recipe for a climate emergency like many nations now declare. This is a a recipe for climate catastrophe.

If you look deeper at why we are moving in this direction, I believe that the major problem and hindrance to reduce these emissions is the fossil industry and their enormous lobbying capacity.

If we are going to stick to these international climate goals, we know we need to keep 80% of the oil, gas and coal assets in the ground. But these resources, which are right now physically in the ground, they are already economically in the balance sheets of companies. And the companies will of course do everything they can to go on with business as usual if they are allowed to do so.

You can blame these companies for that. But you seriously have to blame the politicians which they are lobbying. Because the market can solve the problems, but not without the politicians.

SB: So you see the role of politicians as still being very, very important in how this is managed?

ST: Oh, yes. You know, renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper. Even without subsidising renewables, they will take over the market. So if we had the time, we could just sit back and wait, and then the green shift would come by itself, driven by the market. The problem is it would take too long. We don’t have the time to wait. If we sit back and wait, we would melt the world before we get there.

That’s why it is so important with policies. They can push the market to work in the green direction. The market doesn’t do so sufficiently without the policy guidelines. So that is the main problem. And to put it into perspective: The current subsidising of fossil energy is four times higher than renewable subsidies. If we swap that around, I think we would get there.

SB: I completely agree. You can see that national oil companies have embedded fossil revenues in their GDP growth going forward. In general, how do you see the role of companies moving forward?

ST: Companies have a big role to play, of course. And energy companies in particular. After all, that’s where a very big part of the emissions come from. They need to transform and become renewable, but they seem locked up in their old ways.

But it can be done. There’s this incredible example in Denmark with the company named Ørsted. They used to be a state-owned company named DONG Energy which stands for “Danish Oil and Natural Gas”. But they’ve been through a green transformation the past 10 years or so, and today they are only doing renewable energy. And they are hugely successful.

It shows that it can be done. And it’s interesting, because if you check out their market value it’s now the same as Equinor (previously Statoil) in Norway. And Statoil was much, much bigger than DONG Energy.

So the renewables market is booming. It is possible to make the green shift. But it’s still not happening fast enough.

SB: That’s a fantastic transformation story…

ST: Yes, it is. They decided to go green, and it worked. But still, overall the green transformation we need won’t come without sticks and carrots from politicians. In Norway, they (the fossil industry, ed.) will go on for sure if they are allowed to. They will continue with some of the new oil fields in Norway. The one named Johan Sverdrup, for example, which will produce until 2080. And they are still screaming about opening new fields in the Arctic.

SB: How is that compliant with the national climate goals set by the Norwegian government? I mean you have a government that is very focused on sustainability and climate, and at the same time, Norway is very dependent on fossil revenues and an industry that is not only polluting, but is also destroying the ability to transform. How do you see that?

ST: Well, it just doesn’t add up. Neither economically, nor morally. But one of the strategies that they now have is to electrify the production in the North Sea. That would of course reduce the emissions in Norway. But they don’t account for the oil and gas we are exporting, and I believe we are the 7th biggest contributor to global warming because of that. But that part they don’t care about.

I think it has to do with the lobbying from the industry. That the politicians are forced to give something back to the industry. For instance, as a kind of COVID-19 follow-up they’ve given a tax relief to the industry worth 10 billion dollars over the coming years. In the end, this will be paid by the Norwegian tax payers, not by the companies. Yes, they say they will pay it back if they make money in the Arctic, but it will probably not work like that.

I agree with what the UN Secretary General said: That the most important thing is to put a price on carbon toy shift the tax burden from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said that the subsidising of fossil energy, if you take into account the damage they do, is at 6.5% of the global GDP. It’s enormous.

SB: Yes it is. But in the case of Norway, wouldn’t a carbon tax hurt taxpayers anyway through the Oil Fund?

ST: Well, it’s interesting because when I talk to young people as part of these school talks, we also talk about the Oil Fund. As you know, we have our own pension fund in Norway. This huge big oil fund. As it is today, it is set up to help the students with their pension.

But when I communicate with these students, what do you think they say? What is most important to them? Is it to get that pension money? Or is it to have a good life when they are 73 years old? The answer is almost given. Nobody’s thinking about how this money will help them when they are my age. But they definitely want us to use the money to secure that we have a sustainable future.

SB: You mentioned putting a price on carbon. And that’s definitely one solution. What else do you see as a solution?

ST: There is another important solution, which also has to do with policy and politicians, and that is to stop the deforestation. Today, 15–20% of all the emissions are coming from loss of biomass in the world. Of course, this happens in parallel with the destruction of nature. So there is a win-win here.

So if you make the polluters pay this enormous price for the damage, and you take care of the forests as well, then you would have a quite quick reduction of global emissions in the size of 35–40%, according to reports.

So I think these are the steps that we need to take. And poor individuals who would like to a difference with their personal lives. They should do so, yes, but it doesn’t work. Because we need to take these big decisions and make these big systemic changes.

SB: So what about the young generations and their protests? Are you saying that it doesn’t work?

ST: No, quite the contrary. When I meet with young people who have participated in these protests, I say “thank you so much” to them. Why? Because when you’re listening to the state leaders who really want to do something, what are their best argument? Their best argument is to talk about what all these young people have been doing the past couple years. That’s absolutely their best argument. So Greta and the many other young people are making a big difference, even is they are not old enough to vote.

SB: Are you hopeful or fearful? Where are you on the hope-fear scale?

ST: It’s so popular to end an interview by declaring that you’re an optimist. But if you listen to the science, it’s extremely hard to be an optimist.

But I should maybe split my answer into two because all my life I have been what you call a technology optimist. I’ve been thinking that we can solve this problem with technology, and we can even do it in a way so we can continue our a good lives. But today, I think that I have to be an ecological pessimist. I think it will be quite difficult to avoid an ecological collapse. And you know, the thing is that if we had started when we had the knowledge 20 or 30 years ago, this shift would have happened without major problems.

SB: I have one last question. What do you think the planet looks like 100 years from now?

ST: I really don’t know. And I’ll tell you why, and it’s what I tell young people too. When I tell them what life was like in my childhood they almost don’t believe it. I used a horse and a bike. And if someone had told me about the society we have today, 60 years later, I would have said “no, I don’t believe it, it’s science fiction.” I couldn’t imagine it.

That’s why I’m working with a writer who’s using his using writing skills to help describe what society could look like in the future. We need writers who can imagine possible futures — and create new narratives.

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Sasja Beslik
The Startup

MD, Head of Sustainable Finance Dev. at J. Safra Sarasin, the world’s leading private bank on sustainable finance. Author of “Guld och gröna skogar” (2019).