The Environmental Irony

By Anelka Tay Salam 2SA2

Irony: a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.

Recently, there has been growing talk of environmentalism. No one can go one day without hearing news about climate change. This ranges from the climate denialism of former US President Donald Trump to the climate activism led by the youth. Also, no one can leave out Sweden’s Greta Thunberg from the discussion on climate change. These individuals not only shape our impression on this issue but our impressions of nations’ actions on climate change. 

Countries have been spending their effort to reimage themselves with the climate crisis. On one end, there is Sweden, who spearheads the world in climate-friendly or ‘green’ technology. For example, the provision of electricity in Malmo from waste-to-energy incinerators, making the most of waste. This aids emissions reduction efforts not only in Sweden but also the entirety of Europe. Then, there is the other end of the spectrum, the oil-rich countries in the Middle East. Here, the backbone of their economic prosperity is the extraction of oil. This has gained more out lash by environmentalists over the years, negatively affecting their image. 
Finally, we have countries that experience environmental irony. In these countries, the way of life and how their country is portrayed in the international stage is contradictory, in terms of their environmental friendliness. This environmental irony has made people question the nation’s stance and action (or in some cases, lack thereof) on climate change. In this article, I will be sharing two nations famous for the environmental irony — Norway and Australia.

Image of a power plant

Norway

What is the first thing in your mind when Norway is mentioned? Vikings or even the majestic fjords formation along the Norwegian landscape may come to your mind. Located far north in Europe, some may even mistake it for the home of Santa Claus! It is also a good place to catch the Northern Lights in winter.

Norway is a Scandinavian country. The region is famous for its green policies and is widely associated as a leader in the fight against climate change. Even though Norway may seem to be just an ordinary eco-friendly Scandinavian nation, it has been for a very long time an example of the environmental irony. 

The culture in Norway has evolved to one which is environmentally friendly. This can be traced back to the 1980s, where electronic vehicles were popularised and incentivised (by the famous Norwegian 80s pop band A-ha). Recycling is also deeply entrenched in Norwegian culture and like other Scandinavuans, widely partake in ‘stop-shopping’. This practice involves leading a rather self-reliant lifestyle, shopping as least frequently as possible and shopping only as a last resort. This lifestyle includes farming your own produce and knitting your own clothes. For a society that is conscious of its environmental impact, it is strange that for the past 2 decades, it has recorded significantly more carbon dioxide emissions than any country in the region. Why is this so? This is where the paradox kicks in. 

Norway’s economy runs on fossil fuels. They do not use it per se but rather, export it to other countries for revenue. Even though it caters to 2% of the global demand of oil and gas, it is the third largest oil exporter in the world, behind Russia and Qatar. Amounting to NOK 333 billion (US$40 billion), it makes up 40% of the nation’s export revenue or 18% of its GDP in 2020. This industry is a stain on the country’s clean reputation they are trying to portray. The government however is taking this paradox seriously. Former Environment Minister Vidar Helgsen said in 2018 “We are readily saying, ‘Oil and gas will not be the driver of our economy in the future” and that “While we are still drilling, we are identifying ways to build more legs for the Norwegian economy to stand on.” Will there be a change in the economy’s reliance on fossil fuels? Only time will tell. 

Image of a picturesque Norwegian fjord

Australia

Australia, the Great Southern Land. It is also home to unique biodiversity, ecosystem and culture. The indigenous aborigines have lived off the land for 40,000 years before European settlement, on the basis of Dreamtime; where nature rewards those who respect it. 

On the northeastern coast off Cairns and the Coral Islands, lies the UNESCO-listed Great Barrier Reef. With a heritage of the conservation of nature and the privilege to play home to animals not found anywhere else, you may ask how is Australia, an environmental irony too? 

Unlike Norway, Australia is a ‘nature’s paradise’ to the international stage. Eco-tourism is one of the most successful sectors in the country. In 2014/15, the sector first exceeded A$1 billion in total revenue.This is no surprise, given Australia’s greatest scenic sites. Some examples include Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Kimberly in the northwest. Tourists arrive to learn about the area, its formation and how traditional owners thrive in the area. With huge financial support, this money goes to conservation and the empowerment of indigenous people. Money can also be invested into new and ‘greener’ technologies. As for ordinary Australians, the nation has one of the highest per capita users of solar panels, harnessing the clean and renewable solar energy. 

The scale of locals and the international reputation paint Australia as an ambassador of environmental conservation. However, like Norway,  in the economy, fossil fuels and emissions are heavily relied upon. Coal is Australia’s main export, making up 3.5% of the country’s GDP. The continent is also home to the sixth largest rare earth metal reserves, most of them currently still untouched. These metals include platinum, gold and cerium. These metals require a lot of resources to mine, including construction vehicles used. Mines require excavation, disrupting the unspoilt environment. Moreover, coal mining emits large amounts of carbon emissions and by exporting coal, it perpetuates the use of ‘unclean’ and non-renewable energy use elsewhere.  

This problem may seem similar to that of Norway’s. However, what differentiates Australia in this irony is the government actions. The current government has barely taken actions on excessive mining and carbon emissions, fearing this would cost them votes in states and federal elections. The problem has also gone out of hand, where in 2020 a mining conglomerate destroyed a symbolic rock structure sacred to the local aborigines in Western Australia. The government has also strongly defended their climate policies, reiterating that they are on track to fulfill their carbon goals set in Kyoto 25 years ago. Given this inefficiency in the government, you might think that the ruling Coalition government out of power may solve this problem; however, that is wrong. Giant mining companies are major donors to both major political parties, hence indirectly controlling political parties to give in to these firms’ demands. Otherwise, party funding may be cut, leaving them with little resources to campaign. With mining companies very attached to a governing system, it will take much effort to lobby and bravery before the government makes remarkable change. 

Image of Uluru (Ayers Rock)

The two countries shared above have the similarities of their current state as examples of the environmental irony taking place. However, their outlook and direction is different. Only time would tell how these paradoxes will go – towards a ‘green’ image or towards an ‘unclean’ and non-environmentally friendly reputation. However, one thing is certain, that the only way to change for the better (and similarly, for worse) all depends on the people and power to create this change. The environmental direction and future of both countries is one that will be exciting to follow. 

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