After a year of fieldwork and living out of (many) suitcases, my family and I emptied our storage locker and moved back to Ottawa last month. We spent nearly six months in Norway and four months in Australia as itinerant academics and familial co-adventurers.
This immersive experience was not just incredibly informative for my dissertation research but also produced a mountain of memories for us as a young family. From sailing above the Arctic Circle to visiting the stunning Lofoten Islands and fulfilling my teenage dream to cross-country ski in Lillehammer to witnessing the sun rise on the Great Southern Ocean over the 12 Apostles and rock climbing in Australia’s spectacular Grampians National Park, we have experienced a wealth of unforgettable moments together. Trust me, I could go on to the point of worrying my dissertation supervisor.
I went into the field with a set of expectations of what I would find. For those who have passed through the intellectual crucible of a PhD, this may come as little surprise, but I ended up learning there are more important questions to ask. I was initially keen to explain why Norway has seemingly developed world-leading climate change policies, while Canada and Australia, historically, have been challenged on this front. What I found was that Norway is not the alchemist I thought it was – turning fossil fuels into environmental gold. Like Australia and Canada, the Nordic nation has not managed to reduce its carbon emissions at all since 1990. Despite this jaw-dropping variance in climate policies, the irony is that Norway’s policies have not made any difference – if you are just considering national emissions. Of course, they are leaders in many other respects: climate diplomacy, international offsets, scaling up electric vehicle markets. And all three countries have increased their pollution efficiency; they pollute less per unit of GDP. Yet overall, we are not seeing absolute emissions reductions—which, to be clear, is what we need to see—especially for those countries who are wealthy, historically major emitters, and have other options for economic development.
So, I’m left wondering: how is it that such differences in the climate policy pathways for each of these countries have ended all three in the same place? To build my case, I’ll be tracing the historical development of climate policy alongside an expanding fossil fuel industry. I’m keen to examine how climate policy networks have changed over time and if there’s anything about these networks that influence the policy that is produced. Of course, the economic and political dependence on easy fossil fuel wealth makes substantive emissions reductions especially difficult.
No one seriously expects major fossil fuel exporters to decarbonize overnight and no one said it would be easy. This is a transition, not an abrupt phase shift. Will these climate policies eventually result in decarbonization? Over the long term, the slow but increasing reform that is happening in Norway, and potentially in Canada, may thread the needle in both continuing to extract short-term economic value from fossil fuels and positioning the country to compete in a globally decarbonized economy. A key question remains: how can these countries develop institutions that can better mediate the power of fossil fuel exporters and major emitters as well as tilt the playing field towards cleaner energy sources? My dissertation should be able to provide a line of sight to the changes needed to hasten a transition in some of the least likely places.
Now all I need to do is knuckle down and write! The only distractions I have, which are actually quite helpful and welcome, are two classes that I am teaching at the University of Toronto. There’s currently an online course on environmental politics in Canada, and in May and June I’ll be teaching a course I designed from scratch: Capitalism, Fossil Fuels and Climate Change.
Speaking of which, I need to start prepping for my next lecture… and work on my dissertation!