The Norwegian extreme-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik’s attacks nearly three years ago caused both a very public, national trauma and untold stories of personal grief in Norway. Now plans for a national memorial for the 69 who died on the Utoya island is being met with protests from some of the victims’ relatives – as well as neighbours – who say they don’t want a daily reminder of what they witnessed on 22 July 2011. I met some of them at the site of the proposed memorial.
Every year, between 1,000 and 2,000 people die in earthquakes around the world. The vast majority are killed inside collapsing building in developing countries where there’s little investment in earthquake resistant architecture. So creating a cheap, fast and easy way to earthquake-proof those buildings could make an enormous difference. Well, researchers and the University of Sheffield in the UK believe they’ve found a way to do just that. Here’s my report for Spectrum on Deutsche Welle:
British journalist Michael Booth has stirred emotions in the Nordic countries this week with an article in the Guardian based on his recent book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”. In it he aims to debunk many of what he calls myths about the Nordic “miracle” which people in the UK have come to believe and admire. So how much of what he writes rings true? Deutsche Welle’s Inside Europe decided to find out more – first by talking to Michael Booth and then hearing from me and London-based Danish journalist Ellen Otzen:
Norway’s new minister for agriculture has decided more than forty years of the same national dish is enough, and has asked people to come up with a new one. Here’s me talking to The Briefing on Monocle 24 about what this could mean for future culinary adventures in my home country:
Would you like to buy a house for just over one euro? That’s the radical new plan launched in the English city of Stoke-on-Trent. Local authorities there want fill empty properties and re-build a local community which has all but fallen apart as people no longer can afford UK’s high property prices. I went to the city’s Cobridge area to find out more and made this report for Inside Europe on Deutsche Welle Radio.
In the UK thousands are struggling with rising energy costs. After last winter’s record number of deaths from cold weather, pressure is mounting on the government to force energy companies to help the most vulnerable.
An estimated 31,000 people died from the effects of cold weather last winter, many of them elderly people living in poorly insulated homes and faced with skyrocketing gas and electricity costs.
People have seen their energy bills soar by 150 percent over the past ten years, and some now say they must make a choice between buying food or keeping their homes warm.
“I’d sooner starve to death than freeze to death if it should come to that. Thank God at the moment we’re not there yet,” 76 year old Cath Dixon told DW. Her flat in Longsight, one of Manchester’s poorer areas, is poorly insulated and very expensive to heat.
“I have to keep it on all day every day, because I have arthritis very bad. I can’t be cold, I have no choice in the matter.”
But with energy prices rising seven times faster than the average household income, people like Cath Dixon are really starting to feel the strain.
“If it keeps going up at the rate it is then we’re going to find ourselves struggling very, very hard indeed,” she said.
Hats and scarves inside
UK energy prices are not above the EU average, but one in five homes are brick houses from the early 1900s which retain very little heat. Because of this, people living in these kinds of houses will quickly notice every increase in energy prices on their household budget.
The latest price hike came last month, when most of the UK’s six largest energy providers turned up prices by 9 percent, taking the average family’s gas and electricity bill to a record €1,573 a year.
A recent poll showed a third of UK homes are now cutting back on their power consumption, and that more than one in five families have begun wearing scarves and hats to keep warm inside. Nearly one in four of the 2,000 people polled said they had been rationing food to be able to pay energy bills. One in 10 said they wouldn’t be able to buy Christmas gifts for their family this year.
“In all fairness, it’s pretty grim,” said Joe Malinowski from theeneregyshop.com - a website helping people choose the cheapest energy provider.
“What we have is a market largely controlled by six big corporations. There’s very little difference in the pricing between the energy companies, and those bills have been rising year in year out. Lots of people are suffering because of that.”
The price increases have left a record number of people in the UK in so-called fuel poverty; when more than 10 percent of their income goes to pay gas and electricity in order to keep “an adequate level of warmth.”
Meanwhile, the six major energy companies, which provide 98 percent of the UK’s domestic energy needs, saw profits leap by 75 percent last year. The companies argue they need healthy profit margins in order to keep investing in infrastructure – much of which is ageing and expensive to maintain.
That is not an argument which is readily accepted by poorer customers like Cath Dixon in Manchester.
“When you see the profits they’re making and the way elderly people are struggling, I think it’s an absolute disgrace,” she told DW.
“I do think the government should step in and say enough is enough.”
The opposition Labour Party has been quick to make political capital on the situation, promising to freeze energy prices for two years if they win the next general election which must be held by 2015.
The Conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron has said it cannot interfere in the open, international energy market and regulate prices there. Labour’s promise, the PM said, would only see energy companies turn up prices even more at the end of the price freeze period.
Price cut promise
But with the political heat reaching boiling point, earlier this month Cameron pledged to cut prices by removing various schemes aimed at improving energy use, including the so-called Energy Companies Obligation (ECO).
Under ECO, energy companies have had to help vulnerable people insulate their old, leaky houses. The problem, said Joe Malinowski from theenergyshop.com, was that the cost of doing this has been passed on to other customers.
“These schemes are government schemes agreed with the energy companies, administered by the energy companies. And one of the main reasons why bills are rising this year is not largely due to the rise in gas and electricity prices – it’s largely due to social and environmental costs that are being added on to bills and spread around to everybody else,” he told DW.
“So funnily enough it’s the social programs and the environmental programs which are now driving the costs for everybody else.”
People over 60 are eligible for government help to meet their energy costs. But as bills rise at record rates along with increases in other living costs like food, for many it is simply not enough. And with forecasters predicting another chilly winter, the UK’s energy costs look set to remain a thorny political issue and a real challenge to thousands of people.
Did you know Norway’s national anthem isn’t the country’s national (official) anthem at all? Or that it was largely replaced by a 1990s song in the aftermath of the 2011 terror attacks? Here’s me trying to shed a light on the lesser known facts around “Ja vi elsker” for Monocle24:
They say some teachers have eyes in the back of their heads – the kind pupils simply cannot hide from. But imagine a school were your every word and action is captured by 64 cameras, and then broadcast to the entire nation. That’s what’s been happening at a school in the north of England, in a unique TV experiment which throws an unforgiving light on daily life in a British secondary school. Here’s my report from Thornhill Community Academy in Yorkshire:
While the Scandinavian country of Norway may be one of the largest oil producers in Europe, it also has more electric cars per capita than any other country. State incentives have been the key to success, experts say.
Espen Andreassen is the proud owner of a new electric Nissan Leaf car, making him one of over 4,000 Norwegians who has bought an electric car so far this year. So far, nine percent of all new cars sold in Norway in 2013 have been electric.
“Cars in Norway are extremely expensive due to the way they tax cars,” Andreassen told DW. “They often cost twice of what they cost in other comparable countries. But, there is basically no tax on electric vehicles. If we were going to buy a petrol or diesel car, it would have been about the same price.”
Espen Andreassen and other electric car drivers enjoy a host of other benefits too. One of the more popular incentives is being allowed to use the bus lane. Electric cars speed past rush hour queues in and out of Norway’s larger cities, often halving commuting times.
“For us it’s fantastic. Usually we drop the kids at kindergarten and my wife and I drive together. That saves us a lot of time,” said Andreassen.
Ten year battle
Norway’s electric car revolution has happened fast, with most of the growth in sales happening over the past three years. But, this is a result of years of lobbying from electric car owners and their organisations.
“It took a long time to get the benefits,” said Snorre Sletvold, President of Norway’s Electric Vehicle Association.
“It started with no import tax and no first time registration tax. Now we also get free parking and free passing through the toll roads, exemption from VAT and access to use the bus lane. It took 10 years to get all these benefits in Norway,” he said.
The rapid increase in electric car sales has had a noticeable environmental impact too. The average carbon dioxide (CO2) emission from all cars in Norway is currently 118 grams per kilometer, down from 125 grams per kilometer last year. That easily beats the EU target.
Massive oil producer
Yet critics say this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to Norway’s global responsibilities for climate change. The country is the world’s eighth largest crude oil exporter and third largest exporter of natural gas.
“Even though Norway is the country with the most electric cars per person, it’s not going to save the world,” says Lars Haltbrekken, chairperson of the Norwegian division of Friends of the Earth.
“The largest environmental footprint in Norway comes from our huge oil and gas production,” he told DW.
Haltbrekken says that when emissions from Norway’s most recently-discovered oil and gas field are calculated, they would total CO2 levels equivalent to that of 40 million cars.
Others argue that electric cars don’t necessarily produce much less CO2 than modern fossil fuel cars. The production and disposal of batteries and the oil and gas needed for electricity production all adds up to give an electric vehicle a much larger CO2 footprint than many believe.
Although a massive fossil fuels exporter, domestically, nearly all electricity in Norway comes from renewable hydro electric power plants, helping reduce CO2 emissions further.
The incentives dilemma
The Norwegian Parliament in Oslo has guaranteed generous incentives for electric cars until 2017. If the current growth in sales of these vehicles continues, those incentives will have to be reconsidered.
“Of course the bus lane will have to be closed for electric cars one day. Then we have to find another way. Maybe we will have to raise the tax in the toll fee for petrol cars,” said Snorre Sletvold from the Electric Vehicle Association.
Not surprisingly, electric car manufacturers have taken a special interest in Norway, and despite the possible rolling back of some government incentives they remain optimistic about the future Norwegian market.
“Norway is by far our biggest market in Europe, and actually it’s the second biggest market for us globally,” said Esben Pedersen from Tesla Motors, a US company making luxury electric cars.
Despite a price tag starting at 71,400 euro ($96,430), the Tesla Model S was the best selling car in Norway in September this year, beating the trusty VW Golf into second place.
“Whereas politicians elsewhere in Europe do a lot of talking, in Norway they actually act and they have a national electric vehicle policy as the only country in Europe,” said Pedersen. The government’s willingness to invest in electric car use helped Tesla make the decision to invest in a Norwegian network of super-chargers, electric hook-up points which can charge an electric car battery in less than one hour.
The chicken and the egg
The number of electric cars globally is still very small, and even if the rest of the world caught up with Norway, the energy needed to charge them all would still be coming mainly from fossil fuel sources.
To some it is a chicken and egg issue: do we wait until most energy production is sustainable before turning to electric cars, or do we go electric and hope this will help speed up the growth of alternative energy production? Electric car owner Espen Andreassen in Oslo believes in the latter.
“We can’t wait until all power sources are renewable before we start developing and driving and buying electric cars. The amount of renewable energy in the EU mix is increasing, so it will get better all the time. At least we have to try and see if it works out,” he said.
Meanwhile Norway’s love affair with the electric car shows no signs of abating. According to a recent survey, more than half of Norwegians would consider an electric or hybrid for their next car.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Norwegian Nobel Committee which awards the annual prize operates behind closed doors and in greatest secrecy. Their deliberations are kept secret for 50 years – and then you won’t even find any minutes, because there aren’t any. I got a sneak peak behind the scenes in this interview with the Committee’s permanent secretary Geir Lundestad, who will retire next year after 24 years in the job. My interview was broadcast on Monocle 24: