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I’m kneeling on the snow outside the king’s house, impersonating a 1980s heart-throb, with a man named Harald and an electric car. It’s a situation that probably needs some explanation.

Harald isn’t the king, although the king of Norway is also called Harald; we just happen to be outside the monarch’s residence, a handsome red manor. I’m in Stavanger to find out how, in a world where transport contributes about 20% of CO2 emissions, Norway came to lead the world in electric car take-up. In 2023, 82.4% of private vehicles sold in the country were electric. In January, the figure was 92.1%. The goal is to hit 100% by next year.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a ban on new petrol and diesel cars was recently pushed back from 2030 to 2035. Just 14.7% of new cars registered in January were electric. The situation in the EU is even worse: 10.9% of cars sold there in January were electric.

Why Stavanger? Because, as well as – irony alert! – being its oil capital, Norway’s third city, in the south-west of the country, has been pivotal in its road towards zero-emission transportation. They tried electric buses here in 1994. In 1998, the city was part of a European trial of electric vehicles (EVs) for goods distribution. In 2009, it was the first Scandinavian city to host the biannual Electric Vehicle Symposium.

It’s also where not-the-king Harald lives: that’s Harald Nils Røstvik, an architect who is now an emeritus professor of city and regional planning at the University of Stavanger. He has also played a significant role in Norway’s EV revolution.

In 1983, the former (and future) Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was appointed to chair what became the Brundtland Commission, a UN organisation set up to promote environmentally friendly growth. Its report, published in 1987, proved influential, popularising the term “sustainable development”. “She was travelling the world talking about environmental stuff, saying that we should be an environmentally conscious nation. That was the rhetoric – while Norway was pumping oil!” says Røstvik. “My goal was to embarrass the government, take their own words and return them to them. We wanted to make the world’s best incentives for electric vehicles.”

So, in 1989, Røstvik and three similarly environmentally concerned friends imported an electric car, probably the country’s first. It was a converted Fiat Panda, with the back seats removed to accommodate a huge bank of batteries. It took a couple of days to charge and powered the car for only 20 to 25 miles.

(From left) Morten Harket, Harald Nils Røstvik, Frederic Hauge and Mags Furuholmen.

The professor’s pals were the environmental activist Frederic Hauge, Morten Harket and Magne “Mags” Furuholmen. Yes, that Morten and Mags, from the all-conquering Norwegian pop group a-ha, best known for their smash hit Take on Me. Røstvik knew Harket; they had worked on other eco projects together. “We had similar thoughts about the environment, lots of common ground. He wanted to do something for mankind,” Røstvik says.

They began a campaign of civil disobedience, driving their Panda on toll roads around Oslo without paying. “It was a non-polluting car, so it shouldn’t pay,” Røstvik says. They had a list of demands, to incentivise electric car use: free use of toll roads, no import tax or VAT, free parking, public charging stations, access to bus lanes.

The fines piled up; they refused to pay. The car was towed, sold at a public auction – and bought back. “Not by us; by people in the room, supporters. It cost peanuts, because no one wanted it,” he says. The car was given back to Røstvik and co, who did it all over again. “I think it happened 14 times.”

Sam Wollaston and Røstvik attempt to recreate the photo above. Photograph: Brit Hidle

Røstvik was ridiculed professionally for performing stunts with pop stars – a-ha were massive at the time – but he knew that having Harket on board would get them media attention. They always made sure he was one of the two in the car (no back seats, remember). “I didn’t feel like I was entering into the role of a rebel,” Harket has said. “It was just necessary. It was what we needed to do.”

There is a great photo of them with the Panda. I was hoping to get Harket involved and recreate the picture, but he is busy. Oh well, we will recreate the picture without him. Røstvik, now 74, can play himself; sorry, Frederic and Mags, but we won’t bother with you; and I will be Harket (I have always wanted to be). So, here we are, squatting in the snow by a modern electric car, my rented Nissan Leaf. All we need is a photographer. “The Guardian, you say?” says Brit, a retired teacher walking past. She kindly obliges.

Then I’m off with Røstvik for a drive around town. “Go in the bus lane,” he instructs when we meet some light traffic. Being an EV, we can. We are not the only ones; nearly 25% of cars in Norway are now electric. Getting around is quick, quiet and easy, which probably has as much to do with the size of the city, the snow, the early spring sunshine … but it does feel a bit like a drive to the near future.

With its rugged mountains, long, cold winters and widely dispersed population, Norway is perhaps an unlikely country to revolutionise transportation. How has it managed to get so far ahead? “Simple answer: good tax policies,” says Christina Bu, the secretary general of the Norwegian EV Association, the world’s largest EV club, with more than 120,000 members.

Speaking to me on a video call from Oslo, she explains that Norway has always taxed new cars heavily – a high acquisition tax, plus 25% VAT. In the 90s, under pressure from environmentalists (including four blokes with a Panda), politicians began to remove these taxes to make EVs more competitive, even though there were hardly any on the market.

Then, when electric models did become available – the first Nissan Leafs and Teslas, as well as Norway’s short-lived sojourn into car manufacturing, the Think City – people bought them, because cars were being taxed according to their emissions. Elsewhere in the world, because of their higher production costs, electric cars were – and remain – more expensive. “We haven’t given straight-out subsidies as other countries have; we’ve taxed and we haven’t taxed,” says Bu.

Norway’s EV success has something to do with the size of its population and its politics, says Bu: “We’re a small country, so there’s a lot of collaboration between civil society and the political system. It’s not difficult for us to have meetings with parliamentarians, so it wasn’t just a top-down situation; it was bottom-up, too.” Because Norway’s proportional, multi-party system often produces coalition and minority governments, emissions haven’t become politicised, as they have in other countries – there is enthusiasm for EVs across the spectrum. The target of making all new cars zero emissions by 2025 was supported by all parties.

“We haven’t really had a car industry as you do in the UK,” she says. “So, of course, jobs are always a discussion. From not having any jobs in connection with this, we’ve seen a positive effect of being an early adopter from the consumer side. In the past 10 years, we have been creating jobs in Norway within the charging industry, battery industry, software, et cetera.”

There has been a collective shift in opinion, she says. “When we talk about the climate crisis and its challenges, it is often about pointed fingers – you should stop flying or going on holiday. But with EVs it’s actually something people like. If they start driving electric, they don’t want to go back. I’ve met so many people who’ve changed their mind about EVs in the past few years; it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re very green. It doesn’t really matter as long as they do the right thing.”

Apparently, Norwegians are no greener than anyone else. “When you look at surveys from different countries that ask people how much they worry about climate change, Norwegians are actually far down the list – less worried,” says Bu. “There’s definitely not an argument that Norwegians are better when it comes to how we think about the environment.”

That might have something to do with the reason for Norway’s great wealth – oil and gas. The petroleum sector accounts for 24% of GDP and 52% of exports. Norway is the third-largest exporter of natural gas and has replaced Russia as the biggest supplier to the European market. It’s hard not to think back to Brundtland talking about the environment while pumping oil. Norway taking the moral high ground about EV uptake might conjure pots and kettles.

Back in Stavanger, I have come to see a man in a suit to talk about electricity. Eimund Nygaard is CEO of Lyse, a Norwegian utilities company. Electricity produced in Norway is a better news story. It’s almost entirely from renewable sources, of which about 10% is wind. The rest comes from hydroeclectic plants (the country’s steep valleys and rivers lend themselves to hydro). Nygaard says: “The arguments for zero-emission transport are perhaps a bit easier to communicate in Norway, because we are already based on renewable energy.”

Plus, they use electricity for heating homes, increasingly via heat pumps, “so the grid is pretty strong” compared with other countries. Norwegian infrastructure was better prepared to meet the demands of EV charging, but nonetheless the country is investing heavily in building a new grid. “We are ready for total electrification,” says Nygaard. Norway already has an electric passenger ferry, operating between Stavanger, Byøyene and Hommersåk, and a boat charger at the dock.

Nygaard has been on the electric journey for almost as long as Røstvik. They worked together on the project to bring battery-powered buses to Stavanger in 1994. I’m surprised to learn that only 14 of the city’s 200 buses are electric. “You need to hit the market at the right point – this was too early,” says Nygaard. They were ahead of their time. It didn’t help that a bus full of journalists invited to cover the launch got stuck on a sleeping policeman. When the fleet is renewed, all the buses will be electric, as they have been in Oslo since last year (although there have been problems during bouts of extreme cold).

‘If they start driving electric, they don’t want to go back’ … electric cars in Oslo. Photograph: Thomas Russ Arnestad/Alamy

Nygaard loves his electric Audi: “It’s comfortable, fast and has a range of 400km [250 miles] – perhaps 320 or 330 on a very cold day. My winter cottage is 110km away and I can easily get there and back.” Røstvik has only nice things to say about his EV, a Fiat 500. He thinks little and light is the way forward; in the 1990s, he co-designed an electric three-wheeler, called The Butterfly, that ran on solar and wind power, but the world wasn’t ready. (There is something of Clive Sinclair’s C5 about that story.) Bu, too, loves her EV, the first car she has owned.

Not everyone is totally on board, though. At the large charging station opposite the Rogaland theatre, we meet a postal worker who doesn’t want to be named. He says he is having to charge his work van even though he has only come from Sandnes, 10 miles away. His own car is a diesel Mazda station wagon. “That’s a really good car.”

A taxi driver called Aries, originally from Indonesia, doesn’t like his electric taxi. It takes him an hour to charge; that’s time he is not working. “It’s good for the owner, because they can save money, but not good for the driver. I like fossil cars.”

I’m enjoying my Leaf. It has come a long way since I test-drove a previous model more than a decade ago. I should get at least 125 miles from it, so, even in this cold, I won’t need to charge it.

Oh, go on, let’s give Harket a call. He might have time for a quick chat to reminisce about starting this whole EV revolution. But he doesn’t pick up. “He doesn’t want to deal with it,” says Røstvik. Well, next best thing: he can join us via Spotify. No, not Take on Me, nor Hunting High and Low, but Stay on These Roads. It’s a personal favourite of Røstvik’s; he remembers Harket playing it to him before it was released. Plus, it’s appropriate for the slippery driving conditions today. Maybe that’s what it’s about? Stay on these roads / We shall meet, I know …

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