top of page
  • Catharina Schaufler-Mendez

The Unsustainability of the Nordic Model: The Dark Truth behind Norway's Sustainable Demeanour


After the latest IPCC report came out, detailing the narrow chances the world had at limiting global heating to 1.5°C, scientists took it upon themselves to highlight just how dire the situation is. NASA scientists were arrested in Los Angeles for chaining themselves to a fossil fuel-funding bank and a climate activist set himself on fire outside of the US Supreme Court to spotlight the climate crisis. Scientists are becoming desperate, as any chances at preventing climate catastrophe are slipping away due to global inaction.

However, the environmental actions taken by some nations inspire hope for effective change. The Nordic nations – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland – appear as shining examples of sustainability, topping practically all rankings regarding implementing environmental measures, renewable energy use, gender and income equality, education, and healthcare, and achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Due to their similarities, the nations are often grouped together under one ‘Nordic Model’, which, while maintaining high living standards and strong economies, has somehow been reprieved from the most damaging aspects of capitalism.

But, how sustainable is the Nordic Model?

When discussing sustainable development, the Model is frequently praised, as Nordic nations closely collaborate with the UN on global environmental initiatives.

However, little mention is made of the historical unsustainability of the Nordic Model and nations, or of their current unsustainable practices.

To delve into this apparent gap in the literature on sustainable development and the Nordic Model, I thought it best to look into Norway, a nation often idolised. By using a case study approach, the Nordic Model can be comprehensively analysed in terms of its sustainability, viewing the Model in a real-world context, and allowing for an in-depth exploration of the interconnections between the Nordic Model and sustainable development.

Norway’s unique position, as a nation well-known for its societal and environmental progress and its fossil fuel-based wealth, makes it ideal for determining whether the Nordic Model is inherently sustainable or not. Although case studies are often situation-specific, making it difficult to perfectly apply them to wider contexts, they remain the best method to perform a deep dive into Norway.

Using numerous qualitative and quantitative secondary resources, including peer-reviewed journal articles and media sources, it quickly became apparent Norway hides copious atrocities behind its sustainable demeanour.

Within a few decades of discovering fossil fuels in 1969, Norway became one of the richest nations in Europe per capita. Revenue from fossil fuel extraction allowed for the creation of the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, standing at over $1 trillion. This fund enabled the Norwegian government to provide its citizens with an extensive range of social services under the nation’s welfare state, leading to high levels of gender and educational equality and low levels of income inequality.

With 98% of Norwegian energy demand met by renewable energy, the nation is on track to reach its aim of climate neutrality by 2030. Yet Norway’s material consumption per capita, over 32 tonnes, would require close to 5 Earths if the rest of the world mimicked it.

Norway remains a major exporter of crude oil and natural gas, with little being done to limit this industry – petroleum production is actually expected to increase.

Equinor, Norway’s largest energy company, remains a major opponent to sustainable development. The company, heavily backed and partially owned by the state, continues to initiate new drilling projects.

Instead, Norway focuses on reducing deforestation in the Global South. These projects allow the nation to maintain its fossil fuel economy, while viewed as a sustainability leader by ‘helping’ the Global South become more sustainable, at the expense of local populations.

Norwegian companies don’t advance neo-colonialism in the Global South on their own – they rely on the state’s complicity. Norwegian arms have illegally found their way to Yemen and Palestine, as arms companies find loopholes in Norwegian export law. Norway also dropped bombs in Libya and Afghanistan to further the interests of domestic oil companies that saw an opportunity to access untapped reserves. The nation even prevented natural gas projects in Africa from coming to fruition, ensuring the continent stays dependent on fossil fuel exports from Europe.

This points to a larger trend of ‘green imperialism’ between the Global North and South, where wealthy nations impose restrictions on poorer nations in the name of climate justice while continuing their own unsustainable practices.

Norway is the poster child for the Nordic Model. However, since the Norwegian wealth and prosperity rely upon fossil fuel extraction and export and neocolonialism in the Global South, it’s clear this Model should not be seen as an inspiration. The Model can’t even be replicated in most nations without the vast wealth required.

Clearly, the Nordic Model is inherently unsustainable.

This begs the question: if Norway is seen as one of the most sustainable nations in terms of the SDGs, are these goals inherently flawed?

I would argue yes. The SDGs don’t come close to addressing the fundamental issues causing the climate crisis and consistently prioritise economic growth over the environment and societal wellbeing. Under capitalism, the needs of society and nature will always take a backseat to profit accumulation, as seen in Norway and the Nordic Model.

To achieve sustainability, sustainable development must increase social wellbeing and prioritise planetary needs, which requires a radical restructuring of global systems. We need to create new SDGs, ones that emphasise socio-environmental needs over the economy and GDP growth. Only then can we attain true sustainable development.

Image 1: Unsplash/ Jarand K. Lokeland

Image 2: Flickr/ Chumlee 10



bottom of page