Green Development Pioneers in Norway’s Lofoten Islands

People in the trades, transport, tourism and government of Lofoten are coming together to agree on a common way of quantifying their natural capital. This will ensure nature is properly considered during new developments – and show the world how green transition is possible.

The archipelago of Lofoten is a sight to behold. Dramatic mountain peaks plunge down into the water. Fjord-like channels run between them, separating the sparsely inhabited islands. Surrounding the jagged, rocky coastline, the ocean swells hide a rich ecosystem that boasts the world's largest deep water coral reef, vast kelp forests, and important fish breeding grounds.

Through millennia of rugged isolation, these natural assets have generated a distinct local culture that’s deeply interwoven with a thriving fishing industry. Transport links are vital to the modern life of these remote coastal communities, and Hurtigruten has provided this lifeline for over 100 years. Now, increasing numbers of tourists are arriving too.

The Green Islands 2030

The contemporary challenge is to safeguard this unique place and equip it for a sustainable future, while effectively handling development pressures from tourism, local businesses, and communities. To achieve this, the regional council Lofotrådet in partnership with the regional energy company Lofotkraft and the regional destination company Destination Lofoten are heading up an innovative and ambitious initiative aiming at a green transition by 2030.

We spoke to Lofotrådet’s Laura Johanne Olsen,Program Manager for The Green Islands 2030, and Ingrid Slungaard Myklebust, Senior Climate Advisor.

Fitting diverse pieces together

We have to cooperate with the companies and regional districts that decide our transportation routes,” says Laura. “We must work with the aviation companies to try and speed up their climate-neutral aviation projects. In tourism, we have to work together with the companies, authorities and tourists locally, regionally and internationally. It’s similar for all sectors of our economy.”

“Hurtigruten is a good example,” continues Ingrid. “We have the location that people want to visit, so we are aiming to build a sustainable destination by taking care of nature and the community here, in balance with those who visit us.”

Together with their visitors, the Green Islands program will help support the local businesses such as those that produce local food of superb quality in sustainable ways, or those who work on making the transition to non-fossil fuel for transportation.

“We also need Hurtigruten to choose operators who provide a sustainable and climate-friendly product,” Ingrid adds. “And it’s important that Hurtigruten’s guests take part in building up that local value, honouring the traditions, meeting the locals, tasting our food, and getting to know and respect Lofoten.

“We can’t do that on our own. Neither can the tourists, and neither can Hurtigruten. So we all need to put our piece in that puzzle.”

How quantifying natural capital helps

To ensure all pieces of the puzzle come together in a whole that is sustainable, the Green Islands program wants to ensure that developments and businesses are guided by the limits of what nature and society can tolerate.

Laura explains, “We want to know exactly what this means to us. “What values and services do we have in our nature and society? What are the limits? We want to document it, so that these are not just words and phrases.”

This will mean trying to understand how the ecosystems provide different services and how they have a value.

“It’s hard to assess,” says Ingrid. “What is the value of clean water? What is the value of actually being able to experience nature?”

The program is therefore seeking to develop a methodology that actually makes it possible to compare such intangible values in monetary terms. It will also enable people to value the interdependencies between different things. Then, everyone will be able to understand more easily the cost of disturbing or using an area – whether it’s in the water, on the coast, or on the land.

“With an agreed methodology, you can decide whether a piece of coast has a value beyond building – perhaps for the fish that we know are there, or for carbon sequestration. The more knowledge you get, the better you can value it. Exactly what that value is will be the nut that we have to crack!”

“Most people feel their stomach turning a bit when they think of assigning economic value to nature, because it’s like surrendering to something we’ve tried to avoid.”

Ingrid Slungaard Myklebust, Senior Climate Advisor

Problems with valuing nature economically

“Most people feel their stomach turning a bit when they think of assigning economic value to nature, because it’s like surrendering to something we’ve tried to avoid,” says Ingrid. “But the crisis nature is in just confirms that without giving it a price tag, we’re just not capable of understanding the value. If you have everyone working with their own idea of value and they aren’t comparable, it ends up being whoever’s best at bringing forth their case who wins the discussion; the one who speaks loudest or is richest. This is why we’re giving away nature at the value of zero at the moment.

“But what is the value of clean water, stable salinity and temperature levels?” continues Ingrid. “Fish are completely dependent on plankton; if it disappears, then we won’t have cod. So what is the plankton dependent on? To understand the value of clean water, you have to understand the whole ecosystem and the services it provides.”

The Green Islands program is aiming to develop tools that make it possible to both assess such values and put them into the equation. They need to find a common value they can discuss and can be used by politicians and people who are not experts. This is why the UN has decided to begin doing monetary calculations like this, and the Green Islands program will be in accordance with the UN’s framework.

Now the project needs to adapt and develop methods relevant to countries and regions like Norway and Lofoten.

“It’s still new, and we’re in a pilot phase to try to build experience at the local and regional levels, hopefully providing useful input to the ongoing work of developing national guidelines for Norway,” says Laura.

“Hopefully,” adds Ingrid, “we’ll end up in a situation where more areas won’t be developed or sold to build on, if their value from ecosystem services is too high, so it would be a minus in our accounting.”

“Hopefully, we’ll end up in a situation where more areas won’t be developed or sold to build on, if their value from ecosystem services is too high, so it would be a minus in our accounting.”

Ingrid Slungaard Myklebust, Senior Climate Advisor

Funding from Hurtigruten Foundation

Together with the public funding from the County Council of Nordland, the private funding from Hurtigruten Foundation will go towards planning how the ecosystem accounting will work: how they will find out the condition of the various aspects of the ecosystems and the services they provide, and how they’ll establish what these are worth.

Ingrid says, “It’s extremely important these discussions involve local communities and stakeholders, so we learn from the skills and knowledge of local people and don’t designate value without hearing their perspective and insights. They need to discuss it, and then we need to finally set a value together – which is going to be really tough.”

Laura continues, “We need to involve everyone – we can’t each decide to do things our own way or do it alone. So, we need to take disagreements at an early stage. That’s why Lofoten is doing it this way. Even though we are really impatient and want to get started, we’re doing it ’the Green Island way’: inviting a broad range of stakeholders in early so we can build knowledge and mutual respect together for the values the ecosystems provide, and do it the right way from the beginning.”

“The support from Hurtigruten of NOK 75,000 (approx. €6,500) is just a piece of what we need, but it means a lot to us,” says Ingrid. “It is feedback that a local operator, a company using the waters along our coast, choses to support that we are building up sustainability in a long-term way.”

Laura adds, “It’s also important because it is funding from a private partner in collaboration with public funding – and that’s our preferred tool for cooperating. This is the Lofoten way, and we want to take the lead with it, because we want to take part in deciding how the green transition should be in rural societies. In this way, we’re piloting a tool for Norway to achieve its national and international goals for green transition.”

Ingrid concludes, “If we can do it here, with a limited amount of people and in a complex ecosystem, then we will have demonstrated a lot of useful information and tools that will be useful in many other places in Norway and in the wider world.”

Where can I learn more?

You can read more about the initiative on the Green Islands 2030 website.

If you would like to know more about travelling to Norway, see Hurtigruten Expeditions' cruises to Norway.