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Denmark: Greenwashing leader of the world

Denmark is often looked to as a global green leader, but columnist Michael Booth points out that there are some dirty truths that lie behind its squeaky clean international image.

Denmark: Greenwashing leader of the world
Denmark would like the world to associate it with photos of windmills rather than North Sea oil extraction. Photo: Colourbox
Isn’t it great to live in a country which puts environmental sustainability at the very top of the political agenda, a country where it is the highest energy policy priority? Makes you feel all proud and gooey inside to see those mighty wind turbines as you come in to land at Copenhagen Airport, or the endless peloton of cyclists who commute across the city every day, right? 
 
None of us mind paying those extra energy costs, or riding our bikes in the rain, or paying more for our petrol than virtually anyone else in the world, as long as we, here in Denmark, feel we are doing our bit to protect this lovely planet of ours.
 
Well, I am sorry to be the one to burst this virtuous bubble, but the truth is, for all its highly admirable, eye-catching environmental initiatives, Denmark is just as filthy as the rest of the Western world, if not more so. 
 
I’m calling fraud on the whole greenwashing of Denmark. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes revisited. The myth of Copenhagen as the great green icon – it is this year’s European Green Capital, whatever that means – is nothing more than a magician’s misdirection.
 
Here’s why.
 
Bottom line, the considerable wealth this country has enjoyed for the last few decades is based on fossil fuels. Since the mid-1980s and until quite recently, Denmark has been a net exporter of carbon fuels: the oil and gas they have been dredging up from the North Sea, sold at great profit to Sweden and Germany. The resulting funds have effectively underpinned the Danish welfare state.
 
The legendary ‘bumble bee’ economy – as it has been called (it shouldn’t be able to fly, but somehow does) – was in fact no such thing. There was no mystery to the success of the Danish economy over the last 40 years. The oil and gas money has cushioned Denmark from the harsh economic realities of the outside world, shoring up the balance of payments account and providing a nice source of tax revenue, mostly from Maersk, the company which has been granted sole rights to extract the fuels from Danish territory since the 1960s.
 
And, while we are on the subject of Maersk, for decades the single most important private company in Denmark: remind me again, aside from extracting oil and gas, how else does it earn its money? Shipping – the filthiest form of transport on earth.  Container ships are a far, far greater polluter than cars and air transport.
 
Of course, the Danes have burned more than their fair share of those fuels domestically over the years too. Lacking Sweden’s nuclear reactors or Norway’s hydro-electric option, they have had to rely on good old coal to power their homes and industries. And, though the proportion of clean energy provided by those magnificent wind turbines and clever waste reprocessing plants is steadily growing – and that is wholly admirable – the vast majority of energy in this country is still generated by the dirtiest means imaginable.
 
As a result of all of this, the World Wide Fund For Nature put Denmark in fourth place – ahead of the USA and beaten only by some Arab oil states – in its global ranking of the countries with the largest per capital carbon footprint.
 
Why does this hypocrisy bother me? After all, we are all in denial of something: the Americans deny global warming because they caused it; the Chinese deny human rights, because their economy is founded upon their abuse; the British deny their loss of empire; and it would be easier to list the things the French don’t deny. I still try and tell myself I have a full head of hair, for instance.
 
The problem is that, in denying the real source of Danish wealth, the Danes are also denying the problems they are going to face as that source dries up. And, as someone who cares deeply about the future of this country, that troubles me very much indeed.
 
Michael BoothMichael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle available now on Amazon and is a regular contributor to publications including the Guardian and Monocle.

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ENVIRONMENT

‘We still have a chance’: Danish minister’s relief after Glasgow climate deal

Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen has expressed relief that a meaningful climate change deal was struck in Glasgow last night, after a last minute move by India and China nearly knocked it off course.

'We still have a chance': Danish minister's relief after Glasgow climate deal
Denmark's climate minister Dan Jørgensen speaks at the announcement of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance in Glasgow on Tuesday. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Ritzau Scanpix

“For the first time ever, coal and fossil fuel subsidies have been mentioned. I’m very, very happy about that,” he told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper. “But I am also very disappointed that the stronger formulations were removed at the last minute.” 

Late on Saturday, the world’s countries agreed the Glasgow Climate Pact, after negotiations dragged on while governments haggled over phasing out coal. 

Denmark is one of the countries leading the phase out of fossil fuels, formally launching the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) with ten other countries and states at the Glasgow summit on Tuesday, announcing an end to oil exploration last December, and committing to phase out coal by 2030 back in 2017. 

Jørgensen conceded that the deal struck on Saturday was nowhere near far-reaching enough to keep global temperature rises below 1.5C, which scientists have estimated is critical to limiting the impacts of climate change, but he said the decision to hold another summit in Egypt next year meant that this goal could still be reached. 

“The big, good news is that we could have closed the door today. If we had followed the rules, we would only have had to update the climate plans in 2025, and the updates would only apply from 2030,” he said, adding that this would be too late. “Now we can fight on as early as next year. This is very rare under the auspices of the UN.” 

Limiting temperature rises to 1.5C was still possible, he said. 

“We have a chance. The framework is in place to make the right decisions. There was a risk that that framework would not be there.” 

Jørgensen said that he had come close to tears when India launched a last-minute bid to water down the language when it came to coal, putting the entire deal at risk. 

“It was all really about to fall to the ground,” he said. “The assessment was that either the Indians got that concession or there was no agreement.” 

Sebastian Mernild, a climate researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, said he was disappointed by the lack of binding targets and global deadlines in the plan, but said it was nonetheless “a step in the right direction”, particularly the requirement that signatories to the Paris Agreement must tighten their 2030 emissions reduction targets by the end of 2022.

“It’s good that this thing with fossil fuels has got in,” he added. “It’s a pity that you don’t have to phase them out, but only reduce.”

He said the test of whether the Glasgow meeting is a success or failure would not come until the various aspects of the plan are approved and implemented by members states.

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