Denmark: not as green as you thought

Windmills have considerably reduced Denmark's greenhouse gas emissions, but increased road traffic has already undone the difference.
By Marcel aan de Brugh in Hurup Thy

Denmark, which hosts the UN climate change conference next week, is often seen as one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. This reputation is mostly undeserved, but Denmark is doing its best to catch up.

Pay a visit to Jens Lyhne's home in Hurup Thy, in the northwest of Denmark, and you get an idea why this country has such a great reputation when it comes to fighting climate change. Lyhne's living room and kitchen are heated by two wood-stoves. A solar boiler heats the water, and his roof is covered with solar panels. A windmill slowly turns in his yard.

Lyhne, an anaesthetist and the head of the ICU at a large hospital, generates all his own energy, and it's all green. "I'm a bit of nerd when it comes to energy," Lyhne admits over a Danish lunch of herring, pâté, head cheese and beer.

Dirtier than the Dutch

But despite Denmark's reputation as an environmentally conscious country, very few Danes are like Lyhne. In fact, Danes are bigger polluters than the Dutch. In 2006, the average Dane was good for a yearly carbon dioxide equivalent emission of 13 tons, while the average Dutch-person only emitted 12.7 tons, according to figures from the European Environmental Agency in Copenhagen.

So why does Denmark have such a 'green' reputation? Morten Møller of the Danish Energy Agency in Copenhagen has often asked himself the same question. He thinks it may have something to do with all the windmills dotting the Danish landscape.

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It is true that the windmills have considerably reduced Denmark's greenhouse gas emissions, but increased road traffic has already undone the difference. The number of pigs held in Denmark has also increased, and pig excrement contains methane, which is 20 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.

It is not what Denmark wants the participants to the 15th UN climate conference (COP15) to hear when they arrive in Copenhagen on Monday. The official pamphlets for the conference only mention Denmark's success stories. It gets 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy - more than any other country. Its economy has seen constant growth over the past 40 years, and yet its greenhouse gas emissions have remained roughly the same.

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"We certainly have our strong points," says Peter Rørmose Jensen of the Danish statistics agency, "but statistics can prove anything you like."

Shipping not counted

Together with three colleagues Jensen took a closer look at Denmark's greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2007. They found that, if you play by the Kyoto rules, Denmark's yearly emissions have indeed remained stable at 70 million tons carbon dioxide equivalent.

But under the Kyoto rules emissions from shipping and air traffic are not counted. And Denmark has a huge shipping industry: it is the largest container transporter in the world. If you count shipping, add an extra 47 million tons to Denmark's yearly emissions.

On the other hand, Denmark has almost no heavy industry: one big cement plant and one oil refinery, that's it. By comparison, the Rotterdam port area alone is full of chemical plants, oil refineries and coal-fired power plants. So it is true that Denmark emits few greenhouse gases in absolute terms, says Jensen. The Netherlands emits three times more. But the Dutch population is also more than three times bigger than Denmark's. Measured per capita, and including the shipping industry, the Danish picture starts to look a lot less rosy.

Denmark has more marks against it. If it is true that Denmark's emissions have remained stable for decades, the country is a long way removed from meeting its commitments under the Kyoto agreement. Denmark is supposed to reduce emissions from 70 to 55 million tons in the 2008-2012 period, a 20 percent reduction compared to the reference year 1990.

It is already clear that it will never meet this target: in 2008 it emitted 64 million tons. That's why Denmark, like the Netherlands, has invested heavily in green technology projects in developing countries and in Eastern Europe. These so-called carbon credits count towards a country's own targets under the Kyoto treaty. Denmark has invested 160 million euros so far, but that only gets it 3.2 million tons worth of credits, leaving it still far removed from its Kyoto target.

Catching heat

There is one field in which Denmark does lead, says Preben Maegaard, director of the Nordic Folkecenter, a research institute for sustainable energy in Hurup Thy, and that's electricity. Not so much because of all those windmills, but because of Denmark's dedication to 'cogeneration' or 'combined heat and power' (CHP). Most countries only use power plants to generate electricity; the heat generated in the process simply disappears into thin air.

Denmark uses the heat to heat water, which is then delivered directly to - at present - 1.5 million homes through pipelines. CHP-equipped power plants are also more efficient and release 30 to 40 percent less carbon dioxide. There are 670 CHP-equipped power plants in Denmark today, and they generate 80 percent of all heat in Denmark, and half of all electricity.

"This is the real power of Denmark," says Maegaard. It is also the reason why Denmark has kept its emissions stable instead of seeing them rise. But, adds Møller, Denmark's choice for CHP was never out of concern for the environment. It was a result of the 1973 oil crisis, when Denmark needed to find an alternative for its 90 percent dependency on imported oil. "The climate didn't enter the picture until much later," says Møller.

The Danish government is aware that a lot more needs to be done to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Ambitious measures have been taken. Starting next year new homes or offices will be allowed to consume only 75 percent of the energy that is the norm today, only half in 2015, and only a quarter in 2020. That is much more ambitious than the European Commission's new energy rules, which are still in the making, but will probably demand only a 20 to 30 percent reduction by 2020.

The question is if the Danish public is ready for such a big change. "I think many people are still on the fence," says Møller. "They think: how does this concern me? Maybe the sea level will rise, but that's only a problem for countries like Bangladesh." Human behaviour patterns, he says, are very hard to change.

The Danish government seems to think so too, given the extent of the preparations it is making for an increase in storms, wetter winters and autumns, drier summers, and a rising sea level. In some places along the coast homes are already being built on stilts. There is a plan to modernise dykes and raise them where necessary.

In Hurup Thy, Jens Lyhne shows off his barn, where he stacks the wood for his stoves, and his Volkswagen Lupo, one the most economic cars in the world. If people are willing, he says, there is no telling how far we can go. "But as long as people can fly to the Bahamas on a whim they will."

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