“Green Denmark”: A False Narrative?

    Stockholm (NordSIP) – As Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen participates in the R20 Regions of Climate Action conference in Vienna, Austria, founded by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and designed to activate regions and cities in the climate fight, Danish climate policy and current economic standards for the measurement of social well-being are coming under increased scrutiny at home.

    Economic considerations must give way to a more ambitious climate policy if the Paris Agreement objectives are to be reached, a statement signed by 301 climate Danish academics argued in a widely publicised op-Ed in the Danish daily Politiken this weekend.

    Rasmussen is touting the P4G Green Growth Fund at R20, a Danish initiative to create a knowledge- and technology-sharing forum between governments, business and community leaders.

    “When the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement, the rest of us must try harder,” the Prime Minister said. “It is therefore welcome to see large American states and regional initiatives make headway, as we see with R20… We must dare think in new terms. C40, the city organisation representing 93 large cities and which is partnered with the World Economic Forum, is therefore a part of P4G.”

    Rasmussen’s enthusiasm about Danish initiatives, however, is not shared by academics at home in light of what they identify as a larger challenge: in essence, the need to decouple sustainability from economic growth as measured by GDP, and for politicians to step up to the challenge as opposed to performing minor acts of climate window-dressing.

    It follows, the academics argue in their op-Ed, that a new ‘climate realism’ is necessary with immediate effect, given climate science projections that have been available for decades without being complemented by the political will to change the climate trajectory. Man-made CO2 emissions have risen steadily since the UN’s Climate Panel was formed in 1988, save for a small dip following the 2008 global financial crisis.

    With annual emissions continuing to rise, we are obliged to absorb and store more CO2 than is emitted, which requires the development and dissemination of new technologies for carbon capture. These must be of such a vast scale that many experts openly ask whether it is even realistic and safe to invest in them, the academics wrote. Among the global challenges are addressing food security for an increasingly growing global population, dealing with rising migration flows, and accommodating a rapidly expanding global middle class that strives for the same unsustainable consumption patterns averaged in Denmark.

    A green grain of salt…

    The authors – Jens Friis Lund, a professor at Copenhagen University, Stefan Gaarsmand Jacobsen, adjunct professor at Roskilde University, and Gregers Andersen, Ph.D. – go on to criticise Denmark in particular, suggesting the country is among the worst contributors to climate change, despite the popular narrative of Denmark as one of the world’s ‘greenest’ countries. The average Danish CO2 footprint is among the highest in the world, they contend, despite the country’s relatively energy efficient power plants, homes and companies. The reason for this is that the average Dane is a major consumer of electronics, clothing and beef, which have considerable environmental impacts, in addition to a transportation sector still based on fossil fuels like diesel and gasoline.

    It follows that the more prosperous the country, the more CO2 is emitted. The 10 per cent of the world’s population with the highest income accounts for over a third of total CO2 emissions. In Denmark, 75 per cent of citizens belong to the global 10 per cent, meaning the country belongs, on average, to a small global elite. But there are also marked differences among Danes: although economic inequality in Denmark is relatively low, the richest fifth of Denmark’s population emits twice as much CO2 as the poorest fifth. Consumption patterns associated with high incomes are therefore problematic, from a climate perspective.

    In addition, goods imported and consumed are not part of the Danish contribution to the UN’s global CO2 accounting, but are accounted for in the country of production, such as China. Denmark’s high consumption and material well being thus poses a massive environmental challenge not accounted for in UN CO2 estimates. On the contrary, total CO2 emissions from all economic activity contributing to Danish GDP, and thus Danish consumption, have not fallen since 1990 levels.

    In short, if all countries behave like Denmark, it will not be possible to ward off catastrophic temperature increases, the authors warn.

    Political Malfeasance

    The statistics make rational sense, however, in light of the political signals in Denmark in recent decades, and at present. To listen to the official Danish debate on climate and the environment, the authors contend, it would be easy to believe that as a society and as individuals, Denmark is almost on track with the required climate conversion. Political conversation often revolves around minor adjustments, such as the eating or transportation habits of Danes. Politicians thus succeed in avoiding inconvenient decisions on the taxation of climate-proofing goods and activities, or sufficiently large investments in sustainable transport, agriculture and energy solutions.

    Adding to the paradox, Danish citizens cannot individually choose to live in accordance with the 2 degrees Celsius goal set forth in the Paris Agreement. In relation to the choices individuals can make on their climate impacts – such as not driving a car, avoiding flying or eating less meat – individuals are still interdependent on transport and energy infrastructure, workplace demands, and other expectations.

    Politicians, therefore, are required to take the lead and introduce clear financial incentives to change behaviour. This may be done through taxation and the regulation of climate-stressed goods and activities, as well as targeted public investment and subsidies aimed at significantly reducing the environmental footprint. This must be undertaken to a far greater extent than successive governments have done hitherto, due to the economic risks associated with initiating such major changes in investments, taxes and regulations.

    In addition, existing climate policy plans are based on extremely optimistic assumptions about technological solutions and the global green economy, where economic growth somehow no longer causes increased pressure on the global environment. Though technology has delivered many changes to the economy, there is no historical evidence to assume that global economic growth, as measured in GDP, can continue at its current pace while achieving a sufficiently declining environmental impact as measured in the extraction of biomass, minerals, metals and fossil fuels.

    Political measures that increase economic growth are therefore directly detrimental to the planet’s ecosystems, the authors argue. Economic growth should therefore henceforth be considered first and foremost in terms of sustainability, health, pollution and climate. And if, they ask, a rich, democratic, well-organised country like Denmark is not at the forefront of a comprehensive, knowledge-based and targeted climate and environmental programme, what other social model would be the model for future societies?

    GDP can therefore no longer be the most important unit of measurement for the well being of society. However, this requires a new climate realism, in which politicians take scientific knowledge seriously and act accordingly.

    In Vienna, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen enthused about his meeting with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling him “a climate action hero.” The real heroics, however, must come from a political class thus far unwilling to level with the public and willing to change the parameters within which it operates on sustainability, CO2 reductions and indeed, addressing the contradiction between unbridled economic growth and effective sustainability within a shrinking time frame that still perversely prioritises the former, at the expense of the latter.

    That will be a tall order.

    Image: © NordSIP





    Glenn W. Leaper, PhD
    Glenn W. Leaper, PhD
    Glenn W. Leaper, Associate Editor and Political Risk Analyst with Nordic Business Media AB, completed his Ph.D. in Political and Critical Theory from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2015. He is involved with a number of initiatives, including political research, communications consulting (speechwriting), journalism and writing his first post-doctoral book. Glenn has an international background spanning the UK, France, Austria, Spain, Belgium and his native Denmark. He holds an MA in English and a BA in International Relations.

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