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CLIMATE CHANGE: The Danish Example

Julio Godoy* - IPS/IFEJ

COPENHAGEN, Nov 20 2009 (IPS) - Whether a new internationally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gases and forestall climate change will be signed next month remains to be seen. What is clear though, is that if there is a place in the world that deserves to be the stage where this treaty ought to be signed, it is the Danish capital of Copenhagen.

Thanks to an extraordinary effort by both government and civil society to improve efficiency in the generation and consumption of energy, and massive investments in renewable energy sources, Denmark is today the only country in the world that has been able to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gases emissions (GHGE).

According to official statistics, the Danish economy has grown, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), since 1980 by 78 percent, at prices of the year 2000. During the same period, the country’s energy consumption remained practically the same.

This means that the Danish economy’s energy intensity – the ratio of energy consumption to GDP – has fallen by 40 percent. Danish GHGE, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), has also decreased substantially, by some 20 percent. According to the International Energy Agency, the Danish CO2 intensity of GDP is the third lowest among European Union (EU) members, only after Sweden and France.

Both Sweden and especially France, rely heavily on allegedly CO2-free nuclear energy generation.

Denmark’s exemplary development is a consequence of increased efficiency in the generation and consumption of energy, but also of the growing share of renewable energy sources – especially wind – used in the production of electricity in the country.

Anne Grete Holmsgaard, member of the Danish parliament and of the opposition Socialist People’s party, told IPS that one of the most important factors in the country’s growing efficiency in energy consumption is the cogeneration of electricity and heat.

“Practically, all Danish generators function dually,” Holmsgaard, who is also one of the leading Danish environmental lawmakers, told IPS. “Cogeneration of electricity and heat ensures a far more efficient use of fuels that are used in production. In the most efficient generators, we can reach an efficiency of up to 90 percent.”

Combined heat and power generators (CHP) are now one of the most common methods of energy recycling.

While conventional power plants let the heat they produced as by-product of electricity flow into nature, through cooling towers, by draining hot water into rivers, or by other means, CHP captures it for domestic or industrial heating uses.

In addition, Holmsgaard said, in the 1980s Denmark introduced high efficiency standards for buildings, energy labelling schemes for electrical appliances, and public campaigns to promote savings in households and industry.

Ever since, these standards have been constantly updated and improved.

“We pay also very high taxes on energy consumption,” Holmsgaard told IPS.

Denmark launched its energy efficiency programme in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the first oil crisis.

“At the time, we were almost completely dependent on oil and other fossil fuels,” Steen Gade, chair of the Danish Environment and Planning Committee and of Danish Electricity Saving Trust, told IPS.

Until the mid 1970s, Denmark generated 90 percent of its electricity by burning imported oil. Burning locally extracted coal generated the other 10 percent.

“The focus of our first conscious Danish Energy Plan, of 1976, was to increase our security of supply, and to reduce our dependence on imported fuels,” Gade added. Environmental concerns did not play any role in the conception of that plan.

Actually, the plan’s main focus was to first improve efficiency in the generation of electricity and heat, and to convert the country’s generators from oil into coal. “Renewable energy had only a marginal role in the energy supply at the time,” Gade said.

The next plan, in 1981, still put a large emphasis on stepping up the development of oil and gas recovery from the North Sea. Simultaneously, however, the plan launched the construction and operation of wind turbines and biomass plants – starting the present success story of renewable energy generation in Denmark.

By 1990, before the industrialised world started to think about reducing greenhouse gases emissions – the Kyoto protocol, which rules such reductions until 2012, was adopted only in 1997 – a new Danish energy plan set a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent between 1998 and 2005.

“The Energy 2000 plan’s most important instruments were to increase renewable energy supply, increased utilisation of CHP, and more energy savings,” Gade told IPS.

Since then, the share of renewable energy – wind, geothermal, solar energy, biomass and biogas – in the Danish energy mix has increased steadily, and it now represents 28 percent of the country’s total electricity supply.

“Essential for this increase of renewable energy was the decision taken in 1985, of renouncing nuclear power,” Holmsgaard told IPS. “If Denmark would have followed the example of, say, France, and would have started building nuclear power plants, we would have blocked the development of our renewable energetic sector.”

Holmsgaard said that Denmark would reduce energy consumption by at least four percent by 2020, compared to 2006. “But we can go further,” she said. “We can reduce energy consumption by up to 45 percent by 2050. It is only a political decision,” Holmsgaard emphasised.

Despite its exemplary efficiency, the Danish energy system still has flaws.

Dorthe Vinther, vice president of Energinet, an independent public enterprise which owns the main electricity and natural gas grids in Denmark, told IPS that the Danish grid is still “not intelligent enough to flexibly coordinate supply and demand, and compensate the weather-dependent fluctuations so far typical of wind and solar energy.”

Vinther said that such fluctuations of renewable energy supply make it difficult to meet the base load demand. “To that objective, we need a better weather forecast, which would allow us to improve our schedule and management of wind or solar energy supply.”

In addition, she said, “the grid must be able store electricity in phases of higher wind and solar energy supply, and deliver in periods of low supply, to constantly meet base load demand.”

Vinther said that such a grid and forecast constitute factors to be considered in the creation of a future international renewables market, especially of wind energy. “The integration of large-scale wind power requires a strong international transmission grid and efficient international electricity markets, to trade and balance the wind power in a wide geographical area,” Vinther told IPS.

“For such an international project, we also need coherent energy systems to increase flexibility and economic efficiency and reduce environmental impact,” Vinther stressed. “And we need smart grids.”

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists­ for Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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