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Denmark Heats Up: Will Political Hot Air at Copenhagen Melt Away Chance to Fix Climate?
The Washington Diplomat / December 2009

By Larry Luxner

Forty years ago, the Danes were among the most eco-unfriendly people on Earth. Dependent on petroleum imports for 99 percent of their energy needs, they developed their fast-growing economy with no regard for the environment and fouled the Baltic Sea with their pollution.

But there’s nothing like a crisis to spur a nation into action.

Shocked into reality by the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Denmark switched gears and reinvented itself as a “green” society an entire generation before that buzzword came into vogue. By imposing unthinkably high taxes on cars and gasoline, the Danes were able to discourage wanton use of fossil fuels while channeling government revenue into wind and solar power. Today, Denmark is a net exporter of energy and boasts five of the world’s 10 largest central solar heating plants.

“Since 1973, we’ve really tried to make this gradual transition from a very high energy-consuming, carbon-based country to a low-energy, non-carbon-based energy society,” said Friis Arne Petersen, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States.

In fact, if the United States (population 307 million) were as eco-friendly as tiny Denmark (population 5.5 million), wind turbines would provide electricity to every major U.S. city and our fuel import bill would be cut by more than half — all without a single nuclear power plant.

Denmark will get an unprecedented chance to showcase its accomplishments during the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, scheduled for Dec. 7 to 18 in Copenhagen. The event — code-named COP15 — is so crucial to his country’s reputation that its official logo and Web site dominate the reverse of Petersen’s business card.

“This is the most important international event ever hosted in Denmark,” Petersen told The Washington Diplomat during an interview at his residence last month. “Just seven years ago, we thought we were writing history with the European Union summit of 2002, at which we agreed to the EU’s enlargement to include 10 Eastern European countries. But this U.N. climate meeting — that we hope will evolve into a summit — is even more important, because it’s a real crossover issue.”

Some 20,000 delegates, parliamentarians and others from 192 countries will converge on Copenhagen’s Bella Center for the event — including thousands of journalists — to discuss global warming and its implications for Earth’s future.

Most of the world’s heads of state are expected to attend at least part of the summit, including President Barack Obama, who will be in nearby Oslo on Dec. 10 to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

“We hope he can make it,” said Petersen, who presented his credentials to then-President Bush in October 2005 and now ranks as the longest-serving ambassador in Washington of any EU member country.

A foreign service officer since 1979, Petersen holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Copenhagen. He’s held many important posts throughout his career, including head of the Foreign Ministry’s department of relations with Russia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In 1997, Petersen became head of the Foreign Ministry, assuming the position of permanent secretary of state.

When he’s not dealing with the war in Afghanistan — Denmark currently has 800 troops in violence-prone Helmand province — the affable Petersen, 57, is single-mindedly focused on his most important mission: pushing for policy change on climate change. In fact, the day we interviewed him, Petersen was on his way to Los Angeles to give an afternoon speech at UCLA on climate and energy.

The ambassador, who’s given dozens of such lectures this past year, said Denmark’s goal as host of COP15 is to see as many countries as possible enter into a binding global climate agreement that will replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. The idea is to limit global warming to the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

Leading climatologists argue that to have even a 67 percent chance of meeting that goal, no more than 750 billion tons of carbon dioxide can be emitted worldwide between now and 2050. The United States and China alone account for roughly 40 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, though the United States is the only developed country that hasn’t offered a carbon-reduction target — and it’s doubtful that pending climate change legislation setting such a target will make it through the Senate in time for the conference.

Denmark’s hopes of sealing a firm climate deal before the Copenhagen meeting pretty much melted away at a Nov. 2-6 meeting in Barcelona aimed at ironing out last-minute differences after two long years of negotiations. Officials now say a new U.N. climate treaty will require an additional six months to a year — leading some world leaders to speculate that Copenhagen will produce merely a politically binding deal rather than a legally binding treaty.

Asked what’s likely to happen now, Petersen told The Diplomat that negotiators would likely scrape together “a political agreement that will capture both the high ambitions of the cap-and-trade deal, but which is also realistic when it comes to the U.S. legislative domestic agenda.”

The ambassador added: “Most observers would agree that it’s not likely Congress will agree on a bill before the summit. Given that, we have to assure a result in Copenhagen that gives us an ambitious climate agreement and allows us to continue working on fulfilling and implementing that deal in the beginning of next year.”

That’s not exactly what many people had in mind for the widely anticipated conference, which has long been billed as the defining moment to finally “seal the deal” to avert a catastrophic climate crisis in the near future. But in the wake of reluctance by a broad range of countries to make individual sacrifices — with everyone waiting to see what the other will do first before taking the plunge — officials have begun downplaying previous expectations.

Two huge stumbling blocks have been getting the industrialized powers to commit to tough mid-term emissions cuts for 2020, and to agree on how much financial support they should provide developing countries to bridge the rich-poor divide that threatens to derail the conference. The World Bank warns that adapting to the impacts of climate change will cost the developing world $75 billion to $100 billion a year between 2010 and 2050.

That assumes a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius, though other studies suggest that if the world’s energy use continues along its current trajectory, temperatures could rise 4 degrees Celsius by 2070. And developing nations such as China and India have ruled out signing onto any binding treaty without significant assistance and concessions from their wealthier counterparts — whom they blame for the climate crisis to begin with.

Petersen seems to agree, discounting the notion put forth by some U.S. politicians that developing countries like China and India should do far more than the United States to reduce their greenhouse gases — which would come at the expense of economic growth for their huge populations. He said that over the last 150 years, nearly 60 percent of the world’s carbon emissions came from the United States and Western Europe — and less than 10 percent from China and India.

“China is not waiting around for a cap-and-trade bill to introduce very competitive energy policies,” Petersen also pointed out. “China, India and other developing countries have foresight and vision, and they’re doing what they can to acquire state-of-the-art technologies to reduce energy consumption.”

Besides, he added, “they cannot have their peak years of emissions as early as the United States and Japan, because they’re still developing.”

Yet even if a substantive treaty with binding commitments is agreed upon by both developed and developing nations, mechanisms will need to be set up in order to monitor enforcement of the pledges (and prevent countries from flagrantly violating the agreement like many did with Kyoto).

Moreover, many environmentalists and scientists say that the emissions cuts currently on the table aren’t high enough anyway to prevent a disastrous rise in global temperatures. A U.N. panel of scientists said that industrial countries need to slash emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to keep the world from dangerously overheating. As it stands, the promises made so far — including a presumed U.S. contribution — are in the ballpark of a 15 percent reduction or less.

Although the reluctance to commit to ambitious goals is widespread, many countries say the real hot air is emanating from one source: Washington.

Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister for climate and energy, will chair the Copenhagen meeting. During the Barcelona run-up talks, the frustrated official bluntly told reporters that “it’s very hard to imagine how the American president can receive the Nobel Prize for his contributions to hope in the world … and at the same time has sent an empty-handed delegation to Copenhagen.”

Yet Petersen disputes that notion, saying, “Obama isn’t coming empty-handed. He comes with a lot of positive dynamics that only in the last few years have seen such a deliberate, concentrated effort [on climate change issues]. It was an unfortunate collision of events that drove the United States not to partake in the Kyoto Protocol. But I think the U.S. will be much better at living up to these new obligations.”

Petersen specifically cited the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill after the two Democratic congressmen who sponsored it. Among other things, the 946-page behemoth, which in June passed the House by a 219-212 vote, requires that 20 percent of electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2020 and calls for a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020 and a 42 percent cut by 2030.

But at this point, it’s increasingly unlikely a similar bill languishing in the Senate will be sent to the White House for Obama to sign into law. Like the House version, the Senate legislation favors a cap-and-trade system that would issue permits for greenhouse gas emissions. It would gradually lower the total amount of emissions allowed, while letting companies buy and sell permits to meet their needs.

Republicans almost unanimously oppose the measure, and Democrats themselves are deeply divided on the issue. Senators from the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountain states — many of which depend on fossil fuels for energy — worry about the legislation’s impact on voters.

“Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now? asked Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) during an early November hearing. “Wouldn’t it be smarter to take our time and do it right?”

Democratic leaders, with the tacit support of the White House, are trying to sweeten the deal by offering amendments to speed up the construction of nuclear power plants. But their efforts are being frustrated by conservative talk-show hosts and skeptics who still view the whole notion of global warming as quack science.

Petersen concedes that some people don’t think the planet is warming up, but he insists that humanity cannot afford inaction based on scientifically unfounded or politically expedient skepticism. “An international panel consisting of 2,000 scientists has come to this conclusion. How can one not want to base oneself on that kind of overwhelming and impressive evidence?” he asked. “What’s the sacrifice? If those who don’t believe in it have their way, the risk will be irreversible and terrible.”

In low-lying Denmark — which is slightly larger than Maryland and Delaware combined — the elevation averages only 31 meters (102 feet) above sea level. The country consists of one peninsula and 443 islands, some of which would be flooded if the world’s oceans rose even just by one meter.

Yet that’s nothing compared to places like the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 islands, 200 of them inhabited. In 2007, the U.N. climate panel warned that a rise in sea levels of 18 to 59 centimeters by 2100 would make the Maldives virtually uninhabitable. In September, the Danish government allocated 2.5 million euro ($3.6 million) so that the world’s poorest countries could send three delegates apiece to the Copenhagen summit. “I am delighted to hear of Denmark’s kind offer of support,” said Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who last month held a cabinet meeting underwater to publicize the plight of island nations like his own in the face of rising seas.

Ironically, the world’s largest island, Greenland — a Danish possession that in June won “self-rule” status after years of delicate negotiations — is pushing to be exempted from emissions reductions requirements (also see “Remote, Resource-Rich Greenland Welcomes Break From Denmark” in the June 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

The 57,000 people of Greenland, which is 50 times larger than Denmark itself, argue that developing the island’s lucrative mining, petroleum and aluminum industries would be impossible without boosting emissions of greenhouse gases.

In the midst of all this gloom though, Denmark stands as an example to the rest of the world of what a country can accomplish when it drastically changes its priorities.

Following the Arab oil embargo 36 years ago, the Danish government raised fuel taxes dramatically, to the point where gasoline now costs $12 a gallon and new cars are slapped with a 180 percent surcharge. Today’s Danes are burdened with the world’s highest residential electricity rates and one of the world’s highest income tax rates.

“If people want to drive cars in Denmark, it’s OK, but they have to pay a price for it,” the ambassador quipped. “You buy one car and you pay for three.”

Yet survey after survey shows that the Danes are also the happiest people on Earth — perhaps as a consequence of their eco-friendly, cradle-to-grave social welfare system. “This has a lot to do with the organization of our society,” Petersen explained. “For us, it works well to have free education for everyone, universal health care and generous social welfare benefits, combined with a thriving market economy. But without our capitalistic sort of private enterprise, none of this would be viable.

“The key is that by making [fossil fuel] energy very expensive relative to other things, you induce people to make the right decisions. And you then use all that tax revenue to reduce other taxes,” the ambassador continued. “We will never have nuclear [energy], but we have aggressively developed renewables in wind and biofuels. Wind power for Denmark is as important as nuclear power is for the United States, generating about 24 percent of our electricity. And the biggest wind turbine producer in the world is a Danish company, Vestas.”

Headquartered in the town of Randers, Vestas has invested $700 million in three factories in Colorado that will manufacture wind turbines for the U.S. domestic market. “Not harvesting America’s wind energy would be like going to Saudi Arabia and not drilling for oil,” Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel recently told Forbes magazine.

Denmark today boasts 5,300 wind turbines, though the 250 biggest supply more than 20 percent of the total wind power in Denmark. Even more energy, however, is produced by the burning of biomass, including biodegradable waste.

“In Denmark, we have 3.7 percent unemployment. Before the recession, it was below 1 percent. So if it’s doable for us, it’s doable for individual states,” said Petersen, noting that, “Texas is the biggest wind-producing state in the nation.”

“We Danes use 5,900 kilowatt-hours per person per year,” he added. “In California, it’s double that. And our biggest triumph is that we’ve grown our GDP in the last 30 years by 65 to 70 percent — about the same as the United States — but without any increase in energy consumption.”

In February 2008, the Danish parliament also passed a broad-based agreement boosting the proportion of renewable energy to 30 percent by 2020 — well above the EU target of 20 percent.

Copenhagen itself is considered one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world. It is home to more than half of Denmark’s 700 clean-tech companies and boasts 46 research institutions employing more than 60,000 people. Smaller Danish cities such as Lolland and Bornholm have also become leaders in the field.

That kind of energy awareness extends to the Royal Danish Embassy itself, located at the end of quiet Whitehaven Street in Northwest Washington.

“This house was built 50 years ago, when energy was essentially free,” Petersen explained. “But now, electricity has become very expensive, so we made a $4 million investment in retrofitting and energy efficiency, and then we signed up to buy carbon offsets.”

Over the last four years, the embassy has replaced all its old windows with more energy-efficient models; installed individual temperature controls in offices; removed individual ink printers and replaced them with new energy-efficient “all-in-one” machines that copy, print, scan and send faxes; began dual-page printing in black and white, which saves paper and toner; and bought low-energy light bulbs and timer units for outdoor lights.

As a result, electricity consumption fell from 654,000 kilowatt-hours in 2006 to 620,000 kilowatt-hours in 2008 despite an increase in staff and activity. Under Petersen’s supervision, the embassy also purchased new energy-efficient vehicles and will next year install a new cooling tower and chiller.

If there’s a silver lining at all to the current global recession, it’s that CO2 emissions are expected to post their biggest drop in 40 years in the wake of an industrial slowdown worldwide. The International Energy Agency says emissions will fall 2.6 percent in 2009. Likewise, greenhouse gas emissions in the United States fell 3.8 percent in 2008 compared to 2007, and they’re projected to tumble another 6 percent this year.

However, the U.S. Department of Energy says an improving economy will increase domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 0.7 percent in 2010, which will likely fuel a rise in world oil prices — currently below $80 a barrel.

“I’m not a magician,” said Petersen, “but I predict that when growth really returns to the world economy, oil prices will do part of the trick because they will increase considerably, thereby making alternative energy sources competitive.”

In the meantime, the ambassador said COP15 won’t delve deeply into social issues like population control and vegetarianism, even though some proponents say limiting the number of births and getting people to stop eating meat will do far more to slow global warming than switching to energy-efficient cars and power plants.

“Vegetarianism won’t be discussed,” he told The Diplomat.“What individuals want to do as a consequence of these agreements is important. But we have to get a global deal on climate change at COP15 that will allow all countries to organize themselves.”

And Petersen stresses that the interlinked effects of a warming planet — from droughts and floods, to agriculture and migration changes, to a loss of biodiversity and forests — will eventually touch everyone in every nation. In that vein, when speaking recently with the UCLA students during one of his many lectures, the ambassador expressed his hope that nations will overcome their individual hesitations for the greater good. “I will not be surprised if we have this climate deal,” he predicted. “In the next many years, we’ll benefit a lot from it, and you’ll wonder why it took so long for us to do it.”

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