The Washington Diplomat / December 2010
By Larry Luxner
Peter Taksøe-Jensen, Denmark’s new ambassador to the United States, proudly showed off the red, white and blue bunting that for a few days in early November festooned the wood-paneled conference room of the Royal Danish Embassy.
“We had an election night party here in this room,” explained the ambassador, whose guests that evening included several prominent European diplomats as well as two Danish observers sent to Washington specifically to monitor the U.S. voting process.
Yet from Denmark’s point of view (or for that matter a large number of countries), the American midterm election offered little reason to party, given that Copenhagen’s top foreign policy objective — immediate action on climate change — took a severe beating on Nov. 2. Now, the next round of international climate talks limp into Cancún, Mexico, one year after the Copenhagen conference produced mixed results.
The Republican Party, which wrested control of the House from Democrats and picked up half a dozen seats in the Senate, bitterly opposes any legislation that would slash greenhouse gases through a complex cap-and-trade system. It argues that such moves would cost millions of American jobs and hurt the U.S. economy while rewarding bigger polluters like China and India.
Meanwhile, those very same polluters are now likely to use American inaction as an excuse for their own refusal to accept any mandatory emissions cuts. After all, they say, if the country that historically contributed the most to global warming won’t address the problem it created, why should they make any sacrifices as they try to build up their economies just like the United States and Europe once did?
And without China and the United States — which together account for two-thirds of the world’s emissions — any future climate pact will be meaningless.
Constrained at home, the White House is also getting slammed in Europe — where the European Union pledged to unilaterally cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels — for not following through on its lofty earlier promises, and more recently for threatening to challenge Chinese renewable energy subsidies as a violation of global trade rules.
“The yardstick I would measure the Obama administration against has been set by the president himself, when he said in the early days of his administration that he wanted to make the United States a leader in international climate policy,” Reinhard Hans Bütikofer, a European Parliament member, told the Washington Post. “That is obviously a test in which the U.S. is failing, by far.”
Added Denmark’s Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s commissioner for climate action: “Of course, from a European perspective, it’s regrettable the administration could not get legislation through the Senate. That makes it easier for other parties to hide behind the back of the United States.”
Dispensing with diplomatic talk, Taksøe-Jensen laid it out on the table: “Of course it would have been good for the world if the U.S. had shown leadership, since 10 percent of the world’s gasoline and diesel is burned every day on the streets of the United States. If the U.S. doesn’t do anything about it, the rest of the world won’t be able to either.”
Even so, the ambassador doesn’t appear too devastated about the pace of developments worldwide since Denmark hosted a major world summit on the issue exactly one year ago (also see “Will Political Hot Air at Copenhagen Melt Away Chance to Fix Climate?” cover profile in the December 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Attempting to put the best face on what leading scientists say is mankind’s greatest threat, Taksøe-Jensen insists there is cause for optimism, both in the United States and around the world.
“This is not going to be the end of international negotiations to solve the problem of climate change,” he told The Diplomat. “Ambitions were running so high just before the Copenhagen summit that it is difficult to acknowledge what in my assessment is quite a large achievement. COP15 was really a big step in the right direction.”
In December 2009, some 20,000 delegates, parliamentarians and journalists from 192 countries converged on the Danish capital to discuss global warming and its implications for Earth’s future.
COP15, as the 11-day summit was code-named, attracted many heads of state including President Obama, who had taken office in January 2008 pledging to deal with a “planet in peril.”
COP15 aimed at getting all countries to enter into a binding global climate agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. The long-term goal is to limit global warming to the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
Instead of climate consensus though, disagreement dominated the Copenhagen talks, which devolved into acrimonious bickering between rich and poor nations. In the end, COP15 failed to produce a binding agreement. Rather, leaders pledged to continue working on the issue, promising to enact emissions cuts and to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing countries cope with global warming, although details on how to finance that commitment remain vague.
Major disagreements remain as well. For instance, the developing world argues that any financial compensation should come in the form of public aid, whereas the developed world wants to rely heavily on private investment. Likewise, although the Group of Eight industrial powers agreed to a goal of reducing global emissions 50 percent by 2050, with the richest countries leading the way by cutting their emissions 80 percent, they never set a baseline from which to measure that reduction or defined firm interim targets, which experts say are key to ever reaching that ambitious goal.
The fact that all nations didn’t agree on everything, however, doesn’t mean the summit was a failure, according to Taksøe-Jensen, who noted that Denmark will provide $225 million in the next three years to help poor countries like Bangladesh deal with the impact of climate change.
“I don’t think it would have been possible — even in the most ideal world — to arrive at this new legally binding instrument, considering the positions of China, the United States and even Europe,” he said.
“Even though the final Copenhagen accord is only a two-and-a-half-page document, it has all the necessary elements for a compromise on how to strike a global deal on climate change,” he added, pointing out that “more than 135 countries have signed up to the 2 percent target of reducing carbon emissions.”
“Basically, we have three tracks where we can go from here,” Taksøe-Jensen continued, explaining that the first track will involve building on the progress made in Copenhagen at follow-up international climate conferences in Mexico this month and South Africa in November 2011.
“The second track is bilateral cooperation, where two countries try to solve specific elements of climate change. For example, Norway and Indonesia are partnering on deforestation. There’s a realization that the EU must lead by example, and by setting targets,” he said. “The third track is actually what individual states are doing in order to cope with this issue.”
On that front though, it’s hard to ignore that the world’s most powerful nation is not doing much at the moment. Indeed, the United States remains the only major industrialized nation that hasn’t legislated caps on carbon emissions.
“The United States came to COP15 with a promise to lower their emissions by 17 percent. We had hoped this package would go through not only the House but also the Senate. But this sort of cap-and-trade bill has grounded to a halt,” Taksøe-Jensen lamented.
In June 2009, the American Clean Energy and Security Act squeaked through the House by a 219-212 vote. The bill required that 20 percent of electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2020, and called for a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020 and a 42 percent cut by 2030 — over 2005 levels (not the more ambitious 1990 levels most developed nations were aiming for).
Like the House version, the Senate legislation called for a cap-and-trade system that would issue permits for greenhouse gas emissions. It would have gradually lowered the total amount of emissions allowed, while letting companies buy and sell permits to meet their needs.
Yet in the 12 months since the Copenhagen summit, the Obama White House failed to convince a single Republican convert to back his bill in the Senate, where it never had more than 48 supporters to begin with.
In the end, other issues like health care reform and the nation’s economic crisis took precedence, and climate change legislation fell by the wayside.
“I don’t know whether the president would have [ever] had the votes in the Senate,” mused Taksøe-Jensen. “You can only do as much as the political climate allows you to do. He made climate change one of his five top priorities when he came into office. The midterm election results have made it more difficult.”
Difficult may be an understatement. In today’s political environment, the issue is all but dead in the water (despite previous House passage, any climate legislation would now have to start from scratch because of the new congressional calendar). A fair number of Republicans still don’t even buy the science behind climate change, calling it a hoax, while even Democrats are distancing themselves from any kind of federal cap on carbon emissions.
President Obama all but conceded there wouldn’t be a grand bargain on cap and trade in the near future. “I think there are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year. And so it’s doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after,” he said in a press conference immediately following the midterms.
“But that doesn’t mean there isn’t agreement that we should have a better energy policy. And so let’s find those areas where we can agree,” he added, citing efforts to promote investment in renewable energy sources, fuel-efficient vehicles, and exploring other avenues such as natural gas and nuclear energy.
In addition, climate regulations are continuing at the city and state levels throughout the United States, notably in California, as well as within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some experts have even floated the idea of abandoning a climate agreement altogether and somehow including greenhouse gases under the existing 1987 Montreal Protocol meant to protect the planet’s ozone layer.
Taksøe-Jensen hasn’t given up on the idea of a broad climate deal. For now though, he says a practical, piecemeal approach could appeal to many Americans, including Republicans. “This means President Obama will have to approach the issue from a different perspective. It will be possible to find compromises if he approaches it from an energy independence point of view, rather than a save-the-world approach,” he said.
Taksøe-Jensen, 51, is an attorney by profession. Like his predecessor, Friis Arne Petersen — now ambassador to China — Denmark’s new envoy in Washington is a graduate of the University of Copenhagen. He spent more than two decades in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, starting out as an intern there in 1980 and becoming a full-fledged diplomat in 1987, when he was posted to Vienna.
Two years later, the Iron Curtain came down across Eastern Europe, and Taksøe-Jensen became a NATO specialist in security and arms-control issues, focusing on the war-torn Balkans.
Following his stint in Brussels, Taksøe-Jensen joined his country’s legal service, helped Denmark ratify the International Criminal Court, and got involved in his country’s military engagement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, Taksøe-Jensen became assistant secretary-general of legal affairs at the United Nations, a position he held until landing his current one less than three months ago.
“Getting posted as ambassador to the United States is a dream job. I could not imagine anything more interesting than this,” he said. “It was not a hard choice to leave New York and come here.”
But this “dream job” has thrust Taksøe-Jensen into a prominent diplomatic role in the ongoing debate over global warming. As COP president, he says “Denmark will do its best” to facilitate the process when countries gather in Cancún, Mexico, in late November and early December.
The EU’s climate chief, Connie Hedegaard, warned that Cancún has to make a better impression than Copenhagen did. “There is this sort of hunger to get things done,” she recently told Agence France Presse. “But if Cancún does not deliver, the whole process is in danger.”
She added that although a sweeping accord may not be possible at the moment, widespread consensus can still be reached on critical smaller deals such as deforestation, climate warning systems, and the transfer of cleaner technology to poorer countries.
Severe weather-related events around the world in recent months have also lent a sense of urgency to the global warming debate. This year is set to go down as one of the hottest since records began in 1880. The summer’s heat waves scorched parts of the United States, including Washington, D.C. (which also experienced severe snowstorms this past winter) — not to mention Russia, which saw sustained 100-degree temperatures in Moscow, searing wild fires, and a drought worse than any other in the historical record. Meanwhile, catastrophic flooding in Pakistan deluged an area larger than the size of Italy, devastating tens of millions of livelihoods.
In October, the United Nations warned that the world’s coral reefs were facing an unprecedented threat due to climate change, endangering not only the richest ecosystems in the ocean but also fisheries that feed millions of people. Recent U.N. reports have also revealed a mass extinction of plant and animal species, with the planet losing species at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times the historical average, according to scientists, who call the current extinction period the worst since the dinosaurs perished 65 million years ago.
Meanwhile, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long predicted that rising global temperatures would produce more frequent and intense heat waves and rainfalls — resulting in a global patchwork of flooding and drought, with wet areas generally getting wetter and dry areas getting drier. And NASA scientists warn that the Arctic ice sheet in northwestern Greenland is melting much faster than expected. Experts say the melting of land ice into the oceans causes about 60 percent of the accelerating rise in sea levels worldwide.
Yet drawing definitive links between unusual weather patterns and climate change is nearly impossible, adding fuel to the skeptics’ fire. “If you ask me as a person, do I think the Russian heat wave has to do with climate change, the answer is yes,” Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate researcher, told the New York Times in an Aug. 14 article. “If you ask me as a scientist whether I have proved it, the answer is no — at least not yet.”
Nevertheless, scientists say that although weather patterns remain unpredictable, climate change will make the weather extremes consistently worse. This summer’s extreme heat, drought and wildfires certainly caught the attention of some leaders.
“Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the Russian Security Council in August.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is much more blunt. Writing in a Nov. 3 New York Times opinion piece titled “Let’s Get Serious About Climate Talks,” he argues that the Copenhagen summit was a flop due to “the failure of political leadership and the lack of will among those who have bowed to vested interests.”
“The corporate lobbies that organize climate-change-denial campaigns are lavishly financed, outspending those supporting urgent action by 7 to 1. One result is the $550 billion a year in subsidies that the International Energy Agency estimates go to the fossil fuel sector of the energy industry,” Gorbachev pointed out.
“Diplomats and experts are stuck on technical issues, and voices are already being heard in favor of settling for the lowest common denominator or even reformatting the process, with the hope that the business community might come up with purely technocratic solutions to climate change. This is not the way to go forward,” he wrote, arguing that the “business community will always look out for its own interests and short-term profits. As for the theory that ‘the free market’ will solve every problem, few find that idea convincing after its proponents brought the world economy to the brink of disaster.”
But Taksøe-Jensen says environmental progress need not come at the expense of financial profit — and Denmark stands as living proof that eco-friendly and business-friendly can peacefully coexist.
“In 1973, Denmark was 100 percent dependent on fossil fuels. Now, 20 percent of our energy is derived from sustainable resources, and we’re working toward zero percent by 2050. You can actually get to a fossil fuel-free environment without it having a negative impact on your growth,” he told us.
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. Since 1990, the ambassador pointed out, Denmark’s economic output has grown by 45 percent, while carbon emissions have dropped by 13 percent. Today, Denmark is a net exporter of energy and boasts five of the world’s 10 largest central solar heating plants.
One way Denmark accomplished all this was by imposing 180 percent tax on new cars. Gasoline costs 11 kroner per liter, or about $8 a gallon. As a result, 54 percent of residents of Copenhagen — a city of 2 million — get around on bicycles. Public transportation is also excellent.
“The Danish government has used taxation as an incentive to change the habits of the Danish people. We have green taxes on the use of water and electricity, so that you create an incentive to invest in less expensive energy,” Taksøe-Jensen explained. In addition, the promotion of cogenerated electricity and heat has been “extremely important” for Denmark, ensuring a far more efficient use of fuels. The most efficient CHP (combined heat and power) plants now have an energy efficiency rating of more than 90 percent. Since 1980, the share of heating produced at CHP facilities has more than doubled, from 39 to 80 percent, while the share of electricity cogenerated with heat has risen from just under 18 percent to almost 53 percent.
Other initiatives carried out by the Danish government include the establishment of high energy standards for public buildings, energy labeling programs for electrical appliances, public campaigns to reduce household energy consumption and, of course, very high energy taxes that discourage waste.
Despite having virtually no hydropower resources and no tradition of using biomass, Denmark has also managed to become a leading user of renewable energy. According to government statistics, renewables account for 28 percent of Denmark’s electricity supply.
This is due mainly to wind energy. In all, Denmark boasts 5,300 wind turbines, though the 250 biggest supply more than 20 percent of the country’s total wind power. In fact, today Denmark controls one-third of the global wind turbine market, and in 2007, energy technology exports were worth 52 billion kroner — roughly 9 percent of total Danish exports. Other forms of wind energy include wood, straw, solar energy, biogas and biodegradable waste.
When it comes to going green, the residence Taksøe-Jensen lives in is no exception. The Danish Embassy and Residence on Whitehaven Street in Northwest Washington was the focus of a recent $4 million retrofitting project; all the old windows were replaced with energy-efficient models, while individual temperature controls were installed in offices and inefficient light bulbs were replaced.
“It’s become hard to sell the idea of saving the planet. But it’s not hard to sell the virtues of energy independence,” said Taksøe-Jensen. “The question we ask ourselves was, do we want to continue to pay billions of kroner to oil-producing countries abroad, or do we want to invest the same amount of money in alternative energy production?”
The same should apply to the United States, according to the ambassador. Washington must push the private sector to be more responsible for the consequences of global warming.
“There’s more than one way to fix the problem,” he suggested. “You need the political framework and incentives to push business in that direction. There are lots of possibilities in what we call ‘green growth,’ creating jobs both in Europe and the United States.”
For instance, Vestas, a Danish company, is now the world’s biggest windmill manufacturer, having invested $700 million to build three plants in Colorado that now employ 5,000 people in the fabrication of turbines, towers and blades.
“The way we’re getting to a carbon-free society by 2050 is to focus much more on wind energy — specifically offshore wind parks where we can produce energy for the whole society,” Taksøe-Jensen said.
“There’s a limited amount of fossil fuels out there, and demand is rising rapidly now. China is putting 40,000 new cars on its streets every day. So fossil fuel prices will skyrocket down the road. This should be an incentive for private business to start looking at ways to produce other forms of energy.”
Taksøe-Jensen says he’s encouraged that the United States has mandated an increase in the ethanol content of gasoline from 12 percent to 15 percent. Likewise, Danish shipping conglomerate Maersk has decided to use biofuels for 12 percent of its fuel needs in the United States. “They have a very large fleet of vessels and spend $5 billion a year on fuel alone,” he noted. “This will help Maersk decrease fuel consumption by about 35 percent.”
The ambassador added that Denmark continues to make progress toward a fossil-free future, despite a savage recession that caused the Danish economy to shrink by 7 percent in the second quarter of 2008. The country began to recover in late 2009, and Denmark is now expected to finish this year with about 2.5 percent growth, and around 2 percent growth in 2011.
“It’s a bad excuse to say the economy has made it impossible to do what we need to do. Your country has lost 8 million jobs during the financial crisis. You can sit back and say that’s a pity, or you can find new areas for potential growth,” said Taksøe-Jensen.
“I don’t believe global warming is unstoppable. My position is, it will have to be stopped. The problem is not going to go away. It’ll just be more difficult to handle further down the road,” he said. “But I do think there’s hope.”