When UN Secretary General António Guterres addressed the world’s leaders at the recent UN Climate Action Summit in New York, there was no mincing of words. The time has come to act.
“This is not a climate talk summit, we’ve had enough talk. This is not a climate negotiation summit, because we don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit,” he proclaimed to great ovation.
And while the summit might best be remembered for 16-year-old climate champion Greta Thunberg lambasting global leaders for inaction in a fiery display of emotion, there was another clear message to be had in New York.
Namely that Denmark will be at the very forefront of the climate battle, with PM Mette Frederiksen leading the charge. In fact, at the request of Guterres, Denmark took a leading role at the summit.
A guiding light for the future
Indeed, one of the key reasons for Frederiksen winning the recent General Election and taking over the leadership reins of her country was because her political platform focused heavily on the climate.
And one of her first moves as PM was to hammer out a plan that focuses on tackling the climate issue – the principal ambition being a reduction of CO2 emissions by 70 percent by 2030 and becoming climate-neutral by 2050.
“Denmark is a small country, but we insist on making a big difference. We are ready to assume great responsibility by taking the lead,” Frederiksen said in her UN Climate Action Summit speech.
“At some point, all generations face a decisive challenge: an opportunity to change the world. Climate change is our challenge, and future generations depend on us.”
During the summit, Denmark also agreed to double its contribution (now 800 million kroner) to the Green Climate Fund, which was created to support developing countries in responding to the challenge of climate change.
Backed by business
Copenhagen Municipality, energy firm Ørsted and shipping giant Maersk were also at hand in New York to present their plans to contribute to a more sustainable future. And that is critical as there is simply no way to reach the ambitious goals without the business sector on board.
Frederiksen’s ambitions have been supported by the powerful Danish pension firms, which announced that they would invest an additional 350 billion kroner into Denmark’s green transition over the next decade.
”It’s obvious to give the battle against climate change top priority. If we don’t manage to significantly reduce the greenhouse emissions, the consequence will be unimaginable, so we must take it seriously. We support the government’s ambitions,” said Tine Roed, the head of Dansk Industri, the industry confederation.
A bridge too far?
But there are still challenges ahead and obstacles that need to be navigated.
In a recent survey, 70 percent of Danes said the government’s climate ambitions were a good thing, but 55 percent also responded that reaching the lofty goal of reducing emissions by 70 percent was very or reasonably unrealistic.
The survey also documented that it is the young people that are a driving force in the climate change battle, and 20 percent of Danes aged 66+ believe that Denmark’s actions makes a difference in the bigger picture, compared to 54 percent of 18 to 19-year-olds.
From applause to frauds?
Additionally, several international researchers recently criticised Denmark’s practice of maintaining that the burning of wood – Denmark’s biggest source of green energy – is CO2-neutral.
Back in the 1990s, the widespread belief in global political and scientific circles was that burning wood was CO2-neutral and a sustainable energy source, because trees replenish and absorb CO2 again.
But despite that consensus having long evaporated, politicians in Denmark still cling to that archaic concept when calculating the country’s CO2 emissions. The researchers likened it to ‘climate fraud’.
Only Sweden, Finland and Latvia burn more biomass than Denmark in the EU, but they principally burn their own forests. Denmark, meanwhile, imports most of the wood it burns, such as from the US.
Big sinner: addressing agriculture
Furthermore, Denmark is struggling to meet EU demands in a number of important sectors, such as in transportation and agriculture.
In fact, the energy authority Energistyrelsen has uncovered that unless further initiatives are embraced, Denmark is set to surpass annual emission goals for non-quota binding sectors every year from 2021 to 2030.
The EU goals bind Denmark to reducing those emissions by 39 percent by 2030, but Energistyrelsen expects Denmark to reach 25 percent by that time, based on current initiatives in play.
Agriculture will play a key role if Denmark is to meet EU goals, or its own goal of reducing emissions by 70 percent.
”There is no doubt that the agriculture needs to be looked at if we are going to reach the 70 percent. Agriculture accounts for about a fifth of emissions in Denmark, so they need to take their fair share of reductions,” Sebastian Mernild, a climate change professor and main lead author of the next big UN Climate Panel report in 2021, told DR Nyheder.
Dan the man with a plan
But the new government seems to have more of an urgency with its climate plans than the previous Lars Løkke Rasmussen regime. It’s probably well aware that inaction will cost them a future election.
And Denmark’s new climate minister, Dan Jørgensen, is well aware that the government is rapidly running out of time.
“I’m in the process of negotiating a climate law with Parliament and it will clearly convey to the Danes that we are binding ourselves to these targets. It’s a big effort and we must act quickly and think long-term,” Jørgensen told DR Nyheder.
This piece was originally printed in Diplomacy. Read the digital version of the magazine here.