Hailed abroad, national climate goals attacked at home

December 6th, 2012

This article is more than 12 years old.

Cheap coal is keeping fossil fuels alive and jeopardising efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Denmark's plan, unveiled earlier this year, to become entirely independent of fossil fuels by 2050 earned it the top spot in the 2013 Climate Change Performance Index. Compiled by Climate Action Network Europe and German Watch this weekend to coincide with the opening of the UN climate conference Doha, the index only ranked Denmark as fourth however.

“No country’s effort is deemed sufficient to prevent dangerous climate change,” the report stated. “Therefore, as in the years before, we still cannot award any country with first, second or third place.”

The report’s authors refer to the on-going struggle to limit greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

The two-degree limit was set at the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, but three years later, as the Doha conference gets underway, the world’s biggest polluters seem to have done little to curb their consumption of fossil fuels.

In fact, the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal, has become even more popular as its price has fallen in recent years. The International Energy Agency estimating that carbon dioxide emissions will rise by 20 percent over the next ten years.

With the 1997 Kyoto Protocol set to expire at the end of this year, the only legally binding commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions are about to disappear. The Doha conference is addressing this, and work is underway to create a new legally binding treaty to come into force by 2020.

Denmark is bucking the trend, however, and the current government has committed to sourcing half of the country’s electricity from wind energy by 2020, reducing emissions by 34 percent.

According to the climate minister, Martin Lidegaard (Radikale), Denmark’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should serve as an inspiration to other countries nervous about ditching coal.

“We show that it is possible to be both climate and business friendly while also raising standards of living,” Lidegaard wrote in a press release. “I am proud that we can be a pioneer country.”

Denmark’s plan to end its reliance on fossil fuels by 2050 is not without its critics, however. A new study by three universities has shown that plan to replace fossil fuels carbon-neutral biomass will have a greater environmental impact than the government predicted.

The study by Aalborg University, the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Southern Denmark argues that Denmark will have to burn four times more biomass in order to reach its 2050 targets.

Lidegaard and the government have put Denmark ahead of the pack, but making it to the top will require additional effort (File photo)But this biomass needs to be grown on land that is otherwise not being used for crops, meaning that extra fertiliser will be used that will inevitably leach in lakes and fjords, carring with it a higher risk of oxygen depletion and fish die-off.

Environment lobby group Det Økologiske Råd argued, however, that the study exaggerated the environmental impact of biomass.

“DTU study made its calculation on the basis of a scenario where most of the fossil fuel used in Denmark would be replaced by biomass – and this would certainly go terribly wrong.,” organisation head Christian Ege said. “But this is not going to happen. The highest priority must be given to energy conservation and the use of wind, sun, geothermal, and biogas. Use of biomass must be the last option, and it must be a short term, intermediate solution.”

Finding cost-effective alternatives for fossil fuels is one of the major problems facing the introduction of a low carbon economy, especially given the plummeting costs of shale gas and coal.

Denmark has a distinct advantage in that it is a wealthy country with a technology sector capable of providing both renewable energy and energy efficient solutions.

Developing countries are not in such a fortunate position, however, so one of the leading questions at the Doha conference will be whether developed countries will increase their funding for low-carbon and climate mitigation solutions – solutions to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage a warmer and changing climate.

A $30 billion fund was established for the period 2010 to 2012 and developing countries are now lobbying at Doha to increase this investment. One of the only major developed countries that has agreed to do so is the UK, which on Tuesday pledged additional £133 million to finance a solar power project in Africa, bringing its contribution to £2.9 billion.

While Denmark has established its own 700 million kroner climate fund for the same purpose, climate minister Lidegaard argued that the conversion to renewable energy is being hampered by the 3,000 billion kroner in subsidies for fossil fuels given out every year by governments.

“It’s not true that support for fossil fuel subsidies help the poorest, it goes to the middle class and to those that drive cars,” Lidegaard told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “It’s also not right that it creates economic growth. In some developing countries 25 percent of the state budget is used on this sort of support without it leading anywhere.”

But while Lidegaard argued that the subsidies would be better used investing in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy solutions, John Nordbo, head of conservation at the World Wildlife Foundation, argues it would prove difficult in some countries.

“Removing subsidies will have serious social consequences in poor countries,” Nordbo told Jyllands-Posten. “It could lead to revolt on the streets. State support for fossil fuels is such a sensitive subject that governments in countries such as Indonesia don’t dare to talk about them.”

While Denmark may preach, it still has a long way to go to fulfil its climate ambitions. According to a study by the IDA, the national society of engineers, Denmark is only set to achieve 10 of the government’s 29 goals for 2050.

One of the major issues is finding initiatives to reduce emissions from the transport sector, though Lidegaard has promised to put forward a plan targeting transport, agriculture and housing in the new year.

This story was updated on 12/12/2012 at 14:07 correcting the quote from Christian Ege from Det Økologiske Råd


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