Environment Picture
Topic: Clean Energy

Seen on the street in Copenhagen -- a Danish environmental ethic that walks the talk

MEC's Hugh McDiarmid is part of a delegation in Denmark, exchanging information to help Michigan forge green jobs and reduce greenhouse gas pollution
Michigan Environmental Council Communications Director Hugh McDiarmid is in Copenhagen, Denmark as a guest of the Danish government with a Michigan delegation that includes representatives from the state’s energy office, business community, electric utilities, labor unions and journalism. The contingent is meeting with government and business groups to exchange information to help Michigan forge green jobs and to reduce greenhouse gas pollution that contributes to global warming. Here are some of McDiarmid’s observations. 

Copenhagen, Denmark --- One thing is abundantly clear after two whirlwind days of meetings and tours in this fascinating city: From the top business and government officials on down to the common person on the street, Danes have an environmental ethic ingrained in their culture that should be the envy of all my colleagues in Michigan’s environmental community. Everyone, and I mean everyone, incorporates sustainable living in every facet of their lives here.
  • Thousands of bicyclists whiz through the streets daily on commutes to and from work, using designated bike lanes that are off limits to vehicles and to pedestrians. Men in suits. Women in dresses. Parents with children nestled in carriers ingenuously mounted to the fronts of bikes. Even a woman in a fur coat. Everyone bikes.

  • Recycling is the norm here. It’s expected. The regional waste authority landfills 10 percent of the country’s trash. 25 percent is incinerated in a facility that provides both heat and power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. And an astonishing 65 percent is recycled – despite the fact that Danes must transport their recyclables to stations where they separate their goods into 25 different types of containers.

  • Despite a heavy reliance on coal, wind turbines are everywhere. There are nearly 5,000 commercial scale wind turbines in a country with half the population of Michigan, which has less than 100. The country has set a target of generating 50 percent of its electric power from wind power by 2020. Michigan’s target is 10 percent by 2020 for all renewable resources.

  • Green jobs are the result. The world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas, is headquartered here. There are 22,000 jobs in the wind industry alone.

  • Industry, unions, and environmentalists work far more closely together and with government than we are used to. Hans Peter Slente, an official with the Confederation of Danish Industries (the equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) says: “There is no animosity between the (environmental) sector and the rest of the country.” Green energy “is a mantra, a trademark, you can not possibly be against it.”

  • Industry accepts high taxes and subsidies designed to promote clean energy, because, as Slente says, “we can see a payback.”

  • Unlike the U.S., where electric power generation is typically created by huge power plants far away from customers, Danish towns often have their own, small power plants and renewable energy systems. “If you and four neighbors want to build a windmill in your neighborhood, we have laws and flexibility to do it. They you’ll support wind energy policies. It’s your power, you can see it and you’re close to it,” said Slente.

  • Education is a key to the green mindset here. The regional energy authority employees eight full time people just educating the public. Schoolchildren spend all-day seminars learning the benefits of clean energy generation and sustainable use of goods.
If this sounds too good to be true for Michiganders, there are some catches. Substantial ones.
  • Taxes are astonishingly high. High income residents can pay as much as 65 percent to the government. Our bus driver says the taxes and surcharges on a new vehicle are substantially more than the sticker price of the vehicle itself.

  • Prices for goods – primarily because of the taxes – are also very high. Gasoline costs the U.S. equivalent of about $7.35 per gallon. The Diet Coke and muffin I just bought at the 7-11 (yes, they’re everywhere!) cost me close to $8.

  • The government is involved in just about every aspect of life. The more skeptical members of our delegation have taken to referring to it as “The Borg” -- a reference to the collective, all-absorbing entity from the Star Trek series. (But unlike America, Danes trust their government)
  • While the quality of life is high, it’s on a smaller scale. Typical homes are much smaller. SUV’s are nonexistent on the streets.
So while it’s pretty clear that Americans and Michiganders are not about to embrace the totality of Denmark’s social and economic systems anytime soon, it’s also clear to our delegation that there are substantial and important takeaways that we can modify and adopt to help our nation and state move toward a more sustainable and planet-friendly system.

Surveys consistently show that Danes are among the happiest and most content people on the planet. We look forward to returning to Michigan to share some insights into how some of that might be translated into clean prosperity for our state and nation!
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