Positive environmental policy secures Denmark’s green economic growth

Denmark’s focus on sustainable growth has made it a frontrunner in global environment policy, but experts say green goals could be harder to attain in the future.

Pursuing energy security, higher living standards and a cleaner human environment, the country has implemented a series of policies to boost sustainable economic development while protecting natural habitats.

However, continued economic gains in this small, resource-poor country will likely come only in tandem with better use of natural resources, and expanded care for the environment.

"Environmental protection is the precondition for growth, not the limit to growth," said Danish Environment Minister Ida Auken in an interview with Xinhua.

"Brown growth, or old-style growth, has hit the wall. Countries that cannot grow at the speed they want to, have to make the transition to a green economy if they want to keep on growing," she added.

Today, nearly 20 percent of Denmark’s total energy production comes from renewable sources including wind, biomass, and solar power.

The country puts just seven percent of its waste into landfills, meaning that 93 percent of it is recycled or burned in specially-adapted power plants to generate electricity and heating.

Having suffered severe oil shortages during the 1970s global oil crisis, the country has since invested in biofuels, insulating of buildings to make them consume less energy, and has developed district heating systems where the heat generated by electric power plants is piped to homes and offices for heating, thereby increasing the plants’ energy efficiency.

Denmark has also invested steadily in the wind power sector over the past 30 years, and according to the Danish Energy Agency, the total installed capacity of on- and off-shore wind-turbines equaled 3.8 gigawatts in 2010, which represents 25 percent of the country’s total electricity demand.

Moreover, in November last year, Denmark’s center-left coalition government launched a bold plan which targets 100 percent renewable energy in the energy and transport sectors by 2050, and 50 percent electricity generated by wind power by 2020.

Describing Denmark’s green growth model, Mads Flarup Christensen, the Executive Director of environmental campaign group Greenpeace Nordic said it was "one which through the involvement of people, formal policies on environment, and transparency, helps form a base for the right level of environmental awareness in a population, which then supports politicians in making tougher legislation."

"It has helped limit our resource waste, our energy consumption and the direct effect of our production on human health and environment" he told an interview with Xinhua.


Yet experts here say Denmark is in danger of losing momentum in achieving green goals, owing to problems of resource over-consumption, impacts from agricultural production and biodiversity loss.

Farmland covers 62 percent of the Danish land mass, a higher proportion than any other country in the world, says the 100 year-old Danish Society for Nature Conservation (DSNC), which is legally empowered to guide Danish authorities on matters concerning planning and environment.

"Because of that pattern, that so much land is cultivated, it means many of our natural habitats have disappeared. Biodiversity here is retreating," said Ella Maria Bisschop-Larsen, President of DSNC.

For instance, there is a marked fall in the number of bees and other pollinating insects, which are needed to fertilize plants including many of the fruit trees that Danish farmers grow. Moreover, populations of native species of hare have declined by 30 percent in the past decade, while the number common birds such as lapwings have declined by 70 percent in the past 30 years.

"Lack of biodiversity means you lose free services from ecosystems and nature. In Denmark and internationally, we are trying to understand what this means and costs," Bisschop-Larsen said to Xinhua in an interview.

Another threat is posed by Denmark’s meat consumption, which is one of the highest in the world according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Many millions of hectares of forest land are occupied producing feed for Danish meat production… we don’t have enough arable land to grow all that feed for our animals," Christensen said.

Denmark is home to some 25 million pigs and exported over 1.2 million tons of fresh or frozen pork in 2011, underscoring how valuable the meat industry is to its economy.

However, these pigs also generate gargantuan amounts of manure, which if not correctly treated can leak harmful nitrates into water systems and ground water.

The DSNC says up to 40 percent of tested groundwater in Denmark contains traces of pollution from agricultural run-off, including pesticides, which is forcing the country to invest in new bore wells to tap deeper aquifers.


Although awareness of green issues is relatively widespread among Danes, their attitudes towards them are changing with the altering nature of Denmark’s environmental problems.

For instance, stopping discharge of chemicals from municipal and industrial areas into the sea was a key concern some decades ago, but today’s challenges are more about resource over-consumption, climate change, and high per capita waste.

"We have the financial means in Denmark to care about our environment, and people tend to think about it as the national media is interested in this issue," said Morten Soeholt-Wad, a Copenhagen-based doctor.

But "it is more organic food and agriculture that people are interested in, than the environment itself," countered Sidsel Lee Winthrop, a communications officer with a Copenhagen-based clothing firm.

In fact, buying organic gives the impression that an individual is environmentally conscious, which in turn "tends to give them a higher social status" Soeholt-Wad said.

The Danish government for its part is pursuing concrete policies such as higher taxes on utilities, which are reinvested in renewable technologies, on large-scale waste recycling, and tax breaks on energy renovation of buildings.

It has also made renewable energy and creation of green jobs in Europe a priority for its ongoing Presidency of the European Union.

Yet Christensen believes Danes need a "fundamental change in the way they think about growth" and "a model that holistically thinks about resource use" if they are to achieve future green goals.


According to Environment Minister Ida Auken, "it is important to set clear political targets with timeframes and have a follow-up mechanism" if those goals are to be reached. Public investment in relevant green infrastructure, such as waste treatment plants, is also needed.

In the short term, however, there is need to "to balance intensive agriculture with the needs of nature and ecosystems," Bisschop-Larsen said. This could be achieved through more organic farming, where use of synthetic fertilizer is prohibited, thereby halting run-off of chemicals into water bodies and soil.

As organic fruit and vegetables command higher prices than conventional ones, they can help Danish farmers earn more per hectare of crop planted even if they cannot be cultivated as intensively.

In turn, farmers can be persuaded more easily to accept an existing scheme to sell unproductive land to the government, which will then let these marginal lands be reclaimed by nature.

Bigger and better protected natural areas are the next logical step "so that we don’t have islands of nature within a sea of farmland," Bisschop-Larsen said.

Ultimately, a blend of economic pragmatism and tough environment legislation is likely to prove successful in setting and attaining green growth goals.

"Danes know their life quality depends on clean, air, water and soil, but they also get a lot of new jobs when we develop green technologies here which we can sell to the rest of the world," Auken said.

These technologies include efficient ways to separate farm and animal wastes and prevent them reaching the natural ecosystem, and waste water recycling, she added.

"Thus, there is both a life-quality incentive and an economic incentive in protecting the environment," Auken said.