Energy

Why Are Carbon Footprints So Much Lower in Denmark?

Do you know how your country per capita carbon emissions compare with those of other nations? Canada's annual per capita emissions were 17.9 tonnes in 2007, up 24.3 percent since Kyoto, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The United States, once the world leader in emissions, is at 19.9 tonnes per capita, up 19.3 percent since Kyoto's 1997 ratification – but China is the new number one. Their citizens' per capita emissions are less than the US numbers at 4.8 percent, but the country total emissions are now more than those of the United States at nearly 6.3 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2007.

Other industrialized countries come in much lower than our Canadian numbers – like Denmark, for example, at just 10.4 tonnes per capita, actually down half a percent since 1997. What could account for the difference?

That's a question that economist and author Jeff Rubin looked at in his new book, The End of Growth . In an excerpt that ran in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, Rubin investigated Denmark's reputation as an environmental leader. On first impressions – literally, as Rubin recalled seeing an impressive swath of offshore wind turbines while flying into Cophenhagen – it would seem that the country embrace of wind power is behind its relatively small carbon footprint. But as it turns out, those windmills, now part of Denmark's important energy technology exports, only provide 20 percent of the country's power. The other 80 percent, the same percentage as in China, actually comes from coal – a fuel 20 percent dirtier than oil and two times as dirty as natural gas.

What's different about Denmark?

The real difference maker for Denmark, Rubin argues, is that they use so much less energy overall – because it makes financial sense for them to do so. We could do this in North America too, he says, and see similar results.

For example, in Copenhagen energy for homes costs 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, two to three times the average North American price. Consequently, Danes have a strong incentive to conserve energy at home, in order to keep their power bills down – one that we simply don't have here, where energy reserves are strong and power is relatively cheap.

Denmark is also known for being a cyclist's dream, with some of the best bike lanes in the world in Copenhagen, and biking from place to place instead of driving is common. Rubin points out that this is in part because the costs of owning and operating a car are simply more expensive for Danes. As with all of Europe, fuel prices are higher than in North America, but more importantly simply owning a car is costlier – the Danish pay a tax of up to 180 percent, depending on engine size, of a vehicle's sticker price.

Japan's new passion for setsuden

Denmark's policies are born out of necessity – they don't have their own significant hydrocarbon reserves to rely on, and importing fuel is expensive. Japan is undertaking energy conservation efforts for the same reason due to the country's decision to shut down its nuclear reactors, which provided nearly a third of its power until recently. As a result, Japan is now nationally focused on electricity conservation or setsuden , with efforts ranging from leaving AC off in office buildings to encouraging citizens to cut their energy consumption at home by up to 20 percent.

Because Denmark lacks both a significant energy or auto sector, politicians there don't have to worry about pleasing those industries, giving them more freedom to enact the policies that have kept the country energy consumption low. In Canada and the United States, the oil and auto industries are both subsidized by governments; however, until political will to make changes comes along, individuals still have the power to change their behaviors to mirror those of the Danes and Japanese – and that means economic savings in this part of the world as well.

How to cut your own carbon footprint

There are many ways to cut your personal carbon footprint . Use less energy at home: keep your thermostat lower, use your AC less often, and install a thermostat timer so you aren't wasting power at night or when you aren't home. Look into retrofitting your windows to make them more energy efficient, preventing you from losing heat or cool air. When you need new appliances, look for Energy Star models. And take a hint from the Danish by reducing your reliance on driving. If you have two cars for your household, try to get down to one instead. Consider taking public transit to work instead of commuting by car, or look into options for carpooling. And get a bike – you'll save money on gas and get some extra exercise.

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