COPENHAGEN — As I listened to Denmark’s minister of economic and business affairs describe how her country used higher energy taxes to stimulate innovation in green power and then recycled the tax revenues back to Danish industry and consumers to make it easier for them to make and buy the new clean technologies, it all sounded so, well, intelligent. It sounded as if the Danes looked at themselves after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, found that they were totally dependent on Middle East oil and put in place a long-term strategy to make Denmark energy-secure and start a new industry at the same time.
The more I listened to the Danish minister, Lene Espersen, the more I thought of my own country, where I’ve been told time and again by United States politicians that proposing even a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in gasoline taxes to make America more energy-independent and to stimulate fuel efficiency is “off the table,” an act of sure political suicide.
Not in Denmark. So I asked the Danish minister: “Tell me, what planet are you people from?”
Espersen laughed. But I didn’t. How long are Americans going to go on thinking that they can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things — whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit — are “off the table”? They’ve been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money, loudmouthed talk-show hosts who will flame anyone who crosses them, political consultants who warn that asking Americans to do anything important but hard makes one unelectable, and a citizenry that doesn’t even ask for optimal anymore because it believes that optimal is impossible.
The Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a nonpartisan research center, and the embassy of Denmark recently held a briefing on how Denmark is working to become a low-carbon economy. Here are some highlights:
Although it still generates the majority of its electricity from coal, “since 1990, Denmark has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent. Over the same time frame, Danish energy consumption has stayed constant and Denmark’s gross domestic product has grown by more than 40 percent. Denmark is the most energy-efficient country in the EU; due to carbon pricing, through energy taxes, carbon taxes, the ‘cap and trade’ system, strict building codes and energy-labeling programs. Renewable resources currently supply almost 30 percent of Denmark’s electricity. Wind power is the largest source of renewable electricity, followed by biomass. … Today, Copenhagen puts only 3 percent of its waste into landfills and incinerates 39 percent to generate electricity for thousands of households.”
The Danish government funnels energy tax revenue “back to industry, earmarking much of it to subsidize environmental innovation,” wrote Monica Prasad, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, in a March 25, 2008, essay in The New York Times. Therefore, “Danish firms are pushed away from carbon and pulled into environmental innovation, and the country’s economy isn’t put at a competitive disadvantage.”
It’s why Denmark, with only 5 million people, boasts some of the leading wind, biofuel and heating, cooling and efficiency companies in the world. Energy technologies are now 11 percent of Denmark’s exports. Oil exports and energy taxes also subsidize mass transit and energy efficiency, keeping bills low for Danish consumers.
Americans, the fact that the recent Copenhagen climate summit was a bust in terms of solving our energy/climate problems doesn’t mean that you can ignore those problems — or that you can ignore how individual countries, like Denmark, have effectively addressed them. With unemployment in Denmark at about 4 percent, compared with the United States’ 10 percent, maybe Americans should at least consider putting a few of its ideas on their table.