I have mentioned Denmark here at PlanetThoughts.org a few times over the last year. Why? Because they of all the more "developed" countries have been moving towards an enlightened energy and environmental position for the longest time, since the mid-1970s. We should all be interested in what that effort consisted of, and what the results have been for that effort.
Due to the gas embargoes and resulting shortages in 1973, Denmark started their major overhaul of energy and environment in 1976. Here are some of the steps taken (see Neatorama) then and more recently:
- Strict energy-efficiency standards were placed on all buildings.
- Gas and automobiles were heavily taxed (Today new cars are taxed at more than 105% of the cost of the car.)
- "District heating systems" were implemented throughout the country, reusing normally wasted heat produced by power plants by piping it directly into homes. Today more than 60% of Danish homes are heated this way.
- The government invested heavily in clean and renewable energy systems, especially wind power. Today 21% of Denmark's energy production comes from wind farms. On top of that, they lead the world in wind-power technology - another product to export. The industry has created more than 20,000 jobs.
- Rebate campaigns helped people buy more energy-efficient - and therefore more expensive - home appliances. Today more than 95% of new appliances bought in Denmark have an "A" efficiency rating. ("A" is the best; "G" is the worst.)
- They started drilling for - and finding - more oil and natural gas within their own waters in the North Sea. (Showing that no plan is perfect, these efforts have long been opposed by environmentalists.)
- In 2005 the government committed $1 billion to develop and integrate better solar, tidal, and fuel-cell technology.
| Danish unemployment rate (click for larger image)
The standard of living in Denmark in my opinion (such an evaluation depends on one's priorities regarding what contributes to quality of life) exceeds that in the United States. Although people are taxed more than in the United States, they have all their health costs covered, free high-quality university education, more vacation time from work than Americans, and guaranteed pensions. The unemployment rate has also sank steadily for the last 15 years.
|United States unemployment rate (click for larger image)
There has been much discussion as well, and this is a large topic, on how one measures economic success. One common measurement is Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the way GDP is calculated omits many critical factors that need to be weighed as we move into the future: energy security (stability of supply), security from terrorism and from error (e.g. nuclear power plants), environmental pollution rates, and national child mortality, full life health, and life expectancy. The GDP also omits other even less "tangible" but vital factors: happiness, political stability and government effectiveness (that is, effectiveness in serving the true needs of the county's residents), and psychological security, such as the ability to be sure that healthcare is available and that retirement will be affordable.
In Denmark, as far as I know, no older person lives on cat food as they may do in the United States. No older person has to choose between health-sustaining medicine and food. They have guaranteed pensions that support living costs, and free healthcare. One day, assuming we live to a ripe age, we will all need to provide for ourselves. Should that not be done with dignity and safety? Isn't it a scandal that some adults who have worked all their lives have to live in extreme poverty in their old age? Is that not part of our "national wealth" or lack of it? To me, the answer is the most basic of common sense.
In terms of life expectancy, the Western European nations overall slightly exceed the United States, by one to two years, although Denmark shows a life expectancy of 76.5 versus the United States expectancy of 77.1 years. Canada (79.4) and Australia (79.8) exceed the United States life expectancy by a marked gap.
Moving on to the other end of life, that is, going in reverse order, how many parents would mind government-provided (free or highly subsidized), quality childcare where children are provided educational stimulation while the parents work, as most European countries provide? If a good education in a university was free, would that not lift a major burden from most parents? We must not think that only a small number of Americans suffer from all these worries. Even in relatively good times, before the current recession, tens of millions of Americans could not afford health insurance and did not receive quality healthcare. The infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than in Cuba, and of course is higher than in the Western European countries.
I will close with a comment that I offered today at an online discussion (mostly held in 2007) at a philosophy-of-living Web site, where there were many comments debating what we could learn, if anything, from Denmark's experiences:
A good discussion here. I would like to bring this back to what I see as fundamentals. After much reading and study of policies around the world, it becomes clear that we are in for problems with energy supply AND global warming (not to mention food, water, and animal species survival) now and in the near future.
Based on what others have said here, it appears that Denmark still depends somewhat on their own oil and on coal. However, they plan to produce 75% of their energy from wind by 2025. What has my country (the USA) done so far? Nothing significant.
When it all hits the fan (not the wind turbine), what area of the world, what country (if national borders hold up to the stress) will be more stable, one that depends on Russian or Mexican or Nigerian oil, all of them now in decline, or an area that has its own heat and electricity? THAT is the fundamental that is currently somewhat hidden. The problem is that when shortages occur in the not-too-distant future (5 years? 10 years?) it will be impossible to suddenly shift to renewable electric power that is not even available.
Those who burn animal fat, who use coal but also use the "waste" heat, and who have a plan toward totally renewable, domestic energy are WAY ahead of the rest of us. I would gladly drive an older car to know that my family, my neighbors, and myself, will not freeze to death or starve due to no energy for heat or transport. Where is OUR master plan? Where was it 30 years ago when Denmark started theirs? Nowhere to be seen... but maybe the USA will get going now. Maybe.
What do you think? Can the United States learn from the efforts of Denmark as well as other European nations, that have tried different approaches ranging from wind (Denmark) to solar (Germany) to nuclear (France), and other approaches? Is the United States so different, so wonderful and unique, that we should be isolated from the experiences of every other country in the world? And going beyond the immediate question of energy policy, should the United States citizens be concerned that our quality of life, our "non-negotiable" (George Bush) American way of life, will be destroyed if we allow government to provide guidance and policies that will attempt to lead us into a more reliable and possibly happier future?
I suggest that the answer is "No". I also propose that we need to get very serious about solving our problems while we have a chance. The next Middle Eastern or Russian oil embargo, or their own shortages leading to failure to export energy, could be just around the corner. World oil production is at best at its peak for all time, and in likelihood is already declining, slowly for now and more rapidly with each new year, as old oil wells gradually hit bottom. New oil discoveries have been plunging in quantity since 1970. That being the case, what are we waiting for in developing a clean energy plan for the future?
A good article on Denmark's policies and practice, in addition to the above links: