Updated: Jun 16
Denmark is Green! (and not just because it’s mostly farmland)
According to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), Denmark is the third most environmentally sustainable country in the world. Produced jointly by Yale University and Columbia University and in collaboration with the World Economic Forum (WEF), the EPI seeks to measure the environmental performance of 180 countries, and provide insight and guidance towards achieving better environmental policies and practices. The EPI measures components such as environmental health and ecosystem vitality, which can be further broken down into ten issue categories not limited to: water & sanitation, air quality, biodiversity & habitat, and climate & energy. After intensive research and careful examination, the EPI allots official scores and full reports to the 180 participating countries with aims of encouraging more sustainable policies and practices.
The most recent EPI report ranks Switzerland as the most environmentally sustainable country with a score of 87.42, positions France in second place with a score of 83.95, and grants the Denmark third place spot with a score of 81.60. For my curious friends from the United States- we earned 27th place with a score of 71.18; it should also be noted that the US received the lowest score out of all European and North American countries. That sucks!
Though this report provides invaluable quantitative evidence of a country’s environmental health, it fails to provide qualitative support explaining specifically why each country received their specific rankings. In this post, I seek to address three major reasons why Denmark may have received the score it did!
3 Major Ways Denmark is Sustainable
1. Green Energy
Denmark has become one of the world’s leaders in clean energy. According to the Danish Energy Agency, Danish CO2 emissions related to energy consumption have dropped 36% since the 1990s; and with current efforts, it's estimated that emissions will be about 40% lower by 2020 which completely surpasses Denmark’s EU commitment of 34%. Though this is great progress, the Danes are not satisfied; in fact, both the public and private sectors are committed to solely utilizing renewable energy sources by 2050- that’s a massive goal for such a small country! But, if anyone can do it- it’s the Danes.
Today, approximately 30% of Denmark’s energy comes from renewable energy. While Denmark is best-known for its wind energy, bioenergy accounts for 2/3 of the renewable energy Denmark produces, followed by wind energy, solar energy, and geothermal energy. 🌎💨🔥
Denmark’s clean energy movement can be traced back to the first oil crisis in 1973; as a response, they started implementing new and innovative ways to produce energy, including wind turbines. From Denmark's first wind farm in 1991, to today's 4,000 turbines onshore and 600 turbines offshore, the Danes are really blowing others away with their wind energy endeavorers. And let me tell you- it really is a windy country- how else do you think Danes look so glamorous riding their bikes throughout Copenhagen? It's because they have their own personal wind machines to get that hair-flowing look like Beyonce! Anyway, Danish wind turbines sometimes produce more energy than the domestic demand- particularly during the summer months. And this is BIG business for Denmark; not only is wind energy great for the environment, but it's also a major contributor to the Danish economy. In 2017, over 16.7 billion USD worth of wind technology was exported from Denmark- not bad for a country of 5.7 million! Overall, countries from all around the world look to Denmark for the latest wind energy practices.
Though wind energy is what Denmark is most famous for in the environmental sector, bioenergy is actually the most widely used renewable energy source in the country. But what is bioenergy? Bioenergy is simply the conversion of solid, liquid, and gaseous biomass resources to generate energy. (i.e: 💩) The most common forms of bioenergy in Denmark are: combustion, biogas, gasification, and liquid biofuels. I find it exciting to see that the Danish government gives grants, subsidies, and other incentives to companies and plants who switch to biogas. For that reason, many Danish power plants are saying goodbye fossil fuels and hello to bioenergy sources like: wood pellets, and wood chips, and straw (oh my!) thus, contributing to their overall sustainable energy success.
To me, exploring wind and bioenergy in Denmark makes sense- it's a super windy country with a lot of farm land. Done. What I find a bit comical- yet intriguing- is that Denmark is also at the forefront with solar energy! I mean- have you been to Denmark? Sun is as fleeting as an unsocialized cat on a rainy day. But, you can't stop those Danes from trying- AND succeeding. According to the International Energy Agency, "75% of the world's total area allocated to solar heating plants is located in Denmark." And solar energy is not just reserved for solar plants; in fact, many Danish families (and one of my host families!) choose to add solar panels to their roofs as an extra source of energy. During the summer time, they get enough daylight (17 hours, no less!) to sell their extra energy to the Danish energy grid. How is this possible? It turns out, solar panels don't actually need direct sunlight; instead, they just need daylight (score one for the Danes!) In all seriousness though, solar energy just adds the cherry on top of an already sustainable Danish sundae.
It's impossible to discuss Danish sustainability without mentioning Samsø. Samsø is not only an adorable island off the coast of Denmark, but it is also 100% self-sufficient with clean energy. At just 49 square miles and home to around 3,724 residents, Samsø is a small, yet determined community- wholly dedicated to reducing their environmental impact. Let's discuss why; in 1997, Samsø won a competition put on by the Danish government that sought to make the island a quintessential model of sustainability. In a ten year period, the island made major shifts towards more sustainable practices including incorporating a wind turbine park to the area, and having its residents insulate their houses. In 2007, the island achieved its goal and became entirely self-sustainable! Today, 100% of the island's electricity comes from wind energy, and 75% of its heat comes from solar and bioenergy. Some days, Samsø even produces a surplus of energy, which then contributes to Denmark's main electrical grid. Even though Samsø is small, the island offers major sustainable methods and inspiration for other countries to emulate. I think we all can learn a thing or two from this little island!
Overall, it's clear to see that Denmark is a pioneer in the realm of clean energy. Are there other reasons why Denmark is the third most sustainable country in the world? Absolutely.
Owning a car in Denmark is very expensive- and that's on purpose. The Danish government has placed high taxes on all things automobile to encourage more sustainable methods of transportation i.e. biking and public transportation. Previous tax rates have been as high as 180% on imported cars and petrol prices hover around $6.75 to $7.00 per gallon. For those who do end up purchasing a car- you pay a BIG price for an often liiittle car. Simon and I like to call these "cute cars." These cars are 2 door, petite little blobs that are not unlike the plastic cars you use in the "Game of Life" (except, sadly, those seem to be modeled after bulky station wagons from the 80's, so never mind). We hope to be cute car owners one day-perhaps a VW UP, or my favorite... The Fiat 500 😍.
Just a little price comparison for you. The 2019 model in Denmark is approximately $19,332, whereas in the US, it is just $16,495. With that price difference, you could buy a questionable used car on the side- or even better- you could put that money towards getting the big brother model: the Fiat 500x. This car is a sporty American sized SUV, and even has action shot photos in snowy mountains- thus proving its value. Anyway, I digress. Owning a car (even a super cute teeny-tiny car) in Denmark is expensive.
Public transportation on the other hand, is much more affordable than driving- and it's popular! People of all walks of life- students, families, doctors, the queen (okay maybe not the queen) happily use public transportation, and there is no stigma associated with it. In the two cute suburban US towns I've lived in, public transportation was a far less sexy option than driving a car. But in all fairness, the usual bunch of PT users where I've lived were a bit wacky so, maybe it's with good reason. Think- going to your local thrift store and picturing the original owners of the scratch-and-sniff clown figurine - those are the people riding public transportation in my old communities. That's not to say that larger cities in the US don't have good public transportation- they do! I just picked two locations that breed odd public transportation users.🚌
Public transportation in Denmark is not only enjoyable for everyone, but it's also easy to use- and that says a lot coming from me. For those of you who know me, you know that I have no sense of direction. A few year's back I was training for a half marathon while traveling around Europe on a bus (a story for another time). And let me tell you- I got lost on every. single. long run that I did. I got lost in Italy.. I got lost in France... Czech Republic... the list is tireless (much like my ability to get lost).
There is a life-saving app called "Rejseplanen" which exists solely to hold your hand as you try to get from point A to point B. It tells you what bus to take, which platform your train will arrive at, the amount of stops you need to stay on, and it even gives you a back massage. As my adorable cocker spaniel isn't here with me in Denmark, I'd have to say that Rejseplanen is my best friend- and the environment's.
If you're too fit to drive a car or take public transportation, then you'll choose the most environmentally-friendly mode of transportation Denmark has to offer: bikes. Here are a few fun-facts brought to you by the Cycling Embassy of Denmark (yes, that's an actual thing).
9/10 Danes own a bike
Every day, Danes in Copenhagen bike the equivalent of 35 trips around the world.
Danes who bike collectively experience 1.1 million fewer sick days than those who don't
Cyclists reduce 20,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year
Bikes are super cute (see evidence below)
3. The Very Danish Motto: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
In addition to clean energy and eco-friendly transportation, Danes contribute to the health of their country through their daily recycling actions. An obvious place to start is with plastic bags. In 1993, Denmark was the first country in the world to place a tax on single use plastic bags. Today, plastic bags cost around 50 cents a piece, and are made with sturdier plastic to encourage more than once use. Many Danes choose to bring their own reusable bags to avoid paying an unnecessary expense, and to do their part cutting down single use plastic waste.
*** An unsolicited but (somewhat) related story for you*** When I was a Danish exchange student back in 2012, I decided to treat my host family to dinner. I walked to the store, bought some groceries, and was feeling pretty good about life, until- I not only forgot to bring a reusable bag- but I also forgot to buy a plastic one. Now, in Danish grocery stores, they have teeny plastic bags for carrying fruit and veggies, so I decided to get resourceful and just use those. This was a bad decision. Halfway up the road, all groceries fell out- just like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. My solution was to throw the groceries I couldn't carry into a bush, and come back for them later. THIS is what happens when I try to cook.
Another way (and my favorite way!) that Danes recycle is with fashion! Second hand stores and flea markets are über popular in Scandinavia- and in my heart. Almost every weekend during the summer months, major cities will host fashion flea markets where stylish gals can set up a little rack of clothes, and sell their pre-loved items for fair prices. And let me tell you- these girls aren't selling 8-year-old Forever 21 T-shirts; instead, many pieces are by Scandinavian designers or are really unique vintage treasures. You may have noticed, but I'm completely smitten with this concept! For that reason, I plan to write an entirely separate post about this topic! 🎀 But for now, just know that second hand fashion SIGNIFICANTLY reduces carbon production, water consumption, and has tremendous social and economic benefits as well.
Danes not only use less plastic bags and prioritize sustainable fashion, but they also are expert recyclers. Of course, you have your typical glass, metal, and plastic waste- that's pretty standard. But Danes aren't your average recyclers- they ARE the third most sustainable population, after all! To start, they have something called "restaffald" which is any plastic waste left over after recycling. 1/3 of Danish restaffald is processed at incineration plants before becoming an energy source for heating and electricity. From there, you have "Madaffald" which is the Danish term for compost; this waste becomes biogas and fertilizer. What's quite cool is that most Danish kommunes (counties) even provide its citizens with special compostable bags to enclose compostable waste in- and surprise! They're green. 🌿 After that, you have paper waste, packeting waste, and bulky waste; and let's not forget garden waste, pharmaceutical waste, and clothing waste, too. If you are as organized as Marie Kondo, you'll have a hay-day sorting and depositing your waste at one of Denmark's Genbrugplads, or recycling centers. Here, you can sort your way to happiness and sustainable living at its purest! Goooooo, Green!
One thing I find interesting is Denmark's Deposit-Refund system. This system provides monetary reimbursement for recycling specific items. The items are divided into three categories: A) less than 1 liter glass bottles aluminum cans; B) less than 1 liter plastic bottles; and C) 1-20 liter bottles or cans. Monetary reimbursement can very between 1-3 kroner depending on the item. The catch is that the bottles can only be produced in Denmark, otherwise they're worthless. Many families will save the ABC products and take them to their local bottle deposit which are located in various grocery stores. From there, they will get a little receipt that allows them to put the money towards their purchase, or receive cash back. This bottle deposit system-and the overall Danish recycling culture- just adds to the already extensive list of reasons why Denmark deserves its #3 spot.
If you're not convinced that Denmark deserves the honor of being the third most sustainable country in the world, then take a look at this sweet, little video created by the official website of Denmark. It discusses a few ways Denmark is leading sustainable practices in clean energy, transportation, and green construction.
For so many reasons, I am impressed by Denmark and its tireless efforts in helping the United Nations achieve its 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. I believe the rest of the world can learn a great deal from Danish policies and efforts in becoming more environmentally sustainable; between Denmark's clean energy, their preferred methods of transportation, and the Danish people's daily actions, I believe Denmark has earned its third place spot on the 2018 Environmental Performance Index.
Thank you to everyone who read this post! In my next post, I'll address one way Denmark can become more sustainable through the lens of the Roskilde Festival. Stay tuned! (:
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