Data bias and the politics of fear have been poor enablers in persuading people on the dangers of climate change. Take Michael Mann’s flawed ‘hockey stick’ climate field reconstruction model. It neither converted non-believers to the cause nor moved those sitting on the fence to take action. People today are more concerned about the now of economics than the long-term impact of the environment.
Those politicians who prefer to label, chastise, and scapegoat individuals and entire industries have done little to move the needle of public opinion. Carbon caps and carbon tax might be a stick to force change in consumption behavior, but the sum of those mandates does not equal innovation.
Collectively, they are not going to prevent the world’s population from growing another three billion people by 2050, or slow the stresses put on natural resources by a more industrial, globalized economy, or halt the construction of the more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants soon to come online. China and India are building three quarters of those new plants, as their economies emerge and modernize.
What can we do?
As far as pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are concerned, the sky has no borders. The way we have lived and grown the past 150 years does threaten the environment, has accelerated the extinction of species, and will lead to unintended consequences, such as the acidification of oceans, which will further pressure marine life in the over-harvested seas.
While the frequency of 100-year storms—Sandy and Nemo come to mind—appear to be the new normal, the small country of Denmark isn’t talking green, it’s doing it. And what’s remarkable for this first generation Norwegian-American, the Danes have focused on sustainable solutions for the past forty years, from building and operating biogas plants to supporting the largest concentration of bioenergy R&D in the world.
A Green Visit to New York City
On a cold winter morning—true Scandinavian weather—Denmark’s Minister of Trade and Investment, Pia Olsen Dyhr, met with a contingent of U.S.-based Danish engineers and New York City’s Director for Long-term Planning and Sustainability, Sergej Mahnovski, and the Executive Dean at Parsons New School for Design, Joel Towers.
The walk and photo op took place in Battery Park City (est. 1968), the oldest, greenest urban neighborhood in the United States. The conversation revolved around Hurricane Sandy and how coastal cities like New York and those in Denmark can prepare for the rising sea level caused by climate change.
Mr. Mahnovski told the minister, “New York is finally bringing a third water tunnel online (from the reservoirs of Westchester County to the city) after decades of planning and construction deep underground.”
As a project, New York’s Third Water Tunnel was commissioned in 1953, began construction in 1970, and will be finally completed in 2020.
A massive project like that gives new meaning to long-term planning. And such forward-seeing planning is required for the reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“The mayor’s office and Governor Cuomo are evaluating neighborhoods that were destroyed in the storm, that will be vulnerable in the next one, in a plan to buy them back from the residents,” Mahnovski said.
Mindful of the rising seas, he went on to explain that the levee system used in Holland to protect New York Harbor outside the Verrazano Bridge would, “push back the seas and flood the Rockaways and Staten Island even worse,” he said.
Beyond the multi-billion price tag of such a project, it doesn’t provide enough ROI to consider. That money would be better served to harden the power infrastructure and facilities to prepare the city for the next superstorm.
Flanked by Program Manager for DHI Water and Environment, Bo Juza, who has worked on FEMA disaster projects for more than a dozen years, and Jens O. Hansen, CEO of COWI North America Energy, which helped the city the day after the hurricane with marine divers inspecting piers, ferry slips, and the ships, Minister Olsen Dyhr discussed green technology and the importance to share and collaborate on a global level to mitigate the effects of a warming planet.
In 2008, Denmark formed the Danish Climate Commission on the Climate Change Policy. Ten scientists were tasked to write a green report on climate change adoption, agriculture, the economy, and transportation. Two years later they produced the report, Green Energy – the Road to a Danish Energy System with Fossil Fuels.
Quite ambitious for a nation that has made a living the past fifty years in shipping and North Sea oil and gas. But if any country is up to the challenge, Denmark is more than capable with its education system, focus and discipline, and willingness to collaborate with other companies and nations on R&D projects around biodiesel production from algae, among other uses of the sea-kelp and nonflowering plants. The minister understands the need for Denmark to adapt in a warmer, wetter world of the 21st century, with her country being flat and the highest point being a little more than 500 feet above sea level.
Interview with Denmark’s Minister
After the meeting, I was invited to interview Minister Pia Olsen Dyhr. We sat in the Danish consulate vehicle to stay out of the cold. Well traveled, warm, personable, and passionate about her homeland and sustainability, she commented on the challenges that the European Union economic crisis has had on the transportation sector in particular and R&D on clean technology in general.
“European growth is important for developing sustainable solutions,” she said. “How can we help? We can help by exporting our know-how: Water solutions, renewable energy, biogas, different products that will help the environment. In the past year, I have traveled to China, Taiwan, Korea and Australia to exchange ideas, look at trade and investment opportunities.
“Our long-term green goal for Denmark is to reduce CO2 forty (40%) percent by 2020 and be fossil fuel free by 2050.”
Recently, Denmark launched a research consortium with three European companies, AlgaFuel, Algae Biotech, and Novagreen with a two-prong approach for developing carbon-neutral products and technologies. First, photobioreactors will test strains of the autotrophic organisms, which contain chlorophyll, whether in the uni- or multicellular forms. Next, by establishing a state of the art photobioreactor system, Denmark will provide “trans-European training for a network of PhD students” a press release read.
Beyond green technology, the minister has been exporting Danish expertise in other sectors, such as healthcare, social and welfare, and sustainable food products, while seeking investments to spur job creation and to achieve “smart growth.”
In the 2010 Legatum’s Prosperity Index, Denmark had “the second lowest level of inequality in economic development.” Compared to the U.S., wage inequality had spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement and ongoing resentment for many in the jobless recovery well into this year.
Like other Scandinavian countries, Denmark might be better known for on food, clothing, and happiness. But by going through their own financial crisis in 1993, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark got their balance sheet in order and created a realistic energy plan.
Today, not saddled with the debt of the swaths of unemployment of their EU neighbors to the south, in an early February article the Economist called Scandinavia the “Nordic Supermodel” society. Something for the rest of the world to learn from, experiment, and emulate.
Without referring to that article, Minister Pia Olsen Dyhr turned to me, and said, “Green, sustainable technology. We have to be known for exporting something.”
Fossil fuel free is an ambitious goal, even for Denmark. But with forward thinking, flexible politicians like Ms. Olsen Dyhr, Denmark has a great chance to pull off such green success.