With Earth Day tomorrow, now is a good time to reflect on the current state of things. Today, with CO2 levels at 385 parts per million, the disruptive impacts of climate change are already apparent. The Arctic ice cap, which has shrunk by half its size since the 1950s, is melting at an annual rate of 24,000 square miles, meaning that an expanse of ice the size of West Virginia is disappearing each year.
This year, the world is expected to burn through some 31 billion barrels of oil, 6 billion tons of coal and 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The combustion of these fossil fuels will produce, in aggregate, some 400 quadrillion British thermal units of energy. It will also yield around 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Next year, global consumption of fossil fuels is expected to grow by about 2 percent, meaning that emissions will rise by more than half a billion tons, and the following year consumption is expected to grow by yet another 2 percent.
Björn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), has overseen this global coalition of some 200 leading corporations since 1995.
“The question I get from around the world is: Has sustainable development fallen off the table given there is a recession? My response is the opposite,” he said last week. “What has happened is that sustainable development has come to a tipping point, in my view, and that the focus on the strategic aspect on sustainable development, climate change, and so on — that focus is even stronger than before. It’s stronger in companies, and it’s stronger in governments. The recession is not really a barrier or a blockage.”
In Forbes magazine’s “Best Countries For Business, 2009″ published last month, the No. 2 pick is the good ol’ USA, but Forbes’ No. 1 country for business — for the second year in a row — is uber-green Denmark! Glad to see that someone at Forbes realizes aggressive government action on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon caps are good for business. Danish Climate Minister Connie Hedegaard said, “The creation of a stable framework for investments in renewable energy is in everyone’s interest … Denmark is a world leader and we intend to continue in the same mode.” Maybe us Americans could learn a thing or two from the Danes. After all, we’re not used to getting the silver medal in international competitions.
Denmark aims to increase its use of renewable energy to 20 percent of its overall energy mix by the end of 2011, up from 15 percent today. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s liberal-conservative government (the liberal in Denmark’s liberal-conservative party is a center right party, not a progressive party in the U.S. definition of the word liberal), along with most other parliamentary parties, agreed late Thursday on the new target, the Climate and Energy Ministry said in a statement. The Danish agreement calls for better subsidies for developing energy from wind, biomass and biogas, and for two new wind parks to be built off the Scandinavian country’s coast by 2012. Cars running on hydrogen fuel will be exempt from taxes while the tax-free status of electric cars will be extended until 2012, according to the statement.
I had the opportunity to visit Denmark last year, and I was very impressed by this small Scandinavian country. I split my time between Copenhagen and Denmark’s Renewable Energy Island, Samsø. Samsø Island is located in the North Sea, east of the Jutland Peninsula, which makes it smack in the center of the country and, at the same time, in the middle of nowhere. Home to 4,300 residents (mostly farmers and fishermen), the island is unique because it was the first to declare its intent to rely on renewable energy for 100 percent of the island’s needs.
It all started in 1997 when Denmark held a national competition. The selected community would be home to a one-of-a-kind experiment: The winner would be expected to convert all its energy supply to 100 percent renewable energy within 10 years. Because it is an island that has no conventional energy resources of its own, Samsø was an ideal choice for such a controlled experiment. When our group visited the island, we were fortunate to get a tour from Søren Hermansen, director of Samsø’s Energy Institute. The personable and entertaining Hermansen explained how, without any direct subsidy from the Danish government, the islanders built a 50 million Euro energy system. Eighty percent of the capital was raised from local investors, relying only on Danish laws and regulations.
They heat their homes with grass burned in a central heating system. Their electric come from the wind, and they power their vehicles on biofuel which they also grow. Since 1998, Samsø began converting its energy into renewable energy, and has been so successful that 100 percent of its electricity comes from wind power and 75 percent of its heat comes from solar power and biomass energy. With the completion of an offshore wind farm comprised of 10 beautiful turbines, Samsø has become carbon neutral. The energy produced by these wind turbines compensates for the island’s transportation emissions, including the ferries, and all other non-renewable energy sources. In fact, sometimes Samsø’s wind turbines produce so much energy that the island sells it back to the mainland! The residents of Samsø that I spoke to were clearly proud of their accomplishment. All the same, they insisted on their ordinariness. They were, they noted, not wealthy, nor were they especially well educated or idealistic. They weren’t even terribly adventuresome.
“We are a conservative farming community” is how one Samsinger put it. “We are only normal people,” he said. “We are not some special people.” Ordinary people doing extraordinary things — that’s all it takes.
Ben Eckold is a business senior, the former president of the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.