Carbon 400 and How Denmark Became an Emissions Cutting Success
The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide hit a record 400 parts per million in May, 2012, a milestone that should send a chill of concern through anyone who is remotely concerned about the disturbing ramifications of global warming. Little solace should come from the fact that this concentration of greenhouse gas was only reached in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Iceland, Norway, Greenland and Mongolia, and will dip slightly as plants in the Northern Hemisphere absorbs some of it during the summer months of growth.
As for the rest of the planet, however, levels have risen during the last year from 391 to 395 ppm, up from the pre-industrial reference number of 280 ppm. We are now at the highest known concentration in at least 800,000 years, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado. The rest of the planet will probably reach the 400 ppm milestone within two years as carbon dioxide concentrations increase and equalize. The NOAA reports that the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest ever recorded in human history. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency recently announced that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2011 hit a record high of 34.8 billion tonnes, up 3.2 percent from 2010.
For those who are counting carbon, these numbers are dismaying because they are the definitive indicators of how poorly humanity is collectively addressing the climate change issue. Normal weather, reliable food production, community safety, political stability and almost everything environmental is linked directly or indirectly to these carbon dioxide levels. Efforts to date are not even slowing the increase in atmospheric CO2, let alone reducing the concentrations to the 350 ppm considered safe for stable climate conditions.
The exasperating element in this whole sorry process is that we know how to fix the problem and we have enough of the technology to do it. All we lack is the political will.
As models of contrast, Canada is an example of dismal procrastination and denial while Denmark represents exemplary and pragmatic effort. Instead of reducing emissions from the 1990 reference level and despite its pledge to do so, Canada has increased its emissions by 30 percent and is not even expected to reach its diluted 2020 target. In contrast, Denmark’s emissions are now 13 percent below its 1990 levels and the country is taking a leading role in wind technology, energy efficiencies and functional solutions. Canada’s failure to act is a powerful factor in the cynical and gloomy mood pervading the country — the only real antidote for pessimism is to acknowledge a problem and confront it with constructive effort.
Jeff Rubin, who left the CIBC bank as its chief economist for World Markets to analyze the direction of future socio-economic structure in an age of rising energy costs, has included Denmark’s success in his latest book, The End of Growth. How is this country accomplishing what Canada is not? The answer is surprising and obvious.
Denmark is thought of as the “wind technology capital of the world”. Indeed, it may be. But its thousands of huge turbines produce only 20 percent of its power. The rest comes from coal. Yes, coal, the fossil fuel that is 20 percent dirtier than oil and twice as polluting as natural gas. Granted, the coal is combusted in state-of-the-art facilities and the excess heat is used to warm buildings. But that’s not how Denmark’s has accomplished what Canada cannot — or will not.
Denmark’s secret, according to Rubin, is carbon taxes. The simple pressure of price on carbon dioxide-emitting goods and services induces Danes to reduce electricity consumption, to buy small cars, to build efficient houses, to bicycle, to favour local over imported food, and to shop for low-carbon products. Amazing. And the money raised goes to increasing efficiencies that further reduce carbon emissions. This little country has found a solution that is elegant, practical and effective, one that must lift a heavy moral weight from the Danish conscience and replace the load of guilt with an immense national pride — very unlike Canadians who live with a shameful international reputation darkened by the stigma of being a global environmental laggard and pariah.
For Canada, the carbon tax solution has been recommended multiple times by the government’s own National Roundtable On the Economy and Environment, an organization created in 1988 precisely for the purpose of finding common agreement between seemingly opposing interests. It was founded on the principle that “a modern economy” and “a sustainable environment” are “mutually reinforcing.” And this is one of the organizations, along with important climate science, that the Harper government is eliminating as superfluous.
If a government intends to deny the facts of science and repudiate the relationship between economics and the environment, then an image is emerging of leadership wholly disconnected from fundamental realities. All that remains for Canadians is bewilderment, exasperation and the haunting suspicion that their future is being charted by an ideology that is incomprehensible, myopic and ominous.