In the geopolitical contest of looking your very best in a climate crisis, Denmark has successfully branded itself a championship fighter for the climate. In October 2019, the capital city of Copenhagen hosted the C40 Mayors Summit, reminding the 96 other world’s greatest cities to bask in the shadow of its sustainability achievements.
Those achievements include a CO2 emissions reduction of more than 40% from 2005 to 2017, a robust and growing economy, and a transit system that is the envy of bicyclists everywhere. In the words of then lord mayor Frank Jensen, “Many of my [mayoral] colleagues use Copenhagen as a benchmark because we have this plan to be carbon neutral by 2025, and we have a lot of concrete solutions for sustainability.”
The catch? Much of this success relies on burning wood for energy, which emits more CO2 than coal, and simply not counting the emissions.
They aren’t very public about their reliance on wood-burning. The Municipal Plan states the city will “make demands that biomass combined heat and power (CHP) is generated using certified sustainable biomass” (page 34). The Plan mentions biomass just one other time, on page 55: “To promote use of alternative forms of energy manufacturing such as geothermal energy, solar panels, windmills, heating pumps and immersion heaters. As a transitional technology biomass can be used to phase out the use of fossil fuel energy sources.”
In fact domestic heating with wood is responsible for the majority of particulate pollution produced in Denmark. In an effort to reduce air pollution and improve public health, the Plan imagines prohibiting new domestic wood-burning stoves in homes with district heating: “we will work on changing legislation in order to implement a ban.”
Yet there is no acknowledgement of the other harms of burning wood for energy – the climate and forest impacts. Tobias Jespersen and Bente Hessellund Andersen from Danish environmental group NOAH have determined that Copenhagen’s reduction in reported emissions is largely attributed to the switch from coal to biomass, which is counted as “zero-emissions.” And not only that – but the reliance on wood for home heating has increased over the years too – the very policy they now want to reverse.
(data from Eurostat).
Thanks to the RED II and the carbon accounting loophole that lets EU Member States off the hook from reporting biomass emissions, Copenhagen boasts big reductions by burning more wood. The City imports pellets from other Danish municipalities, or from pellet-producing countries (or from the Amazon), and subtracts coal emissions from its ledger without any requirement of accounting for the emissions from wood burning. The more wood Copenhagen burns, the more it can sell so-called green electricity back to its fossil fuel-dependent neighbors.
By using the flawed calculation methods, the City of Copenhagen misleads its citizens to believe that the city is on the track towards CO2-neutrality and, therefore that they do not need to make fundamental changes in their lifestyles. And, at the same time, the city is seen as an example for the world to follow.
But as Greta Thunberg observed for Earth Day,
“The emissions are still there, whether we count them or not. When leaders now present these very insufficient targets, they admit that they are surrendering on the 1.5 degree target. Surrendering on their promises and our futures. Still, as it is now, world leaders get away with it since the gap of awareness is so immense. And this is the heart of the problem. We understand that the world is very complex, that many are trying their best, and that this isn’t going to be easy. And of course these very insufficient targets are better than nothing. But we can’t be satisfied with something just because it’s better than nothing. We have to go further than that. We must believe we can do this. Because we can.”
Tobias Jespersen tobias @ noah.dk
Bente Hessellund Andersen bente @ noah.dk