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Denmark Plans to Be Coal-Free in 10 Years, Totally Clean-Powered in 35

The tiny Scandinavian country is paving the way for the clean energy revolution.

by Brian Merchant
Oct 30 2014, 7:05pm

Image: Kat Skeie, Greenpeace

Denmark is a small, rich, very industrialized nation—it's home to corporate behemoths like Maersk and Lego—that also happens to an unparalleled pioneer in clean energy.

Earlier this year, the nation's leadership announced that it planned to run its economy entirely on renewable power by 2050, and would phase out coal by 2030. Months later, the Danish government reported that wind was about to become far cheaper than fossil fuels. This week, it said it'd like to try to do even better, and kill coal in ten years, not fifteen.

"I have asked my office to investigate what could be done to stop burning coal in just ten years," Rasmus Petersen, Denmark's climate and energy minister, told a local newspaper. Denmark has been a leader in wind power for decades, after investing in the the technology in the wake of the 1976 global oil crisis.

If you live in the US, or places like Canada or Australia, this sort of progressive energy policy probably strikes you as mind-bogglingly audacious. Many leaders in those countries are still clinging to coal and touting the benefits of 'bridge' fossil fuels like natural gas. Only a handful of European nations—Germany, Norway, Spain, Italy—and many more developing countries are comparably bullish on clean power.

To highlight this disparity, and to remind the world that an aggressive embrace of renewable energy is not only possible but plausible, Greenpeace released a media briefing and staged a demonstration in Copenhagen, where the world's leading climate scientists are gathered to finalize the latest IPCC report, which is basically the climate change bible for international policy makers.

It was, as far as Greenpeace actions go, pleasant and participatory—activists teamed with the owners of wind power cooperatives to project striking designs onto the iconic structures.

Image: Greenpeace

"The turbines looked fantastic and went on the evening news here," Kat Skeie, Greenpeace Nordic's communications officer, told me in an email. 

The media briefing, meanwhile, highlighted the impressive clean energy goals that Denmark has already made legally binding domestically:

  • 100 percent renewable energy by 2050
  • 100 percent renewable energy in electricity and heating by 2035
  • A complete phase-out of coal by 2030
  • 40 percent reduction of domestic greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 by 2020
  • 50 percent of electricity demands met by wind by 2020

"Yes, Denmark is officially on track to 100 percent renewable energy in 2050," Skeie told me. "And we are ahead on several sub-targets." Coal is being replaced by a combination of wind, solar, and biomass, along with a smart grid that better accommodate more intermittent generation.

The latest IPCC synthesis is likely to contain prognostications that suggest economies reduce their fossil fuel use nearly to zero if we hope to avoid more than 2˚C of warming, a level of heating which would prove an existential threat to modern civilization.

Denmark's clean energy roadmap is a useful reminder that it can be done—but it's not the only such blueprint out there. In the past Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson has told me that massive economies like California can and will run entirely on clean energy—and his own peer-reviewed roadmaps demonstrate how.

"There's about a 95 percent chance that [California] will be powered by 100 percent clean energy," he said. Jacobson, who also touts a global roadmap to clean energy dominion, is considered extremely bullish. But nationwide commitments like Denmark's remind us that it is entirely plausible to believe we can indeed decouple our economies from fossil fuels and still thrive.

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