The country leads on climate policy, but grapples with disagreements over strategy and the pace of change.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent U.S.-based news organisation that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.

People in Denmark have got it good.

With walkable and bikeable cities, awe-inspiring natural beauty and pastries that you want to eat all day long, the country feels almost like a fantasy world.

I traveled there in August to get an up-close look at implementation of ambitious climate policies. It is a country where people mostly agree on big things, like the need for aggressive action to reduce emissions, but often disagree about how to do it, and how quickly.

Here are some further observations:

Walking through Ørsted’s Maze

I visited the main offices of Ørsted, which are located on the outskirts of Copenhagen, to learn more about the global wind energy company.

Ørsted is one of Denmark’s most successful exporters, with offshore and onshore wind farms in Europe, the United States and Taiwan. It has evolved from a partially state-owned oil and gas company with the unfortunate name DONG, for Dansk Olie og Naturgas, or Danish Oil and Natural Gas.

Ørsted’s complex showed the warmth of Danish design, with wood tones and natural light.

One thing that caught my eye was a display in an atrium that looked like a labyrinth, with blue walls and an open ceiling, and white text written on the walls.

“Discover the path to progress this way,” the text near the entrance read.

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An Ørsted spokesman led me through the display, which took about a minute. The text described some of the steps in building a clean energy economy, such as how governments will set up systems to subsidize specific amounts of power capacity.

The piece itself contains shortcuts and doors that allow you to move more quickly toward the end, a conceit that emphasises the stakes of the company’s work. For example, there is a point where you can turn left to remain on the path of a tightly controlled government process, or you can open a swinging door with the text, “Push to enable industry-led green energy buildout.”

Ørsted has a maze display at its Copenhagen offices that helps to tell a story about how the transition to clean energy can move more quickly if companies are able to shorten some of the delays imposed by governments. (Dan Gearino/Inside Climate News)

Ørsted isn’t arguing for governments to remove themselves from the process, but it is making a case for governments to be flexible and move quickly, so that projects don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy.

I thought of this labyrinth a few months later, when Ørsted canceled plans for two offshore wind projects in New Jersey because of rising costs. The projects suffered from long delays in the U.S. government’s approval process, and while waiting, the costs soared due to inflation and rising interest rates.

I don’t think the display was specifically referring to U.S. issues, since these kinds of delays happen in many places. But the point was clear, that the clean energy transition can move forward more efficiently when the key players don’t get stuck in a maze.

Rise of the Electric Taxis

Every time I called a taxi or a rideshare service during my stay, the vehicle that showed up was electric. I wondered if there was a government mandate, but I later realized that it was indicative of the country’s broader shift to EVs.

As a practical matter, this meant I got to test drive, or at least “test passenger” some EVs that aren’t available in the United States, like the Volkswagen ID.5 crossover, which is roomy and has smooth handling.

People who work on climate change and energy policy told me that they regard the country’s shift to EVs as a success, but with reservations. Denmark was slow to embrace EVs prior to  a leap in market share in 2021.

This is different from other aspects of addressing climate change where Denmark was years ahead of most of its peers.

Also, Denmark suffers from comparison with its neighbor Norway, which is beating everyone in its transition to EVs. Plug-in vehicles were 91 percent of the new cars and light trucks sold in Norway in October. That was roughly double the 44 percent share in Denmark.

For perspective, the U.S. share was less than 10 percent in the most recent quarter.

People in Denmark who buy EVs can get a substantial discount on vehicle registration fees, and there are other policies that nudge people toward EVs. The discounts are often significant.

But government policies don’t completely explain the speed of Denmark’s transition to EVs. 

Walking on the sidewalks and riding in vehicles, I could see that EVs were everywhere, and cars with gasoline engines stood out for their noise. A person living here is going to see EVs as a normal and desirable option, as opposed to viewing gasoline as the default.

What Sacrifices Need to Be Made?

Denmark is a small, wealthy country, ranking among the global top 10 in per-capita income. (Denmark ranks ninth and the United States is seventh.)

High incomes allow for high levels of consumption. Some Danes argue that any serious effort to reduce emissions needs to include some cuts in consumption. That might mean households having fewer cars, flying less and eating less meat.

“I would love for everyone in the world to live like a Dane,” said Tiem van der Deure, a Ph.D. student at the University of Copenhagen and an activist with Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion. “But it’s just not possible. There’s not enough stuff out there.”

headshot of Tiem van der Deure is a university student and climate activist who would like to see Danes reduce their levels of consumption. Credit: Dan Gearino/Inside Climate News
Tiem van der Deure is a university student and climate activist who would like to see Danes reduce their levels of consumption. (Dan Gearino/Inside Climate News)

We met at Cafe Mellemrummet, a coffee shop in Copenhagen.

His critique of Danish consumption runs contrary to some of the fundamentals of how people in the country have agreed to work together to cut emissions.

Much of Denmark’s success on climate has come from a close relationship between the business community and the government. If the government begins to ask people to spend less and consume less, many businesses would see this as contrary to their interests.

My sense from interviews is that the idea of reducing consumption is gaining support, and some people in the political and business establishment can see this and worry it will lead to much greater discord.

As an outsider to Denmark, I can see how criticism of consumption hits some people in a vulnerable place. Consumption is part of Danish culture, with its delicious pork roasts, pints of Tuborg beer and an abundance of delicious pastries—and that’s just the food and drink.

So van der Deure and others in his movement have their work cut out for them in getting people to support the idea of consuming less.

“The challenge is up to us to make the impossible seem possible, right?” he said.