Tiny Denmark is on a big mission. In 2009, the Danes will host a UN environmental summit at which they hope major greenhouse gas emitters such as the US and China will agree on a post-Kyoto treaty. That won't be easy, so they're trying to rally support now. "If we can do it," these cheerleaders are yelling, "you can, too."
Denmark has been singled out as a global-warming model. In 1990, renewable energy made up 6 percent of Denmark's energy consumption. It's jumped to 16 percent today – much of it thanks to thousands of wind turbines on the coast and at sea.
The government's heavy investment in this endeavor hasn't seemed to hurt the economy, which has grown by about 30 percent over the same period. And Denmark has reduced carbon emissions by 13.7 percent since 1990, though that's an adjusted rate that includes electricity trading.
As more people awaken to the danger of climate change, it makes sense to ask whether the Denmarks of the world (and there aren't many) can really serve as models for other places that have yet to deliver on Kyoto targets (such as Canada) or to even set goals to cut back CO2 emissions (the US, China, India).
A closer look shows that Denmark's experience isn't exactly transferable. But certain practices probably are. Emission caps, carbon taxes, and renewable-energy incentives – these are tools that countries such as Denmark, Germany, and Britain are successfully using, and which other nations can adopt.
But it would not be so easy for the US, for instance, to carbon copy the Danish plan, or even other success stories, which invariably have their own narratives. That argues for a Kyoto follow-on that is more tailored to individual countries.
Denmark, for instance, is small, a little smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Its westerly prevailing winds account for the emphasis on blow power. But those sea-based turbines are expensive (storm and salt-water damage in one region cost $50 million). And Denmark still has a way to go to meet its Kyoto emissions reduction target of 21 percent by 2012.
Germany, too, is a bit of a special case. It has reduced CO2 emissions by 18 percent since 1990. But much of the credit goes to the closing of decrepit, polluting industries in the east since reunification – not to other reductions under Kyoto.
Britain, meanwhile, made a conscious pre-Kyoto decision to move away from coal under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The effort made back then – and later, heavy carbon taxes – will help Britain surpass its Kyoto target. In contrast, coal plants are blossoming in the US, and Congress has only begun to weigh tough rules on most CO2 emissions.
Culturally, too, the Europeans are set apart from the Americans. The Europeans have been far more attuned to limited fossil fuels.
While Congress fiddles, many US cities, states, and businesses are sounding the alarm, borrowing workable parts from other "models" and urging a national policy. But there is no one-size-fits-all answer to climate change.
As a 2005 study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change concluded, to get the US or China on board, a new treaty will have to allow countries "to take on different types of climate commitments."