This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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 travelled there in August to get an up-close look at the implementation of ambitious climate policies. The result was a story about 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 of the observations that didn’t make it into my story.

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.

What I learned about clean energy in Denmark. #Denmark #ClimatePolicies #CleanEnergy #WindEnergy #EVs #CleanEnergyEconomy

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.

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 emphasizes 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 can shorten some of the delays imposed by governments. Credit: 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 cancelled 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 neighbour Norway, which is beating everyone in its transition to EVs. Plug-in vehicles were 91 per cent of the new cars and light trucks sold in Norway in October. That was roughly double the 44 per cent share in Denmark.

For perspective, the U.S. share was less than 10 per cent 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 PhD 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.”

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

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.

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Too bad our MSM wouldn't do a few indepth reports on the renewable surge that is happening in some parts of the world. It's not the public's need to keep consuming more and more and more, that is the source of the problem. It's the economy we've created that's dependent on selling us more junk that we have to kick to the curb.......and start thinking about building the economy of Care advocated in the Leap Manifesto of a few years ago.

When will we 'get it' that jobs in health, education and social well being could be economic drivers as robust as big box stores...and Amazon....peddling cheap products from the world's sweat shops???? Aren't we getting tired of all those trips to the land fill and the donation centres??? But if we stopped consuming....what would happen to our consumptive economy???

Copenhagen is a model for how the private car and decarbonization could be dealt with in Canadian cities. And the story has very little to do with EVs.

Danish architect Jan Gehl is one of the most respected urbanists on the planet. His books illustrate almost a stepped process, a blueprint to create human-scaled public spaces. He has analyzed public squares and streets across the world in terms of their ability to accommodate mobile pedestrians, human perception of spatial relationships, social activity, views, access to waterfronts and so forth.

I'm disappointed the author did not mention Gehl, whose influence on Copenhagen urban design was probably the strongest and most appropriate for decarbonizing transportation and improving the quality of life in cities.

Gehl was retained in the 1960s to develop policies to deal with the fast growing problem of cars taking over downtown Copenhagen. His solution was to incrementally reduce parking and road space by a scant 3% a year. It wasn't enough to be noticed very widely. By the turn of the century 100,000 square metres of public land was liberated for human beings. Copenhagen concurrently built a metro system and improved surface transit.

The new policy on altering road space also led to Copenhagen's famous bicycle commuter network, which cities like Amsterdam quickly surpassed. But bike enthusiasts need to understand it didn't start with policies on bikes. That was only an accidental benefit of first developing new policies on land use planning, specifically on public land most egregiously consumed for the private car at a horrendous cost to society.

This policy led to the creation of a conjoined six km of pedestrian streets now called the Stroget. Removing valuable public land from car use became controversial only when it suddenly coalesced into one project. At the time small businesses organized against the Stroget, fearing a loss of "walk- in" customers. How ironic that this is still the top criticism in most cities considering converting asphalt into more important uses. Today, the stores compete vigorously for storefronts on the Stroget because walk- in traffic has never been better with thousands of pedestrians walking on permanently car-free streets served by the metro.

Residents love the quietude and lack of intrusion by cars, including EVs. Paris and other Euro cities have since followed suit and have been liberating some of their inner city public roads for humans.

Gehl's 'Cities for People' is an inspiring read for anyone who purports to be an urbanist. In Canada perhaps the best climate policy would be to consider the public financial support for EVs as only one step of two. Concurrently devoting more public land to walking citizens by creating squares, mews, plazas, lanes and streets that people quickly learn to love, to become iconic symbols of great cities, would be a gamechanger. Name one city that is loved for its asphalt and freeways.

EVs will initially help break the cycle of fossil fuel dependency, but they also reinforce car dependency without viable alternatives like transit and very attractive pedestrian spaces at most destinations. Building a zoning policy framework to foster walkable, transit-rich communities will ultimately be the most important factor for addressing climate change and urban efficacy this century.