‘Climate Plan 2030’: Red-Green Alliance leads Denmark’s climate crisis response

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Interview with Jon Burgwald, Climate and Environment Adviser to the Red-Green Alliance by Dick Nichols

November 9, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Formerly Greenpeace’s Arctic campaigner, Jon Burgwald has overseen the development of the Danish Red-Green Alliance’s Climate Plan 2030: A social justice route to a green society (available in English translation here).

In this interview Burgwald explains how the plan was developed, the impact it has been having on Danish politics and the problems it will confront in getting implemented.

The interview was done after the RGA’s 30th Annual Meeting, held on October 5-6. 

In Denmark you have the strange situation where a few months ago the majority of political actors dubbed the RGA’s greenhouse gas reduction target of 70% (compared to the 1990 baseline) as "utopian". Now, it would seem, practically everybody has become "utopian". What happened?

Of course, there’s not one thing alone that has caused this shift—many factors contributed. However, there’s no doubt the climate movement was key. It exploded around a year ago, six or seven months before the [June 5] election. We had big demonstrations, around 50,000 on the streets of Copenhagen, and then climate showed up in the polls as the number one concern of Danish citizens.

Then our RGA climate plan was launched, and everyone said that 70% was impossible and that technically we don’t know how to reach the target, etc. We had spent five or six months producing the plan and behind the published plan there are a lot of appendices. There we show in detail how the plan could be achieved and how it could be financed in such a way as to decrease social inequality, the difference between rich and poor.

That fact changed the whole political discussion. We had massive media coverage of the plan, including four newspaper editorials. These said that the other parties might disagree with our party on how to reach the 70% target but "now the ball is in your court". That is, if you don’t agree with everything they say, you have to explain why or show other ways to reach it.

Suddenly, it wasn’t whether Denmark could reach the 70% but that it had to reach the 70%.

Then the election campaign started and suddenly it was all about the usual immigration issues of Danish politics. At that point we agreed with the two other parties to the left of the Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s Party (SV) and the Social Liberals, to do a joint statement on climate. We negotiated for a long, long time about what it should contain and, to cut a long story short, we finally got them to agree on the 70%.

During the election campaign everyone wanted to be the greenest and if they hadn’t agreed to the 70%, well, «you’re not the greenest anymore». At this point we had every party on the left except the Social Democrats agreeing to the 70%, saying "this is our demand".

After the elections, the Social Democrats needed the votes of at least the SF, Social Liberals and RGA to form government and the one public issue that these parties agreed on was the 70%. At that point the Social Democrats were obliged to accept the 70% and suddenly it wasn’t utopian any more. Now we’ve seen nearly all the parties in the parliament—even the right-wing parties except one—agreeing to the 70%.

So it was the public pressure, then us showing it can actually happen, that changed the discussion, from "Do we have to do this?" to "Yes, we can actually do it".

Now, nearly everyone agrees on the 70% but not everyone agrees about who is to pay. The position of the plan is that those who will pay are those who can afford to pay, with comprehensive compensation packages that will reduce social inequality. What struggle do you anticipate with the right-wing who will want everything done through market mechanisms with as little compensation as possible?

I think the biggest problem we will face is that, for all the parties from the Social Liberals (who are part of the government majority) out to their right wing, the approach will be a traditional growth approach: we have to increase the size of the pie, so we can afford a 70% emissions reduction.

Our approach is that we already have a really big pie here— Denmark is one of the richest countries in the world—and what we need is to make that sustainable. We would use some market mechanisms but they would only be part of the approach.

Right now the European system is that there is an emissions trading scheme that only covers the energy sector and doesn’t cover agriculture or transport. We would expand that scheme so that industries that are not yet covered would fall under it and would have to pay for their emissions, but they would get funding back as compensation for making a green transition. 

So, if a company could prove that they would implement Plan A or B to cut emissions we would grant them money to actually do it. And we would do the same for agriculture. But—and here’s the big difference—we would combine this approach with banning activities.

There are things we just don’t want—petrol-fuelled machinery, new coal-fired power plants, fossil fuel powered vehicles etc. These are expired technologies and there is no need to keep investing in them: we just can’t have them in ten years’ time.

The same goes for private housing. We still have a fair amount of houses that are heated by an oil pump, but in Denmark we have the advantage of district heating, which is a lot more efficient than private heating, so we would fund people to shift out of oil pump heating and ban new oil pumps for heating.

More generally, we are already hearing Danish industry arguing that the plan is only affordable if the social wage—welfare and unemployment payments, the student support scheme—is reduced so as to increase the incentive to work and the workforce and thus pay for the green transition.

We would have industry pay for the green transition—and that will be a huge discussion. Danish industry has made a "plan" on how to reach the 70% which includes 150 different mechanisms, only 31 of which have anything to do with carbon dioxide emissions: the other 119 are about growth.

So it’s anti-environmental...

Yes it’s a growth plan with some climate parts in it. They’re setting up three targets: one of them is the climate target, the second is to increase growth by 120 billion Danish kronor [€16.03 billion] by 2030, fairly significant growth that they say is necessary to reach the climate target. 

Our approach is that the evidence shows that growth just eats into carbon dioxide reductions. We create a vicious circle: we’ve had massive growth over the past 15-20 years and at the same time we’ve had a green technological revolution, with solar panels and windmills getting a lot cheaper and cars a lot less polluting. However, the footprint just keeps increasing, with carbon dioxide emissions higher than they have ever been.

We need a climate plan that says that, while in principle we don’t mind growth, the absolute priority is to reach the 70%. If there’s room for growth within that, fine, but we need to reach our emission targets first. But in a socially just way, where jobs are ensured.

At the Annual Meeting, some comrades spoke up for zero growth. What’s the RGA position on that?

We don’t mind growth in specific sectors, but as a society as a whole we don’t need growth and growth shouldn’t be an issue in a country like Denmark, which is wealthy. What we need is a redistribution plan, where we will see growth in the green sectors but where we would see de-growth in other sectors, such as car production and North Sea oil extraction, to be closed down over a fairly short period.

To be honest, our party doesn’t have a clear-cut position on growth but more and more we’re leaning towards zero growth.

Let’s look at some of the Climate 2030 Plan’s sectoral projections and the conflicts they might entail. Take the 20% reduction in agricultural land to be made available for reforestation—surely a lot of farmers are not going to be happy with that? What detailed plan do you have for how this would actually happen?

Right now, Denmark is one of the countries in the world with the least amount of nature—80% of the Danish land mass is used for agriculture. And the vast majority of that is used for feed production for our 22 million pigs. And we’re only 5.5 million people! And on top of that there are 3.5 million cows and millions of chickens.

So what we did is look at the different types of land we want to remove from agriculture. And the part that emits the most greenhouse gas is the low-lying areas which have been wet in the past and have accumulated a lot of methane underground. When that land is cultivated you release a lot of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases.

At the same time, however, this is some of the worst land to cultivate, because it yields very low value product. Today, for most farmers, it’s actually a very bad business. 

But it’s still being farmed...

Yes, so long as there is any kind of income from it, this land gets farmed. So our plan envisages direct compensation for loss of income—whatever profit farmers make from cultivating this land we shall give them for, say, 50 years. And that’s actually a fairly cheap way of doing it.

At the same time the EU has a developed agricultural support system, but countries are only allowed to use 14% of the funding for climate-sustaining changes. We want to increase that substantially, so that the only support given is for less climate-damaging, non-feed, organic and less intensive agriculture: to use that significant pot of EU money to green the agricultural sector.

As we change from a more intensive to a less intensive agriculture, it would also include more employment opportunities. Also, forestry would create a lot more jobs. Where we would see a need for a lot of retraining wouldn’t be so much in the agricultural sector as in the processes that come afterwards—the slaughterhouses, the milk factories etc—because the production of meat and milk would decrease. The plan sets aside money for that.

Today there are unfortunately also a lot of farmers that go bankrupt. So part of the plan is that we would give the state the right to buy up bankrupt farms at market price—that’s an important part of the plan because Denmark has a big amount of farm bankruptcies.

Finally, the plan isn’t directed at small farmers, but at industrial agriculture—agribusiness—which is the big emitter of greenhouse gases rurally.

You are still going to have to convince people in the countryside that this is good for them and prevent the right wing getting a base there...

If you look at the whole country versus city discussion in Denmark what it’s most about is transport and how we can’t take away people’s means of transportation. When we look at the transition for the transport sector one of the things we want to do is introduce road pricing, because as soon as we get more electrical vehicles the state will lose a lot of tax income from selling cars, gasoline, diesel etc. People would then have to pay for what they drive, but they would pay significantly less to drive in the countryside than in the cities, because in the cities there are more public transport alternatives. 

We also want to invest heavily in transportation in the countryside as well. There are some places where that will work and others where it won’t, but at the same time you have to remember that Denmark is densely populated so that public transport is a viable alternative for a lot more people than, say, in Australia.

Our whole transport transition plan would make it cheaper for people in the countryside to move around—they would actually save money. At the same time we will give significant financial support to the purchase of electric vehicles.

What about North Sea oil and gas, which supplies over 50% of Denmark’s energy needs?

The first step is to stop its expansion, because right now the government has, on a regular basis for the last 30 or 40 years, expanded North Sea hydrocarbon production on a three-year basis, approximately. So the current licensing round will increase production from around 2030 and extend the production from around 2046  until 2055 —that’s quite a few years after when we want to be a zero-emission country.

At the same time, the financial value of those licences to the Danish state would be around $US250 million, which is a lot of money but also an amount that could be covered. The issue is the phasing-out of the existing production, which is something that would need to happen over time. We can’t close down oil and gas production tomorrow.

However, what we also have is other potential energy sources, such as windmill production. Also, if our plan is introduced we shall have around 1.3 million electric vehicles by 2030 and around 700,000 to 800,000 less fossil fuel driven cars than we have today, when oil imports are already almost in balance with oil exports. That would mean a massive decrease in oil use in Denmark. At the same time, offshore windmill parks that have always needed financial support can now generate profits without any subsidies at all.

At this point, instead of paying companies to produce renewable energy, they would have to bid for licenses and that would enable wind to take over from North Sea oil. When you talk to experts it seems fairly simple to do and the RGA, whose target is zero emissions by 2040, would monitor existing oil production between 2035 and 2038 and buy the companies out.

The problem is that the agreements that the state has made with the oil companies: if you close them down now you don’t only have to compensate them for loss of investment but loss of future revenues. So if the state gave them a license to operate until 2046 and closed them down today, the state would have to reimburse them for all their profit from now until 2046, which is financially impossible.

So we would look at not expanding North Sea gas and oil production and then we would pay them out as we approached the end date, with the offshore windmill parks increasingly covering the shortfall.

Not expanding North Sea gas and oil production now is not that expensive. In the election campaign we started out as the only party opposed to expansion but now the SF and the Social Liberals are also against it.

The plan gives a sizeable role to electric cars, but electric cars are far from environmentally neutral...

You’re putting your finger on the sore spot there. Of course, electric cars are better than fossil fuel driven cars, because we are only looking at real electric cars and not hybrids. Also, I believe if you look at the production of electric vehicles it is possible to decrease their footprint from what it is today, because the problem is that the battery is often produced by coal power and that’s not a given, because it could be produced by renewable energy.

The problem is that we cannot decide that in Denmark because there’s no electric car production here. Just thinking out loud—this is not part of our plan—I can envisage a moment when electric car production becomes cheaper than fossil fuel driven car production, at which point electric cars models could be taxed in relation to their specific ecological footprint.

We could do that domestically, but for that to happen on a larger scale, it would have to be done on a regional or global scale.

Then there’s the whole mining issue as well, but I do think that it’s easier to set conditions on mining. It’s also possible to set criteria for the use of recycled materials. The vast majority of what is in electric car batteries can be recycled: it doesn’t happen today but it’s technically possible.

But this is a soft spot for the whole green transition of transportation in the world. Right now we’re fighting to remove fossil fuel based cars but the next step will be to green the electric vehicles. Also, of course, we have in our plan heavy investment in public transport and sharp reductions in public transport fares.

Our demand for this year’s budget negotiations is that the process should start with an immediate 30% cut in all public transport fares. That will show people that climate action is not necessarily negative in its economic impact, but something where you can feel a positive difference in your everyday life.

A problem I see is that even if the Danish Social Democratic government moves on the plan, the European Union looms immediately as a stumbling block. How serious an obstacle is the EU?

I think the vast majority of our climate plan is doable within the present EU system—the agricultural system we’re proposing, the carbon dioxide quotas and taxes, the reimbursements. Where we will have the biggest problems is in the transport sector, and particularly when it comes to banning the sale of new, fossil fuel driven cars.

That will be directly illegal under the EU system because it would be violating the single market and the free movement of goods within the market. I think that’s the biggest issue: the first task is to see whether we can get the EU to allow the banning of fossil fuel driven cars.

Alternatively, what is allowed within the EU is to set the level of taxation of polluting vehicles and subsidisation of non-polluting vehicles—that’s allowable and Denmark’s levels of taxation on new cars are already significantly higher than Germany’s, for example. And the system we already have in place is based on the type of car—its weight and price—and its emission levels.

What we could do instead of banning them is increase the level of taxation of new fossil fuel driven cars to a level where you would have to very rich and very keen on having a fossil fuel driven car to afford one!

Finally, let’s take the most difficult issue. There’s already a current of opinion within climate science that says that the Paris Accords cannot keep global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees because feedback effects like the methane-releasing melting of the Siberian tundra and the weakening of the albedo effect from diminishing Arctic ice are speeding up warming beyond the projections on which the Paris Accords are based. We are approaching catastrophic tipping points much more quickly than the Paris Accords envisage. What is your position?

Well, I won’t say that they aren’t right. We were the first party in Denmark to calculate why 70% by 2030, which we looked on as being the first step given Denmark’s global share. What we didn’t do, which is important, is look at what would be Denmark’s fair share—there’s no burden-sharing. We haven’t looked at the issue that as a rich country Denmark has emitted more greenhouse gas historically and so should shoulder more of the burden of reduction. We’ve been honest about that.

What determined the 70% was that we wanted to show that this was a level Denmark could actually achieve. Even with this we are cutting back a significant chunk of polluting industry—we will need to cut production substantially.

I think there are two arguments as to why the 70% is an acceptable target. One is that the IPCC are only talking about carbon dioxide emissions, while what we’re talking about is greenhouse gases—methane etc—so in terms of COequivalents we’re looking at 75% to 80%.

On top of that we have the Danish Climate Council target of zero emissions by 2050—without burden-sharing and without tipping points—while the RGA’s target is zero emissions by 2040, which is a lot earlier and would curb emissions a lot more. 

In addition—and this is important—this is a solely domestic target. So, there are no offsets and no cheating with quotas. Beyond that, we want to set up indicators of the impact of Danish emissions outside of Denmark’s borders. So, beside the 70% reduction we will also look at issues like Denmark’s use of biomass, importation of soy for pig feed and the use of bunker fuel by Danish shipping lines like Maersk, because we want indicators of how we could decrease our impact beyond our borders as well. That will be on top of the 70%.

Also, we want to be part of a process by the Climate Council of looking at whether Denmark needs to strengthen its targets as we go along. Because I do agree that what we’re seeing now—and this year it’s been a lot worse with the forest fires in Brazil, the melting of the Siberian tundra and shrinking of Arctic ice—is that we are closer to tipping points than anyone expected three or four years ago.

That might well mean that Denmark has to adjust its targets.

The general message I’m getting from this discussion is that actually having Climate Plan 2030 out there in the public political domain, where people have to relate to it and where it is open to discussion and amendment, is in itself a big advance...

It’s a huge advance. Before we had this plan all discussions were theoretical, about target numbers. Nobody had any inkling about how to reach them. Now we know what has to be done. Of course, other parties will say that there are other ways to reach the 70%, but now we have something to discuss and we’ve shown it’s feasible.

As matters stand now, all other countries in the world are on a reduction path that is nowhere near the 70%, and we can consider on the basis of the evidence whether the target has to be increased. It’s much easier to do than when you’re on a reduction path of 45% or 50%.

Also, what we want in the negotiations about achieving the target is that sectoral indicators be established that can keep us on the path to 70% by 2030. Right now there are some «low-hanging fruit» which will on paper reduce our emissions but won’t really help us in the long run. For example, biofuels in cars, which will just prolong dependency on fossil fuel driven vehicles.

We also need the sectoral indicators so as to get an accurate idea of what issues might hinder our climate work post-2030. We need the target and the sectoral indicators to tell us how we might best increase the pace of emission reduction and how to keep on going after 2030. 

These indicators will differ from country to country. In Denmark, for example, the domestic heating system gives us huge opportunities. We can produce nearly all of it in a centralised fashion, using heat pumps, whereas the solution in Australia would be completely different.

Any final comment?

It was really interesting for me as a climate investigator to be able to show how we could achieve the 70%, calculating for all areas how it could be financed and what system of financing would be needed. The tax system in Denmark is insanely complicated, so we had to do spreadsheets that showed how much unit increases in particular taxes, say on transport, would change the degree to which people drove private cars.

Providing that level of detail has made it extremely difficult for the right wing or the industry to say "pie in the sky". It has taken the discussion to an entirely new level.