Denmark is "Energy Smart"? Think Again.

Though it beats the U.S. in per-capita energy usage, its emissions improvements have been unremarkable

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Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His next book, Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, will be published in April.

Promoters of "green" energy love Denmark.

On Earth Day, President Barack Obama pointed out that the northern European country now "produces almost 20 percent" of its electricity with wind turbines. Last year, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman visited Copenhagen, where he marveled at the Danes, declaring, "Oh, if only we could be as energy smart as Denmark!" Given that world leaders are now meeting in Copenhagen to discuss drastic cuts in global carbon dioxide emissions, it's worth separating the hype about Denmark from the reality.

Here's the reality: When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, coal consumption, or energy prices, the Danes have no reason to brag.

First, carbon dioxide emissions. Denmark's embrace of wind power has repeatedly been lauded as a model for other countries. But according to data from the International Energy Agency, Denmark's overall carbon emissions have remained relatively unchanged over the past two decades. In 1990, Denmark emitted a total of 50.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. In 2007, the country's emissions totaled 50.6 million tons, a reduction of just 0.1 percent.

Indeed, while journalists and politicos are hyping Denmark's wind sector, the Danes themselves are not claiming that wind power cuts carbon dioxide emissions. Earlier this year, Energinet.dk, the operator of Denmark's electricity and natural gas grids, published a report showing that in 2007, carbon dioxide levels from electricity generation totaled about 23 million tons, about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of wind turbines. The grid operator also made it clear that variations in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from Denmark's electricity generation sector varied from year to year due to changes in the amount of hydropower that the Danes import from Norway and Sweden.

Meanwhile, despite lavish government subsidies for wind power, coal use has remained remarkably stable. In 1999, Denmark's daily coal consumption was the equivalent of about 94,400 barrels of oil per day. By 2007, despite a 136 percent increase in the amount of electricity produced from wind power, Denmark's coal consumption was exactly the same as it was back in 1999. In fact, Denmark's coal consumption in 2007 was only about 4 percent lower than it was back in 1981. And while coal use dropped slightly over that period, natural gas consumption went from zero to over 400 million cubic feet per day.

As for energy prices, the Danes undoubtedly provide a model for those who believe that exorbitant energy taxes help control consumption. In 2008, Danish residential electricity customers were paying $0.38 per kilowatt-hour—or nearly four times as much as their counterparts in the United States. And Danish motorists are getting mugged. In late 2008, Danish drivers were paying $1.54 per liter for gasoline, while drivers in the UK were paying $1.44 and U.S. motorists were paying $0.56. Only a handful of countries have more expensive fuel than Denmark, a list that includes Italy, Norway, Turkey, and Germany.

The huge taxes on electricity and motor fuel appear to be robbing the Danes of their desire for procreation. In 2008, Denmark had a population of 5.5 million and its population growth rate was barely above zero. Indeed, Denmark has one of the slowest-growing populations in Europe. Between 1998 and 2008, the country's population grew by just 200,000 people. During that same time period, the United States added about 34 million people, raising America's population to about 304 million.

To be fair, the average Dane uses far less energy than the average American. Denmark's per-capita energy use is about 3.85 tons of oil equivalent per year, while the U.S. average is about 7.74 tons.

And while that reduced consumption may be laudable, the reality is that even amid all the praise for Denmark's energy programs, the United States is doing as well as—and in some cases, better than—Denmark in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and per-capita energy use. Between 1999 and 2006, the carbon intensity (the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP) of the U.S. economy decreased by nearly 13 percent—or about 2 percent better than the reduction seen in Denmark over that time period. Looking at a longer time frame—1980 through 2006—America's carbon intensity declined by 43.7 percent while Denmark managed a 47 percent decrease. Furthermore, between 1980 and 2006, per-capita energy use in the United States declined by 2.5 percent, nearly matching the 4.2 percent decline seen in Denmark.