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Published on April 14th, 2020 | by Jesper Berggreen

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The Climate, The Queen, And The Deep Blue Sky

April 14th, 2020 by  


Her majesty the Queen Margrethe II of Denmark says she is not convinced that human activity is the primary cause of the current climate change? Nevertheless, it just might be the work on the green energy transition that most effectively will get us back on track after the corona crisis. Experts and organizations now want a green emergency plan for restoring Denmark’s economy, regardless of the Queens assumptions I presume.

Photo by Jesper Berggreen. The sky above my solar panels is suspiciously blue these days…

The Deep Blue Sky

When my son and I visited Zambia for a couple of weeks in July last year, I noticed that the sky was often completely blue, with no lines of condensation from airplanes, and I told my son that he should look closely at that sky, because he might never see it like that again. But what do you know? On cloudless days it’s spotless blue again, in all the countries of the world, because the planes are grounded…

The clean air we are now experiencing and the reduced particulate pollution we are now measuring make it difficult to understand the Queen’s recent statement on climate change in an interview with the newspaper Politiken, via dr.dk. In regard to the current pandemic I would also strongly recommend her majesty to read up on this study concluding that a small increase in long-term exposure to particulates leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate.

The Queen

Her majesty Queen Margrethe II, in the mentioned interview otherwise related to her upcoming 80th birthday, is cited to have said:

“Well, humans play a role in climate change, there is no doubt. But on whether it’s created — directly — I am not quite convinced. So, I mean, there are changes in the climate, and it may be that human activity has played a role.”

Regarding the climate debate in general the Queen added:

“Of course, it is very essential and important to be aware. But really … to panic is a very bad way of addressing problems. It is not an option. You should not do that.”

To be clear, the current climate change is in fact primarily man-made. And with that out of the way, no, of course we should not panic. However, it’s precisely because we are so late in the game that the tendency for panic rises. A very trusted and strong voice in the Danish society uttering doubt in this regard is, in my opinion, unfortunate. It stalls the momentum. We can’t stall now. Denmark has the legal framework on climate mitigation in place. The only option is full thrust forward.

My response to her majesty the Queen of Denmark is this:

“Dear Queen Margrethe, with any luck, the fact that you are not entirely convinced that climate change is man-made probably won’t matter now that we are preparing for a life after the Corona crisis where we embark on a new era that is clean, green, and with a deep blue sky. You’re right, no reason to panic, but let’s get cracking and do our part in building a new and better world for all, shall we?”

The Climate

This year, among other things, the global emission of CO2 must peak and then fall. 2019 was a record year, but 2020 might actually not be, not that we planned for it though. 2020 is also the year that all countries currently acknowledging the 2015 Paris climate agreement will have to strengthen their national climate targets and deliver the CO2 reductions needed to keep global warming at a maximum of two degrees by the year 2100.

Instead of despairing that the Queen might now contribute to the confusion, let’s get constructive: The acute crisis we are in now requires us to act immediately. Ironically, the corona crisis is far less of an existential threat than the climate crisis, but because it is so sudden, we understand it. We can take advantage of this and kill two birds with one stone — or save two birds, as it is.

In Danish we state this bird-stone metaphor as a fly-swat scenario, and in an excellent article on April 11, 2020, on dr.dk titled “Two flies with one swat. Can the Corona crisis make climate solutions cheaper?” Søren Bjørn-Hansen used this metaphor to describe in detail what we can get started with, and in the following I will try to translate relevant parts of the article and add my own comments. We begin with a list of what it is we actually want to accomplish:

The Crisis Request Form from the Experts

Organizations, experts, and political parties have in recent weeks and days presented a number of ​​plans for the recovery of the Danish economy. Common to all of them is a focus on the green transition.

  • We need to renovate our houses to make them more energy efficient. We must replace oil and gas boilers with district heating, and where district heating is not an option, they must be replaced with heat pumps.
  • Heat pumps must run on green power, and in district heating more and more large heat pumps running on green power must be used.
  • The tax on electricity for heat must be further reduced. And the entire taxation system on electric heating needs to be reformed.
  • Our cars, buses, and trains should be electrified to deploy more electric vehicles and charging points as well as expanding the electric railway network.
  • Industry should be encouraged to use more green power instead of oil and gas.
  • More wind farms will be needed to provide the green power that increased electrification requires.
  • We need to invest in research into new technologies so that we can store CO2 and in the long term convert wind energy to, for example, hydrogen gas and thus store surplus energy.
  • We must invest in the export of green technology.
  • And we need to invest in climate adaptation. No matter what we do, the climate is going to change.

The world is entering an economic crisis. The global community has been more or less stalled in trying to deal with the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. And the costs are staggering.

Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen:

“The second quarter of 2020 is set to become one of the darkest chapters in Danish economic history.”

The question is whether the economic downturn we are in the midst of can turn into something positive? A large number of organizations, experts, and political parties have suggested in recent days and weeks that we let investment in the green transition be the cure for the crisis. Those kinds of ideas have worked before.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929–1932, part of the solution in Denmark and in many other countries, such as the United States, was that the state invested heavily in major infrastructure projects: highways, bridges, and dams.

In Denmark the motivation was to do something about a shattered economy and an unemployment rate of 32%.

Three Crises at Once

Can we do something similar today to kickstart the green energy transition rather sooner than later? Chairman of the Climate Council, Peter Møllgaard, states:

“We have three crises right now. A health crisis, which is building up an economic crisis, and in the background a major climate crisis that has been going on for 30 years. Huge sums are in play now, and we should use it in a way that best supports the green transition.”

In early March, before the corona crisis got serious, the Climate Council issued a report full of recommendations on how we should change society so that we can reach the goal of reducing Denmark’s greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030. The recommendations are still valid. Peter Møllgaard adds:

“The interesting thing is how it can overlap, so that it creates jobs as well as ensures the green transition towards the 2030 target.”

One of Denmark’s leading climate scientists, Kirsten Halsnæs, a professor of climate and economics at DTU, believes that we can turn the economic crisis to our advantage:

“In relation to what a recovery of our economy will cost, estimated at DKK 300 billion ($44 billion), the green transition is cheap. Following the Climate Council’s recommendations it will cost about DKK 35 billion ($5 billion). But this actually makes it cheaper. The sooner we get started, the cheaper it will be in the end.”

Note from Jesper: Indeed, it’s interesting to think that a few weeks ago we were in disagreement over whether we could afford to spend $5 billion on saving the climate!?

But what should we start with? What makes the most sense to invest in first?

We Need to Green our Homes

If you ask one of Denmark’s most recognized energy researchers, Brian Vad Mathiesen, who is a professor of energy planning at Aalborg University, the houses we live in is a good place to start. He suggests we eliminate the use of natural gas for heating by expanding the district heating coverage:

“We need to start renovating our homes to make them more energy efficient. And we need to start with everything that was already due to be upgraded.”

When we make homes more energy efficient, we spend less energy on heat. And that’s good for the climate. Such upgrades creates jobs, and thus push the economy forward. Brian Vad Mathiesen continues:

“If you add the opportunity to roll back the natural gas grid to use surplus heat from industry, data centers and large heat pumps, where we can utilize more wind turbine power, you can create many jobs in the short term.”

Kirsten Halsnæs agrees:

“If we are to renovate our houses, we should make them greener in the process and remove oil and gas-fired heating.”

A few days ago, the Danish energy association Dansk Energi issued an immediate plan with recommendations for a green crisis package. In that plan, oil and natural gas furnace replacement is at the top of the list. Dansk Energi will establish a fund of DKK 140 million ($21 million) for just that purpose.

According to Lars Aagaard, director of Dansk Energi, there is no way around scrapping individual heating of our houses with oil and gas:

“We must phase out these oil furnaces. And we must use less natural gas for heating. These are definitive priorities. And the sooner we do this, the less toll on the climate.”

The oil and gas must be replaced by heat pumps that can utilize green power to produce heat.

Note from Jesper: Yes, but we could have done this long ago if it had been just a little more expensive to heat with oil and gas. The technology is not new, but it’s only now that Ørsted (formerly DONG) jumped on the green wagon that oil and gas is being pushed out. In other words, as always, it’s the money that talks. Which is fortunate now that the green solutions are becoming the cheapest.

Denmark must be Electrified

In general, green power owns the stage in the various plans that have been proposed by experts, organizations, and politicians lately. We need to redirect more of society to run on electricity, and we need to produce more power in a green way.

According to Lars Aagaard director of Dansk Energi, Denmark should agree before summer to allocate DKK 2 billion ($292 million) a year to reduce the tax on green power and to increase subsidies to get the electrification started. But it also requires enough green power generation to take off:

“In general, there is no doubt that we need to use more renewable energy. And build more wind power than has already been agreed. It’s not a matter of if we have to do it, but when.”

Note from Jesper: In 2017 Denmark had almost 6,000 wind turbines in operation on land with a nameplate capacity of almost 4,500 MW, and a gradual replacement of old turbines to new ones in a decade or two will result in approx. 2,000 turbines remaining with a total capacity of approx. 9,000 MW. In other words: a third of the number of turbines on land, and a doubling of capacity. And that’s why the next sentence in the article is relevant:

Siemens Energy has announced that large heat pumps of 20 MW are on their way to Denmark. They are so large that they may replace the burning of oil, gas, and biomass in the district heating plants.

Electric Cars, Buses, and Trains

Part of the electrification of Denmark must be done on the roads. There is broad consensus that we should now focus on electric cars and buses — and on making the entire railway network electric in the long term. The Danish energy association Dansk Energi, the Danish industry association Dansk Industri, and the green think tank Concito have huge numbers of electric cars and charging stations on their lists of effective measures.

The same idea is supported by energy researcher Brian Vad Mathiesen. He also thinks that we should focus on public transport and expand more efficient modes of transport than just private motoring. Or get better at working at home, as many do right now:

“People are experiencing right now how empty the roads really can be. We are continuing to expand our road capacity for shaving off 20 minutes of traffic congestion. The rest of the time the roads are empty. Maybe we need to expand the capacity of more efficient modes of transport?”

Lars Aagaard from Dansk Energi agrees. He believes it’s crucial that we strengthen public transportation — and preferably electric versions of it — for example, by requiring new public utilities for bus operation to be electric. But he also thinks we should do something to get started with the use of electric cars:

“If no infrastructure is made, people will not buy an electric car. We do not know the date when the electric cars will be so cheap that people will buy them. That is why I am afraid that we will be lagging behind in strengthening the electricity grid and having the charging stations built.”

At the beginning of April, however, the government and a large majority in the Danish Parliament entered into an agreement to allocate DKK 50 million ($7.3 million) to several charging stations.

Note from Jesper: And I have previously described why we should not fear the capacity of the charging network. It’s all about control. An electrical network is initially constructed to handle double that of peak loads, and when electronic solutions can level the load over time, the capacity requirement for the infrastructure becomes substantially smaller. In addition, there is increased prevalence of local solar PV and battery solutions, which can supply energy where needed.

Professor Kirsten Halsnæs believes that it’s obvious to electrify the railway, which she compares to the time when Denmark built a lot of infrastructure in the 1930s:

“Maybe electrifying the railway could even curb the many domestic flights and maybe finally get Denmark connected to the European rail network? Maybe we should call and ask the Danish Railways and ask how fast they could do this if they had the money.”

(It has not been possible to get a comment from the Danish Railways, Banedanmark, but Kirsten Halsnæs’s point is supported by the other experts and organizations.)

According to the Chairman of the Climate Council, Peter Møllgaard, it’s obvious to look at completing the electrification of the railway, which has been a running project since 1979, but has been stranded again and again politically:

“We must carry out the electrification of the railway in any case. But we must also upgrade our charging infrastructure and the electricity grid in general.”

Note from Jesper: Personally, I don’t believe in the future of the railroad. The previously so incredibly dense grid of the Danish rail network unfortunately began to be dismantled from the 1950s and onwards as private motoring became a priority. And that process is not over yet. Soon self-driving cars and trucks, and even drones, will dominate, and it will be cheaper, faster, more flexible in an incredibly tightly controlled grid, to an extent that even fossil-fueled domestic flights will be history. It may never be quite as green as electric trains could have been, but close.

Green Wind over Denmark

One thing is to encourage more electricity. Something else is whether we can produce the power we need. Therefore, the production of green power is also a crucial point when looking at the various plans proposed. The green think tank Concito released its plan for an accelerated green transition, which it called “Recovering the Danish economy with a green restart.” It has the renovation and energy efficiency of buildings and industry as number one in the list of measures. Electrification of society is number two. Number three and four apply to wind energy. We must advance the replacement of end-of-life wind turbines and plan to build new wind farms and solar thermal plants.

According to Concito’s director, Christian Ibsen, we need to start a massive rollout of renewable energy:

“We must kill two flies in one swat. We must use the crisis for a massive rollout of production and use of renewable energy. And should we invest in anything otherwise, it must be combined with green requirements. We cannot accept more emissions from investments without green requirements. “

According to energy and climate researcher Gorm Bruun Andresen from the University of Aarhus, it is not a bad idea to advance our investments in wind:

“With the establishment of several wind farms, which are now spread over the next decade, we can increase our share of renewable energy significantly ahead of time. We are good at building wind power. It requires no legislative changes, and it will have a direct effect on our emissions budget because we will emit less over time, the sooner we get started.”

Peter Møllgaard, Chairman of the Climate Council, is more cautious:

“I think it is too early to say that we are in a depression like in 1930. Three and a half weeks into an economic downturn, it is too early to build anything dramatic. But let’s see. Four weeks ago we did not talk about a serious crisis. Suddenly it is serious. But there is a lot we can advance that can make a big difference.”

Note from Jesper: Either way, we can make an incredible amount of wind energy. One thing is the upgrading of the land-based turbines I mentioned earlier, but for offshore, the potential is huge. We can double the land capacity from the current 4.5 GW to 9 GW, and on top of that we can expand the offshore capacity by up to 4–5 GW in a couple of decades. I think a total of 15 GW of wind capacity in Denmark is achievable before 2040. In addition, solar energy comes creeping up on us. It is obviously most effective in the summer, but not many people have noticed that solar capacity has increased from 0.4 GW in 2016 to 0.8 GW in 2019, and here too the potential is easily 5–10 GW on land, in a very short period of time.

Can We Store the Wind as Fuel?

You can’t talk to the experts about what we need to do about the climate without them getting into CO2 storage. It is a necessity if we are to achieve the climate goals. The same applies to the technology called Power to X, which is about converting green power from, for example, wind turbines to hydrogen or methane gas — maybe in combination with CO2 from the air (to make liquid fuels like methanol).

Climate scientist Kirsten Halsnæs from DTU does not believe CO2 storage is ready for public investment, though:

“It is a necessary part of the green transition, but I do not think it can get started so quickly that it can create jobs here and now.”

Brian Vad Mathiesen from Aalborg University agrees. Absorption of CO2 is a long-term goal. But we’re not ready for it yet: “We need to get going. And it may create jobs, but we’re not there yet.”

Concito, Dansk Energi, and Dansk Industri propose that we upgrade investments in the research and technology behind CO2 storage. In the long run, we will need to have an efficient way of storing excess wind energy. Some days, wind turbines produce more energy than we can use. Other days there is no wind at all. Therefore, many experts believe that it makes sense to store the energy as liquid green fuel. We can use renewable energy to make hydrogen out of water. Others believe that liquid storage will be overtaken by upcoming more efficient and cheaper batteries.

Note from Jesper: OK, let’s try to keep these things apart. CO2 storage is very demanding and very expensive, and personally I don’t think it will pay off, just as safe and clean nuclear power doesn’t pay off. The first priority must be to stop emissions as soon as possible, and here during the pandemic we can see how it can actually be done, albeit in a very expensive way, but whether it can be seen in the CO2 measurements, only time will tell. Combining CO2 with electric hydrogen production and thus generating liquid fuels is possible, but in my opinion, control of the entire electrical system and the introduction of batteries everywhere (both mobile batteries in the form of electric cars and stationary batteries) will have the greatest effect. It is technically simple and it is very quick to implement. It’s expensive, yes, but is it more expensive than a pandemic? Not likely. We are learning the hard way these days.

Prepare Denmark for Climate Change

No matter which of the many proposals, ideas, and plans the government points out, and no matter how much money is invested in a green aid package for the economy, we will not avoid climate change. Therefore, Denmark is already in full swing with climate adaptation. At least on paper. In January, the National Association of Municipalities, KL, came up with a proposal containing 48 new recommendations on how to strengthen local climate action. Part of the proposal was to ensure that climate adaptations should be exempted from budget constraints, which limits how much the municipalities could spend on building and construction.

The government has now made sure of that. And thus some of the way may be paved to get started with the climate protection in the municipalities.

Kirsten Halsnæs believes that climate adaptation is obvious to public investment now:

“Just like construction projects, such as the ones in 1930, climate adaptation is something that creates jobs. We have not yet really started on building coast protection and other projects that offer climate protection of Denmark. Now we have an opportunity to get it done.”

However, according to the Association of Builders, there are still some tendering rules that can delay the process in the municipalities.

There are Plenty of Good Ideas — So Now What?

There’s no lack of good ideas, plans, and suggestions. The question, then, is whether this is advice that the government will follow?

In the newspaper Berlingske, climate minister Dan Jørgensen had this comment on Dansk Energi’s immediate plan:

“The green transition can be an engine for jobs and growth if we act wisely. And it is especially important that we bring those two forces together now. It also means that the Climate Action Plan and the Sectoral Action Plans will definitely support the recovery we are going through as a country, while delivering CO2 reductions, and with the new situation (the corona crisis) we will probably look at the order of the initiatives that need to be started. And at the same time we need to think new.”

So, right away, there is a broad consensus that we can take advantage of the crisis situation to move forward with our climate plans. The question is which parts of the expert’s wish list come into play first.

Final note from Jesper: I have said it before, Denmark is a very small country (in population, the size of Minnesota). Some may even look at us as an isolated tiny fairytale kingdom. So, all this would not even make a dent in the prospect of a better future world. However, if you see Denmark as a model country and scale these ideas up, we might be getting somewhere. It is of the outmost importance that the underdog succeeds, if what the underdog does is in fact the right thing to do. If it works in the lab, it just might work in the world. But there are no guarantees.




 

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About the Author

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of Lifelike.dk.



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