Supreme Green: How the Dutch and Danish Dominate Sustainable Living

Wind Farm Off Copenhagen

The effect is melodic — clankety clank, clankety clank — the sound of bicycles plugging along. At first you don’t notice — the absence of taxi horns squawking with ire, or tailpipe exhaust assaulting your lungs, or stressed-out drivers mouthing invectives behind the wheel – but as soon as you do, as soon you notice the beauty of a car “light” society, it becomes your new optic. NOW I see. Cities like Los Angeles and Manhattan truly suck.

With almost one million bicycles, Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world; it is THE center of bicycle culture. Dedicated bike paths pervade the city, creating a pulsing lattice of cyclists. 38% of all journeys in the city are made by bicycle; bike racks are ubiquitous.

Cycling and public transportation are’t a la mode, they are THE mode. Owning and driving a car is not, with high motor vehicle and road taxes, high petrol costs, and scare and costly parking deterring drivers. Even on a blustery cold, snowy day, people still bike to work, they still wait outside for the tram after the opera. It’s no wonder the Dutch are so fit and rank as some of the healthiest in Europe.

But it’s not just how they get around.

In Amsterdam, they embrace the mantra, “Garbage is gold.” Waste is not a problem but a valuable raw material. You see this throughout the country, throughout the cities, with collection points on nearly every street corner. Amsterdam recycles 43% of all its waste, and household waste is recycled at a rate of 64% (via European Green City Index). At our Conscious Hotel, there was a recycling station on every floor.

Recycling Station at Conscious Hotel

Plus, their Farmers Markets are not to be missed. These urban oases, a composite of farmers, artisans, and culinary apothecaries, offer sustenance and wellness for champions.

Even Dutch airline, KLM, is a model for sustainability — with its biofuels and C02 offset programs, electric taxiing, and sustainable catering.

To the north, Denmark is charging ahead when it comes environmental governance and leadership. Copenhagen ranks #1 on the European Green City Index and it has its sights fiercely set on 2025 to become the first carbon neutral capital in the world.

The reigning achievement for Denmark is energy independence. The Danes currently get one fifth of their energy from renewables, which is the highest level of any country in the world, and the government aims to have the country running solely on renewable energy by 2050.

The trajectory started in the 70s, with the infamous “Arab oil embargo” in 1973. Denmark, then 99% dependent on foreign oil, was hit particularly hard by the embargo. Determined to break off the recalcitrant teat of foreign oil, the Danes enacted a massive conservation and alternative energy push. This ambitious (and expensive) drive to achieve complete energy-independence tout measures such as:

  • Strict energy-efficiency standards on all buildings
  • Heavy taxation of gas and automobiles (today new cars are taxed at more than 200% of the cost of the car) — unless it’s an electric car
  • A minimum $40,000 rebate on the purchase of every new electric car (and free parking in downtown Copenhagen)
  • Country-wide “district heating systems” — reusing normally wasted heat produced by power plants by piping it directly into homes (today more than 60% of Danish homes are heated this way)
  • Heavy government investment in clean and renewable energy systems, especially wind power (today 21% of Denmark’s energy production comes from wind farms, and they lead the world in wind-power technology – another product to export)
  • Rebate campaigns that encourage citizens to buy more energy-efficient – and therefore more expensive – home appliances (today more than 95% of new appliances bought in Denmark have an “A” efficiency rating – with “A” ranking the best; “G” the worst)
  • A $1 billion government investment to develop and integrate better solar, tidal, and fuel-cell technology
  • The buildout of the “Cycling Superhighway

If the Dutch wear sustainability outwardly, the Danes are less obvious.

While in Copenhagen, we toured the Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers, rated the most sustainable hotel in world in 2010 and regaled as Denmark’s first carbon neutral hotel building.

Approaching the Towers, you don’t notice three of the building’s four sides are covered with ultra thin solar panels, supplying the hotel with 15% of its energy needs.

Underneath the hotel is the first groundwater-based cooling and heating system in Denmark. The Towers extract their heating and cooling from the groundwater, 100 meters below the surface — water that is used for cooling in the summer is stored and is used again for heating in the winter. This reduces the energy consumption used to cool and heat by almost 90%.

In the kitchen, all hotel food waste is ground and sucked into a 1000 litres big tank in the basement. This tank is then later emptied and freighted to a biogas plant. The remains from this process are used to fertilize farm land.

And then there are the “little things” the hotel does — from supplying travel shampoo bottles made of corn and potato starch, to using “Intelligent light management” in all its corridors, to eliminating all printed hotel information (communications are all executed electronically), to their calculated food strategy which demands their food suppliers make deliveries 3 times a week instead of once or twice every day — that add up to an impressive experience, and savings.

Despite the high costs of living in both countries (Denmark’s minimum personal tax rate is 55.4% while the Netherlands is 52%), it’s tough not to conclude, or at least consider, that their commitments to sustainability (also known as the the future), are paying dividends. The Netherlands is ranked #5 to the U.S.’s #7 in “Global Competitiveness” and 8th to the U.S.’s 12th in “Prosperity” while Denmark comes in at #2 in “Prosperity” and beats out the U.S. (#10) at #7 in “Global Innovation” (via The Economist).

It’s also interesting to note the Danish are considered some of the happiest in the world.

Back in 2009, I met an intriguing man, while waiting in line at a Ritz Camera, who had travelled across the globe, to over 100 countries. At the conclusion of our conversation, after discussing our favorite places to visit and how other countries lives, he handed me a slip of paper that read: “The doom of a profligate nation is certain – having been foretold by all of recorded history.”

It’s a biting, foreboding proclamation, but what if he’s right? As an American, it’s easy to take our blessings and our riches for granted. Are we the prodigal nation, destined for darker days if we don’t change our footing with the land that bestows such an abundance of natural resources? Are we quixotic fools to believe our wasteful, gross indulgences will bear no ill consequences?

Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s too dire of a sentence. But if health, wealth and happiness are to be written into the narrative of America’s future, it might behoove us to do as the Dutch and Danes do.

(This is re-posted from The Pacific Punch)

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