Denmark’s reputation as a leader in sustainability was at an all-time high after December’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. A new study, however, reveals the country might not live up to its idyllic green image.
Denmark ranked No. 32 with only average scores in the recent Environmental Performance Index released by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities. Especially surprising was that Denmark was positioned in the same category as the United States, typically thought of as somewhat negligent in environmental conservation efforts.
However, Ida Søndergaard, head of the Environmental Technological Department of Denmark’s Environmental Performance Agency, questions the study’s results.
“We do not think the index shows a realistic picture of how Denmark deals with environmental issues. Denmark is and has always been one of the most progressive countries when dealing with the environment,” Søndergaard said in an e-mail.
The third edition of the EPI was released Jan. 27 at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. The EPI ranks 163 countries according to their performance in 10 categories, including environmental health, air pollution, water quality, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture and climate change.
“One objective of the EPI is to highlight environmental issues as national priorities and show where there are leaders and laggards,” Christine Kim, a Yale research associate for Environmental Law and Policy and EPI project director, said in an e-mail.
But Søndergaard said the results of the study are suspect. She noted several examples of suspicious data, such as when the study reported air pollution in Denmark is worse now than in 2008. She said this is strange considering their CO2 emissions — which have a big impact on the air pollution score — have been reduced in the last two years.
Researchers developed a chart to display countries’ rankings. It divides EPI scores into 15-point ranges so the top-ranked countries fall into the 85-to-100 segment, followed by 70-85, and so on.
Denmark and the United States both fell into the 55-70 EPI score range with Denmark at 69.2 and the United States at 63.5. The 55-70 EPI score range was the biggest category, including 73 of the study’s 163 countries.
“According to our results, Denmark’s scores are lagging in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, carbon efficiency of its power generation and harsh use of dredging and trawling in its national fishing practices,” Kim said.
The United States ranked 61 overall compared to Denmark’s 32. Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland all placed in the top 12, with Iceland at number one and Sweden at number four.
Søndergaard, however, said the study does not account for factors such as population density.
“In Denmark, there live more people per square mile than in those countries. Furthermore, Denmark is a nation with a large farming industry which is another disadvantage in the Environmental Performance Index,” she said.
Denmark is the leader in energy efficiency with 19 percent of its energy coming from wind turbines. The country has also taken the initiative in many other areas to conserve energy, including car-free Sundays, turning off lights during closing store hours and creating higher taxes for energy use.
“Denmark is still strong on environmental services for humans, although its environmental burden of disease is slightly behind that of its peers,” Kim said.
While Denmark has taken more steps in energy conservation than any other country, according to the EPI, it is lacking in other areas of environmental protection. Denmark scored less than 50 (with 100 being the best and 0 the worst) in the categories of water quality in nature, fisheries and climate change.
Søndergaard said Denmark has already taken the initiative in implementing environmental protection policies in these areas.
It is obvious there is room for improvement across the globe in sustainability efforts. Kim said the solution starts with addressing the problem.
“Not prioritizing environment, in other words not caring, is the worst a country can do to negatively affect its environment,” Kim said.