Bicycles, bicycles, and more bicycles. That’s the first thing you notice after landing in Copenhagen. Driving from the airport into the city, one is amazed at the sheer number of bicycles on the road. They are everywhere and outnumber the cute European cars and colourful buses. And the cyclists seem to have the first right over the way as men and women — both young and old — paddle their way to glory.
In their dark jackets and woolens and nonchalantly staring ahead, they look so cool. That most of them are blonde with sharp, Viking features perhaps helps the fact. Women are gliding all the time on their bicycles in the lane reserved for cyclists, with their young brood warm and snug in front baskets.
Denmark as a policy discourages the use of automobiles. According to our thoughtful Afghan cabbie Yunus, cars are absurdly expensive thanks to the 200 per cent vehicle tax. So a car that could be yours for US$17,000 in our part of the world will demand something in the range of US$170,000 or 700,000 Danish kroner. No wonder bicycle is the favoured mode of public transport.
This preoccupation with environment and conservation of natural resources is not limited to cycling. It manifests itself everywhere — in as insignificant things as toilets that offer ‘half and full’ flush options to the extensive use of wind turbines to harnessing natural energy. The world’s largest wind farm — capable of supplying carbon-free, clean electricity to some 200,000 households — is in Denmark. The first was set up in as early as 1891.
Environment and green technologies are big business in most Scandinavian countries. With their rich financial and natural resources and relatively small populations, they can probably afford to have stringent environment norms and regulations in place and even implement them. Which large developing countries such as India and Brazil can’t — for these very reasons.
But there’s another explanation why Scandinavian countries obsess over climate change. With their proximity to the North Pole and with the Arctic ice fast melting, the Nordic nations may be among the first victims of global warming.
Ultimately though, I suppose, it all comes down to a people’s attitude and their priorities and concerns. Nations like Denmark have invested a great deal of hard work and persistence over the years in environment conservation, just as they have jealously guarded their history, monuments and architectural marvels.
Denmark has a long history of environment protection and energy conservation. The government in Copenhagen has for years worked with industry leaders and energy giants to invest in clean and renewable energy, long before the rest of the world heard of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) recommending global emission cuts.
The country began investing in renewable and clean energy after the 1973 oil crisis. By imposing high taxes on automobiles and fossil fuels, the country has managed to keep itself largely free of carbon emissions even as its economy has grown by leaps and bounds over the past quarter century. In 1973 Denmark got 99 per cent of its energy and electricity from the Middle Eastern oil. Today it’s zero.
Little wonder Denmark’s carbon footprint is one of the lowest in the world. Which is probably why the country had been chosen to host the crucial climate change summit in 2009, in an attempt to hammer out a new treaty on reducing carbon emissions responsible for climate change.
While scientists and environment experts are getting increasingly desperate for urgent steps to deal with the problem warning of serious consequences, most governments are yet to demonstrate they understand the gravity of the threat. Climate experts suspect it may already be too late to reverse the catastrophic effects of climate change on the planet. Even if all countries go for the proposed 20 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2020, we may not meet the target of bringing down global temperatures by 2 per cent. As former UN chief Kofi Annan put it, climate change is not an abstract issue of academic debate anymore. It is an existential threat to the mankind. This is a global problem and demands a global solution. Annan reminds the West that even though the global warming is the direct consequence of the rich, industrialised world’s reckless abuse of nature for decades, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries are paying the price for its actions.
Bangladesh’s former foreign minister Dr Hasan Mahmoud draws parallels between the sinking of Titanic and global meltdown. He warns the rich, industrialised nations that just as when Titanic went down taking with it both first class passengers and those below the deck, the climate crisis would target rich nations like the US and poor ones like Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has enough reasons to get nervous about the climate change. Because while the climate crisis threatens everyone on the planet, low-lying countries like Bangladesh and Maldives face a clear and present danger of being swallowed up by rising sea levels. Having missed the bus in Copenhagen thanks to the callous indifference of the United States, the biggest contributor to global warming, and lack of willingness by emerging players like China and India, that threat is now all the more palpable. The planet’s future is at stake. Collective failure will lead to collective doom.