Dan Jørgensen
Denmark’s Minister for Climate, Energy and Utilities

It’s a small country with big ambitions when it comes to climate change. The new government in Denmark plans to overhaul entirely the way it conducts climate policy, with a goal of reducing emissions by 70 percent by 2030 compared to 1990. And it says it’s doing so based on what science tells us, not what political expedience would suggest.

In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks with Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s Minister for Climate, Energy and Utilities since June. Minister Jørgensen was elected to the Danish parliament in 2013 and served as minister for food and agriculture between 2013 and 2015. He was also a Member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2013, and has taught at universities in Denmark, France and the United States.

Now, he’s in charge of an ambitious climate policy put in place by Denmark’s ruling Social Democrat Party and its three center-left allies.

Bill sat down with Minister Jørgensen during his recent visit to Washington to talk about Denmark’s plans to be among the nations that do the most to combat climate change, and the political climate in Denmark that makes such policies possible now. He walked Bill through some of the initial steps taken by his government and its plans to lock in its policies through a new climate law.

They also talked about Denmark’s plans to promote such policies across Europe and enable financing of green technology around the world.

Finally, the minister outlined a collaboration with Germany and the Netherlands to build an artificial island in the North Sea that could provide 10 to 15 gigawatts of offshore wind power and serve as a source for other forms of energy, like using hydrogen for energy storage.

View the Transcript

Bill Loveless:  It's a small country with big ambitions when it comes to climate change.  The new government in Denmark plans to overhaul entirely the way it conducts climate policy, with the goal of reducing emissions by 70% by 2030, compared to 1990.  And it says it's doing so based on what science tells us, not what political expedience might suggest.  Hello, and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.  From Washington, I’m Bill Loveless.  Our guest today is Dan Jorgensen, Denmark's Minister for Climate, Energy and Utility since June.  Minister Jorgensen was elected to the Danish parliament in 2013 and served as Minister for food and agriculture between 2013 and 2015.  He was also a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2013 and has taught at universities in Denmark, France, and the United States.  Now, he's in charge of an ambitious climate policy put in place by Denmark's ruling Social Democrat Party, and its three center left allies.  I sat down with Minister Jorgensen during his recent visit to Washington to talk about Denmark's plans to be among the nations that does the most to combat climate change, including the political climate in Denmark that makes such policies possible now, he walked me through some of the initial steps taken by his government, and his plans to lock in its policies through a new climate law.  We also talked about Denmark's plans to promote such policies across Europe and enable financing of green technology around the world.  Finally, he told me about collaboration with Germany and the Netherlands to build an artificial island in the North Sea that could provide 10 to 15 gigawatts of Offshore Wind Power and serve as a source for other forms of energy, like using hydrogen for energy storage.   Well, here's our conversation.  I hope you enjoy it.  Minister Dan Jorgensen, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.

Dan Jorgensen:  Thank you so much.

Bill Loveless:  Mr. Minister, there's been a lot happening in Denmark recently.  In some ways, it's remarkable.  The activity that's taken place since your government came into power earlier this year.  It has laid out some major initiatives, but first tells us, what is the climate in Denmark right now that has enabled this sort of action?

Dan Jorgensen:  Well, I can tell you that the first thing that happened when I stepped into my new ministry was we changed the name.  So before, it was the Ministry of Energy, Utilities, and Climate, now it's the Ministry of Climate, Energy, and Utilities.

Bill Loveless:  You flipped it.

Dan Jorgensen:  We flipped it.  It's a small thing, but you know, words matter and how you describe problems and challenges matter. And it really is fair to say that fighting climate change being a world leader on these issues that is the top priority for this new government.  And that also, of course, reflects which leads me to answering your question, the general atmosphere in the population in Denmark.  Now we've--for decades, this has been an issue in our country and we've been, I think it's fair to say leaders on many issues on green transformation for many, many years, but it's never been a topic that's been decisive in elections, but that has changed.  It was a top priority on the political agenda.  It was discussed in all the debates, even the debates between the two candidates to become Prime Minister and many voters stated that was the decisive issue for them.  That of course, also meant that when we started the negotiations after the election on forming a government, it was also the most important issue, and the result of those negotiation was that we could form a government.  My party the Social Democrats, with support from three other parties and the way that works in Denmark is that we made a memorandum of understanding, obligating the new government to take action on different issues, and the first issue in that memorandum is we need to be world leaders in the fight against climate change.

Bill Loveless:  Well, it's interesting because the climate change has been a concern in Denmark for some time as it has been in other nations.  But at the same time, we see a lot of, you know, there are still issues that surround the issue.  There's skepticism in some places and these sorts of things, what really prompted the change? What brought about?

Dan Jorgensen:  Listen, climate skepticism, fortunately we don't really struggle with that in Denmark anymore.  I think basically the fact that now people can see the changes with their own eyes.  They don't have to believe what scientists tell them or read, long, boring, dull Scientific Reports.  They can just look out of their window.  We have extreme weather phenomena.  We have--We are also an Arctic nation because the kingdom of Denmark also includes Greenland.  It's an independent nation, but it's a part of our kingdom, and there we see the changes firsthand.  Also, I think basically, is a rational argument, so if you imagine going to the doctor, and the doctor tells you well, you are very ill, you'll probably die along and painful death.  But the good news is, we can do something about it, you can change your way of living, and it was will have a lot of other positive side effects.  I think most people would do that, most people wouldn't say, okay, I'd like a second opinion, and even if they did that, they definitely wouldn't say, I'd like 99 second opinions.  And when they all say the same, then if doctor number 100 says, I can see all the symptoms, but I'm not quite sure they'll actually help if you change your way of life.  Would you listen to that doctor? Obviously you wouldn't.  It's the same with climate change, if all scientists tell you, this is the problem.  It's serious, but you can actually do something about it.  Then it's only rational logic that we do, that we act, you know.

Bill Loveless:  There are some very ambitious goals that had been set out by your government and it’s leading through example policy.  Tell us about them.

Dan Jorgensen:  Well, our goal is to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% in 2030, compared to 1990.  This means that we will have to reduce with the same amount of CO2 from now until 2030, as we've done from 1990 until now.  That will be obviously a huge challenge.  We even have to tell people that okay, listen, we don't exactly know how to get there.  But our point of view is that really, we shouldn't ask what's possible, we should ask what's necessary, and then the task is to make the necessary possible.  And to show people that we actually mean it.  This is not just fancy talk.  We are now negotiating.  I am negotiating with the other parties of the Danish parliament, a climate act that will legally bind us to achieve it.  This is quite historic. We are making a legal act that will bind us to achieve a target that we don't know how to achieve.

Bill Loveless:  Yeah, you know, you've watched these issues for many years.  You've lectured on college campuses as as a specialist in environmental policy for a number of years.  You've seen things change dramatically from you were first talking to say students on campus, say just a few years ago.

Dan Jorgensen:  Definitely.  It's fair to say I think in all countries I go, I see a change, some places more than others.  But I see a change in how engaged people are.  To be honest with you, I also see a change in how afraid people are.  This is really something that concerns the young generation and I understand that.  If we don't do something about climate change, it will fundamentally change our lives to the worse, and if, like many young peoples are, you are also concerned about what will happen in the past of the world that will be hit the worst bodies consequences, then that just sparks your frustration when nothing happens.  In Denmark, I think probably also, one of the reasons why this is high on the agenda than has been before is also that even though, I just told you that, we have to say honestly, we don't exactly know how to reach the very ambitious target that we've set.  At the same time, we have done major progress.  For instance, last Sunday, for the first time ever, we produced 150% more electricity than we needed purely by wind purely by wind. Interesting, imagine that.  And the technology has changed so much and I have to say, probably because or some people will probably even argue primarily because what we've done in Denmark for three decades now, so that when wind turbines are being built all over the planet, when wind farms are being put into sea's all over the planet, they can actually compete with the cheapest fossil energy, coal, it's cheaper than coal now.  And that just shows you that some challenges that seems big, that seems expensive that looks like something that if you have to do that, you'll also have to lower your standards of living.  When you look at it, actually, what's happened on almost all the issues that we've tackled in the past, is the opposite has happened.  We've become a richer, more competitive, cleaner country.

Bill Loveless:  You know, one of the other goals that your government has set is 100% renewable energy for electric power by 2030 based on what you just told me.

Dan Jorgensen:  We will reach it in 2028.

Bill Loveless:  Really?

Dan Jorgensen:  Two years before that.  In 2030, we will have 108% and that's what decisions already been made and we're going to make even more decisions in that direction.  So we will--this is why wind farms already planned, where we know that they will be there, but we want at least three, maybe even five more wind farms, so our ambition is twofold.  First of all, we want to also contribute to the rest of Europe's energy mix.  Second, in the future, if we are to have more sustainable transport, for instance, more sustainable heating, we need to find a way of taking the power from the wind and putting that into other types of our energy grid.  This is what the science is called power-to-X.  It sounds like science fiction, but really it's not.  We know how to do it.  We just haven't done it in the scale that's necessary yet.  So, we want to take the power from a wind turbine, make it into gas, put it into a district heating system and can be done.  Can I just tell you one small fact about how big the wind turbines are now, what they can do? I had the honor of inaugurating the biggest wind turbine farm in Denmark a few weeks ago with the Crown Prince and one of those huge turbines, just one turn of the blades, one time, one of those and there is 49 of them creates enough electricity to charge 1312 I think it is iPhones, one time, and they go 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Bill Loveless:  Yeah.  Wind has come remarkably and the turbines are changing offering much more power, they operate that much more efficiently.  This is where most of the renewable energy in Denmark would come from wind.

Dan Jorgensen:  Well, yes.  We clearly have a lot of wind and we will have even more.  We also have solar energy of course, that also will expand.  You need to see this in connection also, of course, with energy efficiency, because one thing is reducing emissions by using renewable energy instead of fossil, but It's even more smart to be more energy efficient so that you don't use energy at all and in our buildings and in our industries, we've gone far, but we'll go even further.  Now, we to be honest with you, we do have one big challenge and that is this transformation that we're doing right now into 100% renewables and green energy not only in electricity, which is--I was gonna say an easy part obviously it's not but which is manageable.  We have a problem with the heating sector and we also have a problem with the fact that right now we don't know how to store energy from the wind, so this means that we will have a period of time where we use biomass as an alternative.  Now, biomass is clearly better than coal, but if we learn it will help us reach our 2030 target, but we also need to look even further than that, because we want to be fossil fuel free in 2045, and all Western countries need to be CO2 neutral, basically by 2050, more or less if we are to prevent the worst climate change.  So, we know that biomass even though the United Nations counts it as a 100% renewable energy, it counts as if it was wind energy.  We think that we need to get rid of that as fast as possible also, and obviously doesn't, you have to differentiate between different types of biomass, some are much more sustainable than others.

Bill Loveless:  Right.

Dan Jorgensen:  But it's clear for us that it's a part of transformation, but it's probably my biggest headache right now.

Bill Loveless:  Interesting, and of course, one of the biggest goal I suppose, is the one that--see exact net is zero emissions by 2050, not something that's binding in any sense and the law, you mentioned.  Law is something that the government will be working on, but nevertheless, it's a big aspiration that's out there for your government.

Dan Jorgensen:  It is, and it's also important to say here that why are we doing this as a country, we are only responsible for 0.1% of the world's emissions; it will be naive of me to think that what we do in any way affects the climate.

Bill Loveless:  I think that's an interesting point too, because, I mean, that for many countries, you know, there's a lot of discussion over how great a role they play when, you know, they don't contribute significantly or in the case of many developing countries, some say well, you know, they have are cutting their emissions now and why should they risk danger to their economy?

Dan Jorgensen:  Yeah, I think it's important to to say that the reason we do it anyway is because we feel that, but we can influence the world the most, is by setting an example, you know, we used to be a country with a lot of power back when the Vikings ruled our part of the world, that was when physical strength was power.  Today, wind turbine power is our power because when we set an example other countries follow and when we show the rest of the world that you can actually reduce your emissions also by these, some people would say quite extreme targets without hurting our competitiveness as a nation, without hurting job creation actually doing probably the opposite, and also in a way that would create healthier living standards for people, healthier economies for normal households.  If we succeed, it's not going to be an easy task, but if we succeed doing that, I think probably a small country like Denmark can do a bigger difference than many other bigger countries.

Bill Loveless:  Play a big role?

Dan Jorgensen:  It's a big role.  You also mentioned the developing countries and emerging economies, and I think it's important to say, you probably also have listeners all over the world, so I'd like to say that for us, we see this as a common responsibility for all nations on the planet, but it's a common and differentiated responsibility.  We have a bigger responsibility in the West than China does for instance.  Some people would probably think that, that's a little bit of a paradox because China is where the emissions are growing, just to give you an example, everyday 60,142 new cars an average hit the streets of China.  So you see, and so in that sense, we will not succeed fighting climate change if they are not on board.  On the other hand, who are we, our countries that has been polluting for 150 years? Who are we to tell emerging economies? Listen, it's not okay that your people start buying cars.  It's not okay that you, the people of India, start buying air conditioners, by the way, they buy 90,000 a day, 62 new ones per minute, but of course they do.  They are raising their living standards.  Our task is to help them not stop that growth, but make the growth sustainable.  I visited the tribe of Maasai warriors in Kenya some years back.  They literally live in huts made of what comes out of the back end of a cow.

Bill Loveless:  Right.

Dan Jorgensen:  So that's very primitive, but they all had iPhones.  It made me think because listen, they did not go through the same development platforms that we did.  First cables, then the first phones that--portable phones that were very expensive, very big.  They jumped direct into the new technology of iPhones.  Now, we need to make sure if that happens all over the world when people raise the living standards that they did not get the newest, the best technology, for instance, wind power.  This is why we also spend a lot of resources in Denmark on helping other countries getting sustainable energy transformation.

Bill Loveless:  What is your country doing along those lines?

Dan Jorgensen:  We have 15 bilateral corporations with the US for instance is one, but where we really make a difference is in country like China for instance, we have send engineers to Beijing to work with them on preventing energy curtailment, this is when, for instance, the wind blows and you didn't get energy from wind turbines into the grid.  If you are not able to then turn down the production from your power plants, you will actually waste energy.  This sounds like a no brainer, but actually, technically it's quite difficult to do.  But our engineers managed to help the Chinese because not that we're smarter than them, obviously, they are extremely smart people, but they don't have the experience that we have.  So we've helped them create a system where they can actually do this now and that has led to reductions in CO2 emissions, that technique alone that if you compare it to the Danish emissions that will equal 62% of our emissions in our whole country.  So it just shows you that small efforts, which are not small, really but small compared to so many other things we do, can make a huge difference.

Bill Loveless:  Right.  Can a small country like Denmark with such big aspirations and commitment in this area, help make up for a difference, you say, you see from say the United States playing less of a role from a policy in a diplomatic aspect these days.

Dan Jorgensen:  Unfortunately, I think we have to acknowledge that if we are to prevent the worst climate changes, remember, they are already here--we are not talking about preventing climate change, that's already here.  If we are to prevent the self-enhancing effects, the positive feedback mechanisms set in and thereby creating an irreversible state, all countries of the planet needs to act, all and so, yes, it's important that some countries take the lead, and I hope that Denmark can do that and set the example and develop new technologies and help other countries and all of that.  But it won't help and we won't go to where we need to go, if all countries don't contribute, and especially the key players, which are the EU, the US, China, India, the whole group of developing countries, Brazil, Mexico, but with the biggest taking the lead, of course, so we just pray that the US will reconsider, and not withdraw from the Paris Agreement.  I followed the cup negotiations for many, many years since Kyoto when I was a very young man and I followed it from a distance and I have to say that I've always believed in the process not so much because I had made a rational calculation that this will end up as success.  Actually, the opposite I believed in it because it was our only hope, but if I had to write an essay at University when I was a student myself, I wanted a good grade, so obviously, I would never write this will work, because if you look at it analytically, how can it work? How can you make unanimity decisions on issues this important, including 190 countries, but then Paris happened, it did happen?  Does Paris Agreement solve all problems, obviously not, but it takes us quite a far way and imagines that we now have an International Agreement that can actually lead the process.  This is why of course, not only Denmark, but the entire European Union was quite sad when America decided to withdraw, so we hope that will change.

Bill Loveless:  Can Denmark convince the European Union to follow suit, you know, what sort of reception is your governments plan getting now from other nations in Europe?

Dan Jorgensen:  Well, we just elected a new Commissioner, well, president of the Commission, and maybe I should just bend for a second explaining the American listeners what the European Union is.

Bill Loveless:  That's always a good idea.

Dan Jorgensen:  And I don't mean to offend anybody, it is totally fair that you don't know how it works, but the European Union is a collaboration of 27 countries, you know, of course the UK is leaving 28, now 27, and we have some institutions where we work together.  We have European Parliament; I used to serve there for almost 10 years.  It's a body that makes laws legislation.  We also have a Council of Ministers, so the European Parliament is directly elected by the public of the different countries and the Council of Ministers; you have one minister from each country.  So in a way, you can you can compare those two institutions with your Congress, so House of Representatives would be our parliament, and Senate would be our council of ministers.  But then, we have a third institution also, which is the commission.  The Commission has one member from each country and a president, and they have a monopoly on proposing new legislation, so that's why they are extremely important, and they are elected in five year terms, and right now, we've elected the new president Ursula von der Leyen, the German former Minister of Defense, and she has just put forward her ambitions and that was a very long introduction to what I'm going to say now.

Bill Loveless:  I was going to say that very good, your background as a professor is a very good lecturer, by the ways coming through here.

Dan Jorgensen:  Thank you so much.  Thank you, but what you said is, we want to make a Green Deal.  We want the EU to be carbon neutral in 2050, and we want to reduce the EUs emission in 2030 compared to 90 by 55%--between 50 and 55%.  Now, we say 70 in Denmark, yes, but that the whole of the EU says 55.  If we end up agreeing on that, that's also a huge progress.  So I'm actually quite optimistic, I see other countries also moving ahead.  Finland, new government has an extremely ambitious target, the Netherlands, Spain.  France is a little bit of a different story.  They are extremely ambitious, but you probably also heard about the Yellow Vests in the streets.

Bill Loveless:  Right.

Dan Jorgensen:  Huge challenge for all of us, I think.  How do you make this transformation without it hurting the living standards of the poorest people in your countries, but all in all, I'd say that I'm pretty optimistic.

Bill Loveless:  You know one thing I want to talk to you about while we have--I still have time because I find it so fascinating is this artificial energy island?

Dan Jorgensen:  Yes.

Bill Loveless:  In the North Sea.

Dan Jorgensen: Yes.

Bill Loveless:  You're talking renewables before and you can talk about those big

Dan Jorgensen:  People think this is a science fiction show now, if we go into that, but yes, listen, we've set a target that's so ambitious, that we know that we will not get with the instruments that we have now, and one of the areas where we are lead us already, that's on wind power.  But as I told you, we still really haven't solved the problem of how to install the wind, so you can use it, also when, the winds are not blowing, and so you don't have a surplus of wind, when the wind is blowing.  But in order for that technology to develop, we need even larger scale production that we have now.  So, what we're looking into now and what was a part of the political understanding when we formed our government, is that we want to create an artificial island in the North Sea with connected to wind turbines that will create 10 gigawatts.  This is more than 20 times the size of the biggest wind farm we have now.  This will create electricity to not only surpass what we need in Denmark actually to create 150% of what we need.  And remember, we already have made decisions to make wind turbines that will create 108% of what we need.  So, the reason we do it is well, we want to be a part of the European Grid and we know that we can then help out face coal in other countries, but we also want this to be connected to new Power-to-X technologies.  So in my vision, in not that many years, you will see wind power being made into gas, being put into the Central Heating System.  You'll see cars driving on gas, you'll see cars driving on electricity, obviously from wind, but that's not so new, and I think it's feasible.  Other countries are looking into similar projects also.  The problem with it is that it's so big, it needs investments of a magnitude that we've never seen before.  In Denmark, the biggest infrastructure project we've had In many decades, is really big Bridge Storstrom, it's called, when that was built, it was the biggest bridge of that sort in the world, this investment is six times bigger than that and it's far way out in the sea nobody can actually see it with their bear eyes and it's something that will happen in the future.  How do you get the public support for that? So this is also a challenge to communicate obviously.  The good news, of course, is that this is not only going to be paid by taxpayers money, actually probably a very small part of it will be taxpayers money because the private investors are there and that's probably actually the biggest change that's happened, and that's really good news is that the guys on Wall Street, I don't think many of them are tree-hugging hippies.  They are seeing now how this works.  The big institutional investors to pension funds, they are really putting their money into these projects over these years and that will probably even increase in the future, I think.

Bill Loveless:  One last thing, you mentioned the investors seem to be responding to these opportunities and as challenging as they may be, you mentioned before that the government would be working on a law to to sort of put into concrete a lot of these goals and obligations for Denmark.  We see here in Washington, how difficult it can be to pass laws, having to do with the environment, well just about anything, it seems some days, but how difficult will it be to actually enact a law to lock in these things given the wide differences among parties that you have in your country?

Dan Jorgensen:  Well, had you asked me five years ago, I'd say that's an impossible job.  Now, I see it as the easiest part of my job not because it's easy, but because the other parts are even more difficult.  Well, the good news is that we have started the negotiations and well, if we were cynical, we have a majority to pass the law that we want, because we have the supporting parties there.  But it's my ambition to make a broad majority behind this.  I think if you were to look at which institutional differences that has made Denmark successful in changing into renewables over the decades, I'm proud to say that my party has been in the lead of this transformation, but I also have to admit that it wouldn't have been a success if we hadn't made broad negotiations and broad deals, but also the right wing parties of the Danish Parliament because these investments are so big that you need certainty for the markets.  They need to be sure that the political atmosphere will not change every four years with an election.  So this is why It's so important for me to also get the other parties on board and they have actually now, at least two of them, we have a multiparty system by the way, maybe I should have explained that to go ahead, but we have many parties that we need to get on board, two of them have already said that they want to be a part of this.

Bill Loveless:  Will it be difficult to get--to expand that support?

Dan Jorgensen:  I'm an optimist.  I'm actually more concerned about how will we actually do it because this is very difficult technical stuff.  How do you actually make a law that makes politicians responsible because remember, politician can just change the law.  So, it's not an easy task, but more countries than us are actually doing it.  Germany are negotiating a similar deal.  UK already has one.  The Prime Minister has said that we need it to done before Christmas and she's my boss, so I'm going to do that, but then

Bill Loveless:  That soon?

Dan Jorgensen:  Yeah, that's soon, but that's, also remember this is just the first step because then the really difficult part, this is then we have to start negotiating then how will we achieve it? Basically what we're doing now with the law, that's the framework that's binding us legally to the target, then we need to start achieving the targets.  So that's expanding renewables, but that's also going into the sectors where we really aren't front runners now, but where we need to be.  Agriculture sector, okay, maybe we are front runners, but we definitely not doing enough.  Even so, in transport sector difficult, difficult job, but I'm quite optimistic that we will get that.

Bill Loveless:  A heavy lift, but for a very, very ambitious plan in Denmark.

Minister Dan Jorgensen, thank you for joining us on the Columbia Energy Exchange.

Dan Jorgensen:  Pleased to be here.  Thank you so much.

Bill Loveless:  Well, that's our conversation.  I hope you enjoyed it.  For more on Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, go to our webpage at energypolicy.columbia.edu or find us on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy.  For Columbia Energy Exchange, I'm Bill Loveless.  We'll be back again next week with another conversation.