The new Danish climate law – a small light in the climate darkness?

Helene Dyrhauge |

The school strikes and new environmental social movements have raised awareness of climate change and pushed it higher up on the political agenda. In some countries, it has changed public opinion, for example in Denmark where climate change was the main topic in the Spring European and national parliamentary elections. Indeed, the elections are known as the climate elections. This shift from immigration to climate change as the most important topic in Danish elections shows a change in public perception of the climate crisis, and put pressure on the government to act.

Friday 6th December 2019, the Danish Social Democratic government reached a political agreement with the Red-Green Alliance, the Socialist People’s Party, the Social Liberal Party, the Alternative, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Danish People’s Party about a new climate law.

The climate law sets a binding target of 70% reduction in CO2 (based on 1990) in 2030. Crucially, the minister for climate has a legal duty to act and is accountable to the Parliament, who can give the minister a vote of no confidence if s/he has not made progress towards the target. The law prohibits backsliding. Crucially, it binds future governments to act and develop new policy initatives to make sure Denmark reach its target in 2030. Thus, it is an ambitious law with strong parliamentary control mechanisms.

The Climate Council, an independent advisory body, gets more resources and competences thereby strengthening the climate agenda further. However, the 2020 annual budget has already been adopted, so there are no financing attached to the new climate law. Importantly, the real test comes next spring when the government and the political parties behind the climate law have to negotiation action plans for all sectors, e.g. transport, construction, industry, energy and agriculture.

The sectoral action plans require financing, changes to taxes and a structural reform of each sectors leading to overall structural changes in the Danish economy and society, but the climate law stipulate that these changes must not compromise the economy, jobs or welfare. These policy priorities have traditionally pulled the green transition apart and led to slow progress, both in Denmark, the EU and globally. Indeed, the Danish government and political parties behind the new climate law represent different political ideologies, which can make it difficult to agree on sectoral action plans that will meet the binding climate target in 2030. Thus, the real question is whether the Danish government and parliament is ready to be the climate leader demanded in the new climate law.

As a small country, Danish actions will be small in relation to the level of global emissions. Historically, Denmark has been a frontrunner in early investment in renewable energies, i.e. wind power, and energy efficiency thereby leading by example. The transition to a low carbon society requires actions on all levels and coordination between sectors, it necessitate drastic change in sectoral policy priorities and ending sectoral silo mentality. Thus, policy-makers and industries have to change how they work and adapt to new policy priorities. The positive congratulatory tweets and quotes in the media suggest that all stakeholders in Denmark are ready for structural changes, so perhaps Denmark can become a frontrunner showing the way towards a green transition.

The climate science shows the need for immediate actions.  The school strikes and other environmental movements demand actions now. The Danish industry associations have asked for more ambitious climate initiatives. The Danish government and parliament have listened and acted. The Danish climate law is a step in the right direction, and it is clearly ambitious with strong control mechanisms and a duty to act. Thus, I see the climate law as a small light in the darkness, but remain cautious about whether the sectoral action plans will deliver the real structural changes needed.