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Denmark's organics, Spain's trains & Chad's carbon footprint

At a one-year-old’s birthday last month where a typically Barcelonian mix of Brits, Americans, Spaniards, Catalans, a Dane, an Italian and perhaps an Italian had just finished singing 3 different versions of Happy Birthday (well, the Catalans don’t actually have a version, but they make do with a congratulatory song wishing the recipient happiness), the Danish woman noticed my daugher’s fascination with her distended stomach and commented, “Don’t all kids love their stomachs”.

I had never realized that tummy love was a universal toddler trait (if it is), but it started us talking: no she didn’t have kids, she’d been in Spain 6 years and with a Spanish partner for 10 and she works for an aid organization. When she asked what I did for work and found out about our website, she jumped in with “Oh, you must find that tough in this country. They’re so behind on the environment.”

I haven’t been able to get used to this: recently-met expats criticizing the country you’ve both chosen to live in without at least first finding out your position on the topic, or the country.

As I tried to formulate a defense of Spain’s entire environmental record, she continued, “I can’t even find biologic [organic] milk here”.

Without stopping to examine the relative importance of this apparent lack, I replied, “Yeah, it’s a bit harder than at home, but my local supermarket sells it. And Veritas [an organic supermarket chain] and there’s always the natural stores.”

What does biologic milk have to do with it?

Then I tried to defend my husband’s, and daughter’s, homeland by agreeing that while some things may seem a bit eco-backward at face value, when you examine them a bit more that’s not always the case.

As an example, I launched in on my recent post about how while although they don’t have the second hand clothing market we have in the States and other parts of Europe, that is changing among the younger generations and the older generations could perhaps teach us something with their ability and willingness to fix old clothing instead of just buying new.

She nodded, but I’m not sure if she even heard me. It was obvious she still wanted to talk about organic, or what she kept calling biologic. “I started buying biologic when I was 18, and I’m 44 now. I mean in Denmark you can find it everywhere.”

I think she had most countries beat with that. Back in ’83, I definitely had never heard of organic. That night, I went home and emailed my sister about the conversation and asked if she remembered when she first heard of organic.

“I don’t remember hearing about organic until more recently in the US. But, I do remember when I was in Denmark visiting Louise [an ex-foreign exchange student of our families] when I was 19 or so [almost 20 years ago] and we went to get some groceries and she got the free range eggs and sort of had to explain to me why they were so much better than the regular ones. I had never heard of that. I think when a 17 year old is buying free range eggs you know it had probably been around for a while at that point.”

With a bit of research, I found out she’s right. Denmark did get involved early in organic food. They were the first country to adopt a national certification in 1987- 15 years before the U.S.- and now it’s 2nd only to Switzerland in organic consumption per person. And relevant to my birthday party conversation: milk is the top selling with nearly 1 in 3 Danes buying organic milk

Measuring a country’s “greenness”

I’ll grant one point for Denmark, but should organics really be a benchmark for a country’s environmental record?

What about something a bit more obvious. When you look at CO2 emissions per capita, there’s no contest. On Wikipedia’s list, Denmark ranks #36 with a CO2/person of 9.8, while Spain is #51 with CO2/person at 7.72 (The US and Canada are ranked 10 and 11, respectively).

Spain takes advantage of the sun and the wind to provide a large chunk of their energy requirements. Currently, renewable sources satisfy 20% of their energy demand and they’re aiming to make that 30% by 2010.

Denmark, as the 3rd largest wind power producer in Europe (after Germany and Spain), isn’t doing badly, but they lag behind Spain. Currently they are producing 15% of their energy from renewables and they hope to make that 20% by 2011.

The Scandanavians also lose points for using more electricity, though perhaps that can be blamed on the much colder winters up north.  Danes use about 15% more electricity than Spaniards.

Northern bikers vs Southern railers

While Copenhagen is famous for its bike culture- 33% of commuters bike to work-, the country as a whole doesn’t fare so well when it comes to using public transport. Denmark falls below the European Union average of 21% of the population using public transit.

In contrast, 30% of Spaniards use public transport. And in cities like Barcelona bike use is growing (I shot a video on the hugely successful
bikesharing program Bicing

Part of the problem for Denmark is population growth is sprawling out from city centers to areas often just accessible by car. Even within cities, density is far from exemplary. There are just 1850 people per square kilometer in Copenhagen, while Barcelona has 4,850 and Madrid 5,200.

While Danes are some of the Europeans least likely to use the train, trains in Spain are growing in popularity. High speed rail travel here jumped 28% last year- thanks in part to the launch of the new Barcelona-Madrid line (I shot a video of our trip last February)- and domestic air travel fell by 20%. 

Experts are calling this shift from air to the rails “a revolution in Spanish travel habits“. One year ago air travel accounted for 72% of long distance domestic travel. Today the number is down to 60% and one business school professor told the paper that air/rail would reach parity in 2 years.

Spaniards most willing to sacrifice for sustainable travel

The greening of Spanish travel isn’t just due to the extensive rail network in this country- the government plans to have a train station within 50km of 90% of the population by 2020-, but attitudes here reflect a willingness to sacrifice for sustainability.

According to a travel industry survey, “the Spanish are putting the rest of Europe to shame, boasting a population far more inclined to fund sustainable travel than any others”.

They’re the most willing to pay for carbon offsetting projects, as well as the most likely to putting in effort to make their holiday sustainable.

Who’s eating too much beef?

Of course, transport isn’t the only contributor to climate change. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than transport.

Both countries eat too much meat, but while Spain is known for it’s chorizo and jamón iberico (the Economist has called it the best cured meat on the planet), it is also famous for vegetarian options like gazpacho, tortilla española and paella (meatless options exist).

So it seems that the Danes with their national dish of Frikadeller meat balls lose this contest. The European average for meat consumption per year is 74.3 kilograms per person; Spaniards eat 118.6 kg/person/year and the Danes, 145.9 kg/person/year.

Talking the talk in Norway

I could go on- Danes do seem to win with recycling rates though they have a small island with little space for landfill-, but I doubt I’ll ever find a “winner” of national greenness.

The variables are endless. Even a country like Norway that is domestically very environmentally pious (according to the Economist)- they were one of the first countries to adopt a carbon tax in ’91, has a prime minister who has vowed to make the country carbon neutral by 2030 and currently produce 98-99% of their electricity from hydroelectric plants- has a big carbon footprint.

But while the Norwegians may benefit from terrain with lots of high lakes, rivers and waterfalls for their green power, their commitment to the environment may be limited to the lower hanging fruit.

Electricity consumption in Norway is several times the European average- as Rasmus Hansson of WWF-Norway explained it to the Economist, “they are as prodigal with heating as Americans are with petrol”.

And if you consider the emissions of their exports- they’re the world’s 3rd-biggest exporter of gas and 4th-biggest of oil- they rank poorly compared to other less righteous countries. Hansson argues Norway should cut exports of these big emittors setting an example for the world, but backing a move like this could be political suicide for any prime minister.

So despite their good green image, when looking at their greenhouse gas emissions- which have grown 15% since they adopted the carbon tax- Norway ranks 12th worldwide, right after the U.S. and Canada.

Should we be living like Chadians?

I was curious who would rank highly on this international emissions chart so I skipped to the bottom and found Chad in last place with the lowest carbon footprint per person in the world.

It just so happens that Chad is the only African country I’ve visited. Here, there are no railroads and only 500 kilometers of their over 33,000 kms of highways are paved.

One of the most surprising things about the country was the distances people are willing to walk. Driving in our UN vehicles over dusty roads throughout the country, we passed few other vehicles. But, quite often, after driving for miles without seeing a building, street sign, or any sign of human life, we would pass a person or two on foot walking in the often 40°C (104°F) heat. I remember commenting on it to one of my teen reporters (we were there to shoot a documentary for MTV on the Darfur crisis) who shrugged and said something about how it was the same in her home country (she’s Rwandan).

I’m not sure many Europeans would opt to live like a Chadian in order to cut their carbon footprint- and obviously that’s not why those in Chad live as they do-, but thinking about the huge difference in resources we consume makes me even quicker to keep my mouth shut about anything positive I’ve been able to do in the past few years to cut my consumption/energy use. 

I’m sure, as my sister wrote in her email, my new Danish acquaintance simply had wanted to make conversation and to just talk about the long history of organics in her country. But for someone who has to fly home to see family (see post on frequent flier guilt), perhaps criticizing a host country addicted to the rails is not the wisest of arguments.

Oh, and from what I’ve read, it seems that back in ’82 when the organic market was just getting started in Denmark, they didn’t have organic milk: in fact, the only product you could buy were organic carrots.