Lessons From A Climate Comeback

Fabrizio Tassinari is the executive director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy and a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow. This essay is adapted from “The Pursuit of Governance: Nordic Dispatches on a New Middle Way,” which will be published in November.

Twelve years ago: The setting is the Bella Center, a conference facility in the suburbs of Copenhagen. It’s a freezing December evening. And the 2009 United Nations summit on climate change is just about to spectacularly collapse. 

The gathering that night was not even supposed to take place: With a snowstorm approaching, the Indian prime minister had already announced he was departing for the airport. But there he still was, deep in conversation with the leaders of China, Brazil and South Africa. U.S. President Barack Obama peeped in and popped an innocent question: “Are you ready for me?” There was no space at the table, recounted a Financial Times reporter, so Brazil’s president “squeezed round allowing Mr. Obama to pull up a chair and sit down.”

Whatever the five leaders talked about, it did not save the hyped meeting (which was dubbed “Hopenhagen” at the time) from miserable failure. The summit, known as COP15, collapsed under the weight of irreconcilably different opinions on how or whether to build a legally binding global framework on carbon emissions. “Copenhagen” has since become a byword for global climate discord.

As we approach the COP26 summit in Glasgow, key representatives of major emitters like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping have already snubbed the summit. However, Denmark has a different story to tell, one of a remarkable comeback that highlights the needs and possibilities of an unruly world.

After that disgraced climate summit, most governments would have probably lain low for a while. But over the past decade, Denmark’s climate policies have been ambitious and successful. The country first reached its targets of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 30% share of renewable energy in 2020, and is now aiming for a 40% reduction in emissions and 55% share of renewables by the end of this decade. A broad cross-party coalition has ensured progress toward the goal of phasing out all fossil fuel production by mid-century. And Copenhagen aims to become the first carbon-neutral capital in the world by 2025. Officials have no qualms in admitting that meeting these objectives is taking heavy public investment.

Where it gets interesting is in the means necessary to support these policies. There are the familiar things, such as improving efficiency and extending financial incentives for investment in renewable energy technology. But Denmark is also seeking ways to stimulate innovation and to make green investments attractive for companies. Together with South Korea and Mexico, in 2011 Denmark launched the Global Green Growth Forum (3GF) to marry bottom-up ideas from corporate and research actors with top-down government support. Companies such as Samsung, Siemens and General Electric joined forces with the likes of UC Berkeley, aided by governments that pledge to create a stable environment for green investments. Civil society, businesses and the media were part of the endeavor.

Since 2018, the 3GF has become the P4G (Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030), which has 12 partner countries, six international organizational partners and over 240 business and civil society partners, all working on more than 50 concrete partnerships aimed at “pioneering market-based partnerships to build sustainable and resilient economies” on everything from Africa’s renewable energy markets to cutting food waste. 

Rather than giving up or holding back after the failed Copenhagen summit, Denmark decided to double down. In doing so, it has designed a concrete and precise roadmap to navigate global governance during the climate crisis.

For one, Denmark systematically broadened the type of actors involved beyond governments. Cooperative, complex endeavors require a broad range of participants as well as a sense of purpose. Initiatives such as P4G illustrate that grouping private, public and civic actors can work as a substitute for unwieldy global institutions. This is what is also called a transnational regime, for which climate policies offer a paradigmatic case.

For another, Denmark chose to concentrate on narrow objectives where the interests of diverse actors could coalesce. It opted for an informed, meticulous search for consensus “made of practical steps fulfilling multiple purposes,” as one of the architects of the country’s climate policy told me. 

Underpinning the Danish approach is a ruthless and quintessential Nordic pragmatism. The strategy may be rooted in a dream to save the planet from deliberate self-destruction, but the goal of creating “market-based partnerships” allows little time for starry-eyed idealism. Values matter only as a solid foundation and purpose for concrete deeds.

We are used to referring to Scandinavia as the place where democratic governance has delivered some of its most impressive feats in terms of solidarity, good governance and happiness. So paradigmatic are the Nordic achievements that the political scientist Francis Fukuyama even coined the phrase “getting to Denmark” as the metonymy for ideally governed nations. Copenhagen’s climate debacle and its remarkable comeback point at a different way to get to Denmark: inclusiveness, connectivity and purpose as we navigate the complexities of transnational governance during the climate crisis.