According to DTU Professor Michael Hauschild, reducing Denmark’s energy consumption should take top priority in the handling of the current energy crisis. His research focuses on absolute sustainability, with the tolerance thresholds of nature serving as a measure of what we can afford to do. The climate crisis demands a reduction in the use of fossil fuels by industrialized nations until society has transitioned to sustainable energy sources. In the meantime, the bill for any such transition—for example, to cover the establishment of energy islands—is due for payment now.
“I am frequently asked whether Denmark is such a small country that it doesn’t really matter what we do. If we did nothing, you would barely notice it in the planet’s overall CO2 accounts. But it matters, and it is something we must care about because we have a number of very special opportunities to develop technologies and demonstrate that it is possible to use these as the foundation of a functioning and sustainable society,” says Michael Hauschild.
Exploratorium for energy solutions
Michael Hauschild highlights the fact that Denmark is in a special situation as a homogenous country with stable political leadership.
“Compared to other countries, we have confidence in the authorities, and political leaders tend to deliver on the decisions that are made. The Danish adventures in wind turbine technology are a great example of this in action. The political decision was made in the 90s to promote wind power, and that has then been put into practice. It is a tangible example of stability and decisiveness in the energy sector that we do not find in many other places in the world,” says Michael Hauschild, before adding:
Denmark is an exploratorium for energy solutions, as well as potentially for solutions that can be used in the transition to sustainability in many other fields. This entails a responsibility for delivering solutions that are scalable, because if these solutions are to make a significant contribution to a global transition to sustainability then it must be possible to use them elsewhere. It will have no impact on the huge global CO2 footprint if the solutions are only realizable in Denmark. It must also be possible to use them impactfully in countries such as India and China, who are among the major players globally thanks to their populations when it comes to building a sustainable world.
Denmark’s most important responsibility in relation to absolute sustainability is to develop and demonstrate some of the technological quantum leaps that are necessary: This is a high risk area, but it is also high gain. That is just the way it has to be.
Why “absolute sustainability”?
The past many years have taught us that it has not been enough to slightly optimize everything to make it a little more sustainable. For example, we have improved the petrol and diesel cars so they run longer on a litre of fuel. But when the absolute sustainability goal here is that we must be climate neutral, i.e. not emit CO2, then the internal combustion engine will never be a sustainable solution as long as it runs on fossil fuels.
So we have actually made efforts to improve a technology that does not have the potential to ever be sustainable in an absolute sense. Instead of making the wrong technology less wrong, we need to identify technologies, such as electric or hydrogen cars that have the potential to become sustainable in an absolute sense, and work to develop those.
Is there a risk that perfect will become the enemy of the good?
Yes, and there is a risk of impotence if we choose to do nothing. But it’s important to remember that with absolute sustainability, we are playing the long game, i.e. 20-30 years. It’s not about becoming absolutely sustainable tomorrow, but about becoming absolutely sustainable by, say, 2050.
The government’s goal of becoming fully carbon neutral by 2050 is an example of an absolute goal that serves as a benchmark for sustainable development in the long run. And with nearly 30 years ahead of us, we should have enough time to develop the technologies that can support the goal.
Do we have time to wait 30 years?
With an absolute target in 2050, we get a line of sight and thus also the sub-goal of a 70 per cent reduction by 2030, and that helps to get us started, so we don’t just sit around waiting for things to happen. Moreover, technology development takes a long time. It is one thing that we can make all sorts of solutions in the laboratories at DTU, but it requires technology maturation, scaling up, and an actual market before we can roll out technologies such as Power-to-X or CO2 capture on a commercial scale.
But isn’t it better to optimize a bit in the meantime?
Unfortunately, we often see that when we streamline a technology, whether it is cars that achieve a better fuel consumption or LED lights that consume less power than the incandescent bulb, we just start consuming more. We travel longer distances in our cars or use them more often or put up more lighting when its becomes cheaper. Or we use the money saved for something else, such as travels or eating out. It is a well-known mechanism called the rebound effect. Technology efficiency often just leads to more consumption.