It was hard to make out the usually prominent downtown skyline. Even the CN Tower was barely visible through the smoggy haze when my family and I arrived at Pearson Airport after a holiday in Denmark and France.
The traffic gridlock that met us contrasted starkly with strolling Copenhagen's pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets. But the Danes' emphasis on non-polluting transportation is not the only reason for cleaner air in their major city. Denmark entirely shifted its national energy priorities under the pressure of an unrelenting grassroots movement following the first oil crisis in 1973. At the time, the nation was almost completely dependent on foreign oil. It faced a fork in the road - and chose conservation and renewable energy. How can our eco movement pack the same punch?
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It's a sunny June day, and I'm sitting at a picnic table outside the Nordic Folkecenter for Renewable Energy in the city of Hurup with staffer Jane Kruse. We're surrounded by a collection of energy-efficient buildings with solar panels and an eclectic mix of prototypes, including biogas generators, wind turbines and cars fuelled by hydrogen, pure plant oil and electricity. Kruse is a pioneer in the Danish feminist movement. "Young people and women were very vocal against nuclear energy," she tells me. "In April 1985, bowing to public pressure, the Danish parliament made the decision not to build nuclear reactors."
Women politicians created a coalition against nuclear energy and "co-operated across parties to pass legislation supportive of renewable energy," she says. The percentage of women elected in Denmark's proportional-rep system has been stable at 34 per cent - compared with 17 per cent in Canada.
The legacy of Danish feminism is a landscape dotted with 5,300 wind turbines, providing 20 per cent of all electricity. Most have been erected by local cooperatives and individual farmers. In 1980, the Social Democratic government offered a 30 per cent subsidy for new wind installations, creating 20,000 jobs in the process.
The heart of the government's wind power policies were: the right to connect to the electrical grid, a legal obligation for utilities to purchase wind energy and a guaranteed fair price. But keeping green changes is sometimes as hard as winning them. When the Liberal-Conservative coalition government took over in 2001, it demanded wind power stand on its own in the "free" market - which subsidizes fossil fuels with tax breaks and doesn't factor in health and environmental costs.
That was a terrible disappointment for Preben Maegaard, founder of the centre and president of the World Wind Energy Association. Maegaard, who closely resembles British actor Alastair Sim from A Christmas Carol, has just returned from a trip around the world, including Canada. Referring to a presentation he made in Alliston, Ontario, in February, he sounds wistful. "This meeting reminded me of similar ones in Denmark in the late 70s. There were more people than could fit the room."
Looking me squarely in the eye, he says, "Canada has a special situation at this moment, like Denmark after the 1970s energy crisis, or Germany after Chernobyl. But renewable energy development will only happen with the right legislation."
For Maegaard, renewable energy is intrinsically decentralized, small- and medium-scale and democratic. "That's the role of co-ops. When local people own the wind farms and share in the benefits, they will support them. It won't be NIMBY, it will be POOL (Please on our land)." He is strongly opposed to Denmark's current energy policy. "There is now severe discrimination against community power in favour of big companies," he says.
His comments are confirmed during my meetings with Hanne Jersild, a consultant with the Danish Wind Industry Association in Copenhagen. "The government policy is so free-market-oriented and the projects are so large that co-ops are selling their site licences to big developers," he says.
The very reason that the Danish wind industry became an international success - the growing domestic market and strong public support underpinned by locally owned co-ops - has been undermined. Wind turbine manufacturers want to build large-scale offshore wind farms and grow the export business. With all these changes, Germany has now taken the lead in green power innovation.
Meanwhile, here we are in Ontario, sitting through another summer of smog days with our fingers crossed that the power won't go out. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is lobbying in the corridors of power for $12 billion to build eight new nuclear reactors in Ontario, and the McGuinty government has delayed the closure of our worst-polluting coal-fired electrical plant.
We are facing a fork in the road. Which way will we go?
Russ Christianson is the president of Rhythm Communications and has been involved in the development of over 40 cooperatives in Ontario. firstname.lastname@example.org