EMG Interview with Danish Minister of Environment

EMG article featured in magazine of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
EMG interview with Ms. Ida Auken, the Danish Minister of Environment on green innovations, closed loop, sustainable product designs, urban revitalization & entrepreneurial enthusiasm: “CSR is driven by business and hereby becomes a part of companies’ DNA and new business model.”

In 1971 Denmark established a Ministry for the Environment and was the first country in the world to implement an environmental law in 1973. Does this ease up your work from the perspective of reputation or it does it impose more demands in order to keep up with expectations? What are the expectations of the Danish people and neighbouring countries?

During the 1960s and 1970s Denmark experienced massive economic growth. Along with the new consumer society, the need for environmental regulation quickly became clear. That is why we as a country today can say that we have a relatively long tradition of taking good care of our nature, water and other resources. Danish citizens expect their drinking water to be fresh and clean and they expect that they can take a swim in the ocean without any risk from pollution.

Of course, it is no easy task to find the perfect balance between use and protection. We are a small country and our space is limited. But the awareness of environmental issues among the people, industry, agriculture and organisations definitely helps. I strongly believe that we need to have a close partnership with all participants to make the right decisions. In many cases we are first movers when it comes to environmental regulation and I think a lot of our neighbouring countries are impressed with that.

Can you tell us more about the bright green environmental movement?

The core elements of the bright green movement are innovation, closed loop material cycles and sustainable product designs, urban revitalization and entrepreneurial enthusiasm to transform our society to a more sustainable society. This is very much along my own line of thinking and I firmly believe it can pave the way for serious improvements in resource efficiency, and it should of course be embraced at the highest political levels in order to support this development.

The response of the bright green movement is to transform the challenges of today and send a positive notion to businesses and other key figures that there is only one type of growth in the future, that this growth is green and that it provides business opportunities. In my mind it is clear that those who are able to connect the challenges of the resource/climate crisis and the economic crisis will be the market leaders of the future. I also believe that it is absolutely crucial to mobilise action through a positive narrative rather than speaking about sustainability merely as a challenge. A positive drive is a prerequisite to initiating a fast track green transition.

Having said that, we should not lose sight of the urgency of the challenges with which we are confronted and we should not forget that the overall target in terms of resource use should be an absolute decoupling between economic development and environmental impact. Attention should therefore also be given to our absolute levels of resource use – to avoid resource efficiency gaining in one area and resulting in increased resource use in other areas. This can easily be forgotten in the bright green enthusiasm for green innovation.

An important element in this respect is people’s awareness and consumer behaviour. Who wouldn’t want to hang on to our cars and IT-gadgets, but if only they were designed to be sustainable? At the same time, there’s no question that in addition to taking on board green innovations, we need to change our habits. Most of these changes, often called for by the so-called “dark greens” – eating less meat, cycling/walking more, for example – also possess significant potential in terms of achieving environmental results.

Lego, for example, is one of the most well-known Danish companies. Long before other firms they reduced and removed the use of toxic materials in the manufacturing of their products and started to lead in CSR and environmental responsibility. How do you think the national culture and values of a country (in this case Denmark) play a role and influence corporations in their responsibility plans and in their own value-building?

Denmark can be proud of a large number of Danish companies leading the CSR agenda, and I am convinced that there is a reason for this:

First of all environmental issues have been part of the public as well as political debate since the early 1970s. Denmark was the first country to adopt an Environmental Act and this has driven Danish companies to ‘green’ their corporations and pioneer green technologies. However, my task as Minister for the Environment is not only about legislation and compliance – it is also about encouraging companies to go beyond compliance ad embrace CSR: eco-labels, environmental management systems, sustainability reporting, resource efficiency, etc.

The demand in Denmark for green products is clearly visible. We are one of the front runners in the EU regarding the public procurement of green goods and services. Furthermore, the Danish consumer leads the world in the purchase of organic products, and the Nordic eco-label- the swan – –is recognized by 90 % of Danes. From my point of view, CSR is not only driven by culture and values, and is definitely not driven by philanthropy. CSR is driven by business and hereby becomes a part of companies’ DNA and new business model.

Danish companies use CSR strategically – to increase competitiveness, to access new markets, to be resource-efficient, to cut costs, and to develop new and innovative products. A recent analysis showed that more than 22,000 Danish companies produce and sell green products and services – that is 20% of our companies!

From an environment perspective, what are the greatest challenges and opportunities for Denmark in the next 10 years and in the long run?

I like to think of challenges and opportunities as two sides of the same coin. In the long run – and even just within the next 5 to 10 years –  we need to be smarter in the way we address the issues that are not just challenges for Denmark but challenges  for the global environment and for the health and prosperity of us all.

Just one example: we have come far in our efforts to improve air quality in Denmark’s largest cities, yet too many people are still badly affected by pollution. This is a problem we share with cities all over the world. Examples of other significant challenges that still require attention include the scarcity of clean water, biodiversity loss, climate change, the dispersion of toxic chemicals, and unsustainably high levels of resource use.

The opportunity is to deliver a green solution to these problems which at the same time strengthens the basis for growth. For example, we must develop technologies that reduce emissions from cars, power plants, ships; develop alternatives to fossil fuels, new business models and so on; and develop a framework around it that supports its market uptake both through regulation and through voluntary instruments such as green procurement. The challenge is to do it – the opportunity is to do it now and do it just a little bit better than the rest.

Given that Denmark is almost entirely surrounded by water, how are you engaging with neighbouring countries from the perspective of water/ sea and sea life conservation?

As Minister for the Environment, I give very high priority to close coordination with other marine countries and within sea areas to ensure the coordinated protection of the seas surrounding Denmark. Therefore Denmark already coordinates its efforts in relation to the marine strategy framework directive within the EU, and we will continue to do so in the years to come.

As part of this coordination, Denmark sees cooperation regarding the regional sea conventions as very important. This includes OSPAR (covering the North Sea) and HELCOM (covering the Baltic Sea). Furthermore, Denmark has the chairmanship for HELCOM until the summer of 2014, and I will personally chair the HELCOM ministerial meeting in 2013. It is my ambition for the meeting to result in an ambitious declaration by which we agree on the environmental challenges we are facing right now and on what needs to be done in the years to come. We intend to focus on areas that need extra attention such as the effects that marine litter has for the Baltic Sea, noise pollution and the spread of alien or invasive species.

How does the Danish government support Danish companies who want to go the extra mile pursuing green innovations?

The Danish government supports green technology development through a number of targeted programmes, including a green technology development programme. Furthermore, the government actively promotes green public procurement. Specifically, we produce guidelines for public procurers regarding green product requirements, and green specifications are incorporated into a large number of multi-year public procurement framework contracts.

In addition, a green procurement partnership between the Ministry of the Environment and major town municipalities has been established in order to encourage further targeted green demand. Other instruments in support of such companies are environmental certification and labelling schemes, whereby the Ministry for the Environment provides financial support to an independent eco-labelling secretariat, which provides assistance and guidance to companies.

Honorary offices held
Active member in the non-partisan think tank Forum Europa.
Member of the Albrightgroup womens network since 2008.
Has served on the executive committee in the interdisciplinary lecture society at University of Copenhagen, and as vicechair of the board of studies at theology.

Click to view EMG Aricle featured United Nations Industrial Development Organization Magazine

Article Green innovations EMG, Daan Elffers Interview with Danish Environment Minister