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Washington Delegation Intrigued by Denmark’s Pragmatic Approach to Building a Clean Economy

By Lisa McCrummen Center for Sustainable Infrastructure

In September, CSI teamed with our partners i-Sustain to lead a bipartisan delegation of a dozen legislators on an industrial symbiosis tour of Denmark, where we learned many things, including a new word: Hygge.

Pronounced "hoo-ga," this Danish concept is hard to translate - it’s the embodied feeling of cozy contentment and well-being by enjoying the simple things in life. When it’s raining hard outside – and you’re curled up by a fire reading a book … that’s hygge.

So what does hygge have do with our trip or Denmark’s leadership in sustainability, clean production, industrial symbiosis, and economic prosperity?

As we crisscrossed the country (twice!) first to test the new idea of establishing a knowledge-exchange program between Denmark and Washington, and then to help lead a study tour of bipartisan Washington elected officials –we couldn’t escape hygge. Every meeting - whether in the heart of Copenhagen or in a rural biogas-producing facility –began with great coffee, a range of beautiful finger food and maybe a little chocolate – to support… hygge.

We began to develop a theory: this penchant for creating an environment of well-being, which seems to baked into the way the Danes operate, might have also laid the groundwork for real Danish innovation; it’s a lot easier for people to open themselves up to new ideas and collaboration when everyone’s relaxed.

But, the Danes also bring something else important to the table - pragmatism.

In the 1970s, the oil embargo devastated Denmark’s economy because 90% of Denmark's energy came from petroleum, almost all of it imported. So the Danes went all in on another path – to shift from imported fossil fuel to local renewable resources. Now it is considered a renewable energy powerhouse.

Perhaps the mix of pragmatism and hygge explain how Denmark transitioned to a clean energy innovator. It became the first country in the world to announce that it would lead the transition to a clean growth economy entirely independent of fossil fuels by 2050. The World Energy Council, a United Nations-accredited body, ranked Denmark No. 1 in its “World Energy Trilemma Index,” which scores 125 countries’ performances in “energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability.” Denmark has gone on to leverage its leadership in building clean energy systems at home to export their technology and expertise to other countries.


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