The Christmas tree on Copenhagen’s town hall square is lit by power from 15 exercise bikes as part of a government campaign to make the population climate consciouss ahead of next week’s UN conference on global warming.

AP/Michael von Bülow02/12/2009 20:30
Danes will be on their best green behavior when a much-anticipated climate conference brings thousands of foreign visitors to Copenhagen next week.

At least that’s what the government hopes.

For months, authorities have issued climate-smart advice to the Scandinavian nation’s 5.4 million residents: take short showers, use energy-efficient light bulbs and cycle to work.

The meat-loving Danes have even been told to eat green, with less pork and beef and more vegetables. Cattle, sheep and pigs belch or excrete methane, a heat-trapping gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide, the most common global warming gas.

The messages are everywhere: on billboards, TV commercials, newspaper advertisements and in brochures handed out at public gatherings.

"We literally have been bombarded in recent months," says Christine Feldthaus, a Danish lifestyle writer. "For some it’s common sense, for others, it could sound like a doomsday prophecy — change your habits now or else."

The UN climate conference, which starts Monday, offers a chance for Denmark to promote its self-image to the world as an environmentally conscious nation and a role model in terms of green growth.

The Danes have reasons to be proud.

Their economy has grown 75 percent over the last 25 years while energy consumption has remained stable. Greenhouse emissions have been reined in partly by Denmark’s early development of wind power, which now accounts for about 20 percent of its electricity production.

Tall white wind turbines dot the flat Danish countryside from the island of Zeeland — home to the capital — to the Jutland peninsula.

But there’s also a sooty side to the story. Denmark is still dependent on coal — a fossil fuel — to meet its energy needs.

"We should not lose sight of the fact that Denmark has one of the highest CO2emissions per capita in the world," said Kim Carstensen, a Dane who leads the global climate initiative of the WWF environmental group.

Denmark is also home to one of the world’s most prominent climate skeptics: Bjoern Lomborg, an economist who has suggested that money spent on reducing emissions could be better used, for example on medicines for killer diseases.

Under the outgoing Kyoto treaty, Denmark committed to reducing greenhouse emissions by an ambitious target of 21 percent in 2008-2012 compared to 1990 levels. Emissions were only down by about four percent in 2007, but Denmark still hopes to meet its Kyoto target by emissions trading, credits for clean investments abroad and other means.

Statistics aside, Denmark wants to show the world that its citizens are ready to change their lifestyles to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.

Danish companies — both public and private — are leading the climate charge by setting their own emissions targets and reminding their employees to switch off lights, computers and electrical appliances after work.

Copenhagen’s famed amusement park, Tivoli, is gradually phasing out regular light bulbs for energy efficient light-emitting diodes — or LEDs. Its popular streetcar for visitors is now using biofuel colza oil instead of diesel and solar panels provide power to electric vehicles used by maintenance staff.

Several climate change awareness events are planned during the summit. On Dec. 13, Danish church bells will toll 350 times — a reference to the CO2 concentration of 350 parts per million that scientists say is the safe upper limit for our atmosphere.

Three days later private companies, government offices and residents have been asked to switch off thousands of lights in an event taking place as the high-level part of the summit gets under way.

Copenhagen has also chosen an alternative way to light up the Christmas tree on City Hall Square: Onlookers can do it themselves by pedaling 15 exercise bikes that have been hooked up to the 7,000 lights.