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The world’s happiest countries look beyond net zero

People sit on an unusually high bench at sunset in Copenhagen, May 9, 2023. The height of a dozen public benches across Denmark has been increased by 85 cm to draw attention to climate change. Average global sea level rise is now expected to reach 1.3 to 1.6 meters, leading to significant warming by 2100, according to the World Climate Research Program.

Sergei Gapone | Afp | Getty Images

The world’s happiest countries are pressing ahead with plans to reach more than net zero emissions, even in the face of an intensifying green policy backlash on both sides of the Atlantic.

Both Finland and Denmark aim for “net negative emissions,” which scientists say can be achieved when the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere is greater than the amount emitted.

If this were achieved, the two Nordic countries would not only stop contributing to the climate crisis, but would actively contribute to slowing the rate of global warming.

Finland, which was recently crowned the world’s happiest country for the seventh year in a row, has written into law what is considered one of the world’s most ambitious climate goals. It aims to become the first high-income country to reach net zero emissions in 2035 and net negative by 2040.

Denmark, which the World Happiness Report recognized as the second happiest country in the world, is aiming for net zero by 2045 – and net negative by 2050.

Belgian farmers demonstrate in the EU district during the meeting of European agriculture ministers on March 26, 2024 in Brussels, Belgium. Farmers were protesting against free trade agreements, new environmental rules and the administrative burden linked to subsidies.

Thierry Monasse | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Danish Climate Minister Lars Aagaard said the need for negative emissions was clear.

Speaking to CNBC by phone, he denounced criticism of the country’s target. “If you say that, then you have to say the following sentence: Well, I don’t want to use products that emit anything, and I don’t want to eat meat, etc.”

“I don’t think people will accept such a future. So, for us, negative emissions are necessary, and we cannot meet our long-term climate commitments without that,” he added.

It’s time to discuss it now. We can’t wait.

Lars Aagaard

Danish Minister for Climate

During the COP28 climate negotiations in the United Arab Emirates late last year, Denmark, Finland and Panama launched the Group of Negative Emitters (GONE), a coalition of countries seeking to eliminate more carbon dioxide that warms the planet than they produce.

The Danish-led group aims to achieve this goal by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding forests and investing in new technologies. Panama, like other heavily forested “carbon sink” countries, already removes more carbon than it emits each year.

“It’s time to discuss it now. We can’t wait,” said Dane Aagaard.

He added that Denmark’s ability to achieve net negative emissions would depend on policies implemented over the next five to seven years.

A growing green backlash

It comes as Europe faces a green backlash – or “green coup” – against policies designed to tackle the climate crisis and protect the environment.

Across the continent, frustrated farmers have taken to the streets in recent months to demand new exemptions from European Union environmental regulations.

Nationalist and far-right parties – traditionally skeptical of climate issues – have also sharply criticized green policies. Their popularity is increasing in countries like Germany and France as European parliamentary elections approach.

Fridays for Future activists hold a globe during a climate protest demonstration on April 19, 2024 in Turin, Italy.

Stefano Guidi | Getty Images News | Getty Images

In the United States, too, climate policy has become something of a political flashpoint. Former US President Donald Trump, favored to challenge US President Joe Biden in the November election, frequently said in campaign speeches that he intended to “drill, baby, drill” if elected president, referring to oil production.

Trump has also sharply criticized incentives for electric vehicles and previously withdrew the United States from the landmark Paris climate accord, a move Biden later reversed.

Finland is trying to increase its ‘climate footprint’

Finnish Climate Minister Kai Mykkänen said a large parliamentary majority believes moving away from fossil fuels is “the right thing to do”, adding that the government is determined to increase its so-called “climate footprint”. .

“I have already been emphasizing for more than a decade that, for example, if we learn to heat the Helsinki region of around 1.5 million inhabitants without burning any fuel significantly, this means that we are actually creating a test base for large-scale heat pump or excess heat storage systems that we can then expand to other countries,” Mykkänen told CNBC by phone.

“Finland is of course a small player itself. Our share of global emissions is around 0.1%, so we cannot change the direction of climate change alone,” he continued.

“But the meaning of our life comes from the fact that if we manage to create such an innovation, which we can then offer, say, in Montreal, Beijing (and) hopefully one day in Moscow… then the imprint of our hand becomes several times larger than that of our footprint.”

People fish in the ice-covered Gulf of Finland near the Neva Guba region.

Sopa Images | Light flare | Getty Images

Finland’s four-party coalition government includes the far-right Finns Party, the country’s only major parliamentary party to oppose national climate measures.

As a result, Mykkänen said the government has had to orchestrate a delicate balancing act in order to remain committed to the country’s long-term climate goals.

“In principle, the balancing compromise already present in the government program is the following: yes, we commit to moving towards climate neutrality, keeping 2035 as a goal, but by methods that would not increase daily costs ordinary citizens nor would it weaken our competitiveness,” says Mykkänen. said. “That’s the basic goal we have.”

Finland’s climate minister stressed that his country’s efforts to achieve net negative emissions should not be interpreted as a reason for other European countries to continue burning fossil fuels as usual.

“It’s not acceptable that we invest in, say, biogenic carbon capture and storage, and then have others accept their fossil fuel plants in the 2040s. That’s not the idea,” Mykkänen said.

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