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Take-Home Lessons

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Just home from three weeks exploring sustainability in Denmark and Sweden as the faculty leader for a group of Minnesota students, I am so encouraged by their delight in Danish bicycle culture and their desire to see, in their own country and in their lifetimes, a broadly shared vision for a green energy future.  

My students observed the inviting infrastructure for bicycling in downtown Copenhagen and its neighborhoods, with separate blue painted lanes, lights timed for bicycles, double-decker cycle parking at transit hubs and delineated signs for different transportation modes.  We all noticed the incredible volume of cyclists, who make up more than a third of the daily commuters, and the huge variety in age, clothing, speed and attitude.  As for cycling garb, high heels and formal dress draw no more notice than cargo boots and leather.  Cargo bikes bearing a couple of brightly outfitted preschoolers or a new shrub for the garden are a common site, and bikes range from functional battered to handcrafted funky to commuter luxury models.   More than 90 percent of the residents of Copenhagen cycle, and fancy gear is definitely not the norm.  In Denmark, high taxes on cars and thoughtful bicycle planning lead to a smaller per-capita carbon footprint than Europe as a whole, and in the eyes of many of my students, to vibrancy in city life and freedom in mobility that benefits, rather than burdens, society.

The students and I experienced community-based sustainability firsthand during our four-day tour of a carbon-neutral island in the middle of the windy Baltic Sea.  Samso Island features a diverse agricultural economy, with grain crops, pasture and potatoes known throughout Europe, as well as a unique conserved marsh, medieval  towns, white sand beaches, easygoing hotels and hostels, and about 5,000 residents.  About 15 years ago, a group of particularly resourceful, adaptable and persistent Samso residents decided to lead a transition toward local, carbon-neutral energy for the island's heat, electricity and transportation.  At that time, more than 90 percent of their energy came from fossil fuels.  Now Samso produces more electricity from wind than it needs, with dozens of turbines on and off shore, and efficiently burns biomass from agricultural residues in a half dozen combined heat and power plants connected to nearby homes and businesses. Samso still uses fossil fuel for transportation, but invests in offsets from off-shore wind.

We heard pride in and commitment to Samso's nearly complete energy transition.  In interviews with a local farmer who invests in turbines, a journalist, a teacher, wind-inspired artist, a brew-pub owner and the director of the new Energy Academy, we heard over and over that Samso was successful in using economically viable local energy resources and involving community members in energy production and investment.  The leaders on Samso are working with the Energy Academy to share Samso's experience with other small but resourceful communities around the world.

Photo of students on Samso Island by Beth Mercer-Taylor

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.