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National policies for sustainable development


Early Danish environmental policy was characterised by a number of traits. It was based on fragmented regulations of particular and delimited environmental problems like urban waste water. The first comprehensive environmental act of 1973 was drawn up on the basis of pieces of earlier legislation on health, pollution of watercourses, and regulation of neighbour relations to prevent firms and farms from polluting their immediate surroundings. Some of the laws abolished by the 1973 act date back to the 19th century. The main goal of the new comprehensive act was to prevent and combat pollution of the natural environment.

Establishment of the Ministry for the Environment
The early 1970s, with the establishment of the Ministry for the Environment in 1971 (from 1971-1973 called “Ministry of Pollution Mitigation”), was the formative moment of Danish environmental policy. The basic administrative principles of the environment were horizontal integration and vertical fragmentation. At the central level the Ministry of the Environment would be responsible for most central environmental tasks. The administration of the act was to a large extent decentralised. Municipalities could issue permits and perform inspection and control of regulated firms. The counties had the same responsibilities towards larger and heavily polluting firms.

The polluter pays
In theory, "the polluter pays" principle was to guide Danish environmental policy. Costs to prevent and combat pollution were to be borne by the polluter. In practice, however, environmental protection was heavily subsidised. A "balancing principle" was established in the text of the Environmental Protection Act. It stated that the measures taken to protect the environment should be balanced against the costs and other economic consequences of the measures in question. Part of the balancing of interests was also the establishment of the Environmental Board of Appeal to which decisions made by public authorities could be appealed.

End-of-the-pipe strategies
In the 1970s and 1980s Danish environmental policy was mainly oriented on pollution issues and end-of-the-pipe strategies. A comprehensive complex of regulation was elaborated and implemented during this period and there was also an increasing use of overall action plans outlining environmental objectives. Also the international aspects of environmental problems were being recognised. As European integration speeded up during the 1980s, the European Union became a more important arena for environmental and health policymaking, Denmark being a member since 1973. In the 1980s and 1990s environmental policy changed to clean technologies and product design approaches. The Government pursued a comprehensive sustainable development policy, which considered social and global aspects more strongly.

Environmental questions politicised
Although the environment was an important issue by the beginning of the 1970s, the level of conflict was not high. In the mid 1980s environmental questions became more politicised for a number of reasons. An alternative "green" majority, consisting of the Social Democrats, the Socialist People's party, and the Radical liberals, was created in the Parliament. The alternative majority pestered the then minority Government during discussions on environmental (and security policy) questions. A second reason was the shift in the perception of environmental problems which could be found in the entire Western world in those years: Environmental problems were seen as more much severe than they were at the beginning of the 1970s. Public opinion polls in Denmark showed a high and growing concern for the environment during the 1980s. At the beginning of the 1990s, environmental policies differed in significant aspects from the policies that had been established in the first half of the 1970s. Regulation had been expanded in breadth and depth, policy organisations had been enlarged, the basic strategy had been pushed towards reducing pollution at the source, new instruments had been developed, and a significant internationalisation was being realised.

The Brundtland report
The Brundtland Report, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, was significant in providing an important rationale for policy goals pursued. In the aftermath, policy integration became a topic for environmental policy making in the 1990s.This involved introducing economic instruments into environmental policies, and the Ministries of Energy and Transport were required to draw up plans for sustainable development and CO2 reduction. With the new Environmental Protection Act of 1992 the focus was further shifted towards more individual responsibility and prevention of environmental and health problems, and an intense interest in the regulation of international environmental problems.

During the 1990s environment became more of an issue in planning. Perhaps the clearest example is to be found in the 1997 national planning report, developing the policy image of Denmark as a green room in the European house. The planning system in general and also the planning act illustrate an increasing environmental orientation. Implementation of environmental priorities is seen as a main, common purpose of the planning system.

Elections 2001 - lower ambitions for the environment
The election in 2001 resulted in a liberal/conservative majority which is still in power. The new Government continued the sustainable development strategy, although with less determination and lower ambition. It emphasised to consider policies for SD more from a cost-benefit perspective and restructured the institutions for policies for SD by splitting the former Ministry for Energy and Environment and letting the part of energy become part of the new, large Ministry for Economy and Business. The Government also introduced the Environmental Assessment Inistute (merged with DØRS in 2007 and functions now as a Environmental Economic Council) that considered policies explicitly from a cost-benefit perspective.

However, several changes occurred in 2007 in the Governments 3rd period. Energy policy became a part of the newly established Ministry of Climate and Energy led by the former Ministry of Environment Connie Hedegaard. This marked an increasing focus on the climate change problem and the importance of linking this policy area to energy issues. Although Sustainable Development seems to be in the background (with the announced revised strategy in 2007 still not presented) and cost effectiveness still is the most prominent element of environmental policy, the enhanced action in climate policy is a positive change for the Danish environment. The liberal/conservative Government also established the first national park in Denmark in August 2008. The national park is located in Thy and additional national parks will open over the next 2-3 years.  


[Last updated: 20.10.2008]