DENMARK is often held up as a model of what Scotland could be: rich, environmentally friendly and impeccably politically correct in its international commitments.
This is a comforting myth that has just been kicked into touch by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report on how EU countries are measuring up to their Kyoto targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Denmark generates about 20 per cent of its electricity using wind turbines. The country is aiming for 50 per cent by 2025. Just what Scotland should be emulating rather than building a new generation of nuclear power plants, goes the conventional wisdom. And Danish wind turbine technology now dominates the world market. The two top Danish turbine manufacturers, Vestas and Siemens Wind Power, grabbed 40 per cent of the global market in 2004.
Just one tiny problem: as the IPPR report reveals, Denmark is set to miss its Kyoto target for cutting emissions by a mile. Originally Denmark agreed to cut its greenhouse gases by 21 per cent by 2012 (using 1990 as the base year). However, according to the Danish government's statement to the European Commission in June, the country is actually set to increase its gas emissions over 1990 by 4 per cent. Which means nuclear-free Denmark will be 25 percentage points behind its stated Kyoto goal, despite all those windmills.
I'm really a fan of Denmark and (especially) cool Danish design. But I do think Denmark is a valuable lesson in confusing energy economics and wishful thinking, a disease we suffer from in spades in Scotland.
The Danish economy used to run on coal and oil. In the 1980s and 1990s the Danes switched to natural gas (like the UK) and a lot of wind power (unlike us).
Wind power has a defect: it only generates when there is a breeze, so it's no good for supplying peak electricity just when you need it.
The Danes get around this problem by importing lots of electricity from Sweden and Germany, thereby passing the pollution problem to someone else, as well as quietly making use of Sweden's atomic stations. If the Danes didn't import electricity, they'd have to have more gas plants and so make even more emissions.
As a result, the Danes have pretty well used up their ability to squeeze more cuts in emissions from their electricity generating sector, so their Kyoto target was a nonsense from day one. Except the Danes could not lose face by saying so. The big jump in Danish greenhouse gases has come from the transport sector. Short of getting everyone onto bikes, abandoning holidays in Thailand, or scrapping the entire Danish export trade, the Danes have a difficulty with making any strategic cut in emissions.
Unless, of course, they follow the Americans down the line of throwing a lot of money at new, emissions-lite transport technology. But we Europeans are not supposed to talk about such things because emissions targets are the Holy Grail.
Back here in Scotland, the Executive has set a target of generating 18 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2010 and 40 per cent by 2020. The upper figure is a nonsense, especially if the Executive is set against replacing Scotland's two nuclear stations, though I suspect Jack McConnell will get round this by discretely ensuring that Torness stays in commission for another 20 years. Besides, that amount of wind power could see us importing peak capacity from English nuclear stations, Danish-fashion. I don't mind the hypocrisy if you don't.
What will this obsession with renewables do to energy costs in Scotland? Calculating electricity costs is more voodoo than economics. However, if oil prices stay above $40 a barrel over the next decade, Shell is convinced renewables will be able to close the gap with fossil fuels. Who am I to argue with Shell? But we will still take a hit. There are many imponderables: for instance, there is now a worldwide shortage of silicon because of a surge in demand for solar panels. I'll feel happier when we get away from politicians grandstanding on energy issues and move to a position where there are robust business models behind investment in renewable energy. Where renewables score is that, once in place, they have predictable long-run costs (being outside the volatile fossil fuel market). That should allow renewables to be built into dedicated housing projects. And expect to see lots of turbines on redundant North Sea oil platforms, which is a no-brainer.
As Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, said: "When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."