A Danish lesson for Tasmanian communities and councils

The Samsø lesson: we can meet the climate-energy challenge, but it requires self-belief, imagination and commitment over the long term. [23 September 2008 | Peter Boyer]

There’s this island, off the coast of a continent, where winters are bracing – some would say cold. There are some who believe the island, even with its small population, can be self-sufficient in renewable energy, producing enough not just to keep warm but also to export to the mainland.

Does this sound vaguely familiar? Well, while Tasmania is often in my thoughts, this time I’m thinking of a much smaller island called Samsø, whose 4000 inhabitants have achieved astonishing success in their quest to live within their means and give something back to their planet.

Samsø, part of Denmark, is a low-lying island (highest point less than 100 metres above sea level) some 20 km off the coast of the peninsula of Jutland. It has no rushing streams for hydro power, but it has plenty of wind.

In the mid-1990s the good citizens of Samsø saw the potential for wind power, supplemented by rooftop solar panels and locally-made biofuels, to give them the energy they needed to turn off their oil-fired plants.

Then they set about making their dream a reality, raising the equivalent of about $A100 million to install the wind turbines and other plant and equipment they needed. They met all construction costs from their own resources.

It has to be said that they enjoy some advantages over inhabitants of Tasmania. Denmark’s per-capita income is about a third higher than Australia’s, so the people of Samsø had a much greater individual capacity than we would to make a tidy contribution to the kitty.

They also had the benefit of a Danish government subsidy which meets up to half the cost to consumers of renewable energy such as wind and solar, plus some incentive from the European Union. But remember, we’re talking about a mere 4000 people, a tiny fraction of Tasmania’s population of over 495,000.

A US journalist commented to a Samsø local that the island’s success was a classic example of “thinking globally, acting locally”. The resident responded that with the global picture so bleak, he found it more comforting to “think local, act local”.

Whatever our global perspective, Samsø emphasises for us and the rest of the world the importance of local action. And this brings to mind the potential role of local and regional government – as yet far from realised in Australia – in preparing communities for a tougher future.

There is already plenty of evidence that Tasmania’s local authorities are in for a big shake-up as rising global temperatures begin to affect our own weather and climate.

With a likelihood that our populated areas will experience a lower rainfall, water supply and wildfire control will become increasingly significant local issues. More severe weather events will mean more wind damage and higher stormwater flows, and rising sea levels will put coastal services at risk.

If these threats aren’t currently a concern to local councils, it’s high time they were. There’s clearly much to be done to help communities adapt to a changed environment, in the process reducing the risk of potentially crippling legal action against authorities.

But the biggest challenge remains to reduce our continuing and rising contribution to this gigantic mess. If we in this island community can take some lessons from the Samsø experience – even if the world remains in a quagmire – we’ll feel a whole lot better.

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