Green Leadership or Greenwashing? The Unpleasant Truth About Danish Companies’ Climate Performance

When you assess the climate data of the largest listed companies in this supposedly green country, something is clearly not right.

Sasja Beslik
In Search of Leverage
5 min readJan 13, 2021


At Copenhagen Airport, you are greeted by a billboard advertisement from Carlsberg, one of Denmark’s biggest emitters.

(Below is a summary of the points I made in an interview with Danish business weekly Mandag Morgen. I decided to do this summary in English because it’s relevant for people in other countries too. Here’s the original article in Danish.)

Denmark is well-known for being a climate pioneer and frontrunner.

However, according to our new ‘climate projection model’, based on data from all Danish listed companies, the planet’s temperature would rise by three degrees by the year 2100 — a whole lot more than the minimum requirements of the Paris Agreement — if all countries followed the same path as Denmark.

Graphic design by Mandag Morgen. Translated by Sasja Beslik. Source: J. Safra Sarasin, Sasja Beslik og Robin Rouger.

It’s a worrying sign. There’s a long way from 3 to 2 degrees.

The real transition has still not begun in Danish companies, or in companies around the world for that matter.

What we need is a structural change, not marginal improvements.

The issue with Denmark is that everyone is looking at this region for global leadership.

As for the rest of the world, when we put all the listed companies in the world into our model, it told us that we are heading for a temperature rise of four degrees.

If the whole world followed the Scandinavian course, the temperature of the globe would rise by 3.5 degrees by the year 2100.

A machine that detects greenwashing

Let’s be clear that it’s very difficult to measure what is climate-friendly and what is not.

If you want to invest sustainably, you have to mobilise outrageous amounts of man-hours and chop your way through a dense jungle of incoherent data before coming out on the other side with a marginally improved decision basis.

Our ‘climate projection model’ in J. Safra Sarasin is based on various data sets, including the goals that the companies have reported themselves.

But in our climate projection model, these traditional quantitative data have been supplemented by qualitative analyses of the companies’ past climate goals and their ability to live up to them.

The result is a model that projects a company ‘temperature path’ towards the year 2100.

In short, the model expresses how much global temperature would grow if all companies around the world followed the same path as a particular company.

One could call it an attempt to build a machine that reveals greenwashing.

Or, as I’m quoted saying in the article in Mandag Morgen:

“This tool gives you a much better understanding of all the bullshit you are being told on a regular basis by companies and investors.”

We depend on the climate-damaging companies

Before writing about our model, Monday Morning spoke to Robin Rouger, who is the brain behind the temperature model, and myself, on several occasions during 2020.

Each time because they had new questions about the model’s method, data and its many components.

In general, we’ve been contacted by a number of companies, which have asked critical questions about how he had arrived at our results in the model. So far, no one has been able to find anything wrong with the calculations and the method behind them.

The truth is that our model delivers unpleasant results. Therefore, it’s of course met by a certain amount of scepticism.

For example: According to the model, Maersk is on a 6.53 degree Celsius ‘temperature path’. This means that the temperature of the globe will increase by 6.53 degrees Celsius by the year 2100 if everyone followed the same path as Maersk.

But Maersk is not alone. Several other Danish companies are on a very dangerous climate course.

Graphic design by Mandag Morgen. Translated by Sasja Beslik. Source: J. Safra Sarasin, Sasja Beslik og Robin Rouger.

The transport and logistics company DSV Panalpina, which is the second biggest emitter in Denmark, follows a ‘6.15-degree path’.

There is no doubt that our model can make companies like Maersk and DSV Panalpina look like real villains. But we must not perceive them as villains, because we are all dependent on them today.

The question is how we can help them adjust.

The big emitters show the way

Among Denmark’s largest emitters in 2020, we also find a company like Vestas. The Danish wind turbine giant has had steadily increasing emissions over the past five years, from 49,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2015 to 71,000 tonnes in 2019, which made them the subject of criticism last year.

But according to our model, Vestas follows a temperature path of 0.5 degrees. In other words, even though the company is a big emitter today, at the Paris agreement level they are still leaders.

Denmark is the home of renewable energy leaders Vestas and Ørsted, but also of shipping and logistics companies such as DFDS, Maersk and DSV.

What can the likes of Maersk and DSV learn from that? From Vestas, and also from a company like Ørsted, they can learn that the business model itself must be based on sustainability.

It’s not enough to have some sustainable products in the portfolio or a department for sustainable activities. Sustainability must permeate the organisation, and that logic applies across industries and technologies.

An example is the Swedish fast-fashion giant Hennes & Mauritz, which has laid a thin green varnish of organic T-shirts on top of what I consider a fundamentally climate-damaging business.

H&M’s sustainability model is similar to having a 12-cylinder sports car with a dashboard built in recycled wood. They should change the engine instead.

We need to look at the basic operations of companies. Under what conditions do the company’s employees work? How is the product life cycle calculated? How do you get customers to pay for a more sustainable product?

H&M’s sustainability model is similar to having a 12-cylinder sports car with a dashboard built in recycled wood. They should change the engine instead.

For several decades, Maersk’s container vessels have been transporting cheap clothes from H&M across the seven oceans and out to the shopping malls — because we have asked them to. The problem is now that we have been doing it for so many years that time is running out.

We need to demand serious change. It will be hard work for a company like Maersk if they want to go from 6.5 to 2 degrees. You can usually not do that in two or three years. But is it possible? Yes. Are they able to do that? Yes, many skilled and intelligent people are employed in these companies.

But they have to get started.

Want more like this? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter ‘ESG on a Sunday’ here.



Sasja Beslik
In Search of Leverage

MD, Head of Sustainable Finance Dev. at J. Safra Sarasin, the world’s leading private bank on sustainable finance. Author of “Guld och gröna skogar” (2019).