The city council of Copenhagen has set the ambitious target of becoming the first CO2-neutral capital in the world by 2025. We sailed to the Danish capital to find out how it plans to achieve this praiseworthy objective.
Pedestrians, cyclists and public transport get priority
Copenhagen’s actions manifest themselves to us before we even realise it. A bridge that is not on our charts blocks our way to the marina. We moor opposite the impressive opera house instead. When we explore the city later that day, we learn that the bridge was opened only a few days ago. It is for pedestrians and cyclists only and provides a welcome shortcut from one side of the city to the other. A similar bridge is about to be constructed two kilometres south to further accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Bicycle traffic is anticipated to increase in the coming years and the city is encouraging it by building better infrastructure. The intention is to make cycling safer, faster and thereby more appealing.
Bicycle “superhighways” have been created for commuters to cycle to the city centre fast and safely. Some traffic lights are synchronised to provide for “green waves”, meaning that cyclists go from green light to green light if they maintain their speed. In some places, two-way streets for cars have been turned into one-way streets with a separate and safe lane for cyclists.
We invite Emil Damgaard Grann on board to discuss Copenhagen’s actions. He works as an analyst with Sustainia, a consultancy firm that specialises in sustainability. Emil also has first-hand experience as a resident of Copenhagen. He confirms our findings and tells us what else is happening in the city: “Increasing the public transport network is a major priority. Two new metro lines are constructed. They will double the number of lines and help encourage residents to leave their cars at home.” The epicenter of construction, where all metro lines will meet, is Copenhagen’s main square, Kongens Nytorv. It has been turned into a giant construction site, as we witness on a discovery stroll around the city.
Energy and heat production in the city
Copenhagen is tackling one of the main source of carbon dioxide emissions: heating. Biomass and waste – not oil or coal, like in many other places – is burnt in district heating plants. The heat from combustion is used to heat businesses and households. The city’s city heating network is one of the world’s most extensive, and soon it will be extended with the Amager Resource Centre. This cutting-edge power plant has a futuristic design, and is built next to a new neighbourhood. The heating plant is intended to become a central aspect of the area, literally and figuratively close to the residents. A ski run on the roof is supposed to help make the heating plant a true part of the residents’ lives.
In the harbor we see a number of wind turbines. The city installed them here after a campaign to convince and involve the residents. Residents were given information about the turbines, and could witness for themselves that the turbines were no noise nuisance. The city also gave residents the possibility of becoming shareholders in the wind turbines to get them to back its project. Some 9,000 inhabitants invested in the wind turbines, which now allow Copenhagen to produce a portion of its electricity from wind energy. The city and the participating residents make a profit on the energy production, and there are plans to erect another 100 wind turbines in the near future.
Water management for survival and better living
Copenhagen climate actions aren’t just the result of a long-term vision – they also stem from a need for self-preservation. Sea level rise is a threat, as Copenhagen lies on the coast. In addition, it has to deal with more immediate effects of climate change such as heavy rainfall. In fact, the events of 2 July 2011 led to some of the climate adaptation measures the city is taking. On that day 150 millimetres of rain fell within just a few hours. Sewers flooded, public life came to a standstill and over 60 per cent of the population suffered water damage. The cost of the flooding was estimated at around $1 billion.
New water infrastructure was built to better deal with similar events in the future. Streets, parks and green roofs collect and store rainwater or divert it directly into the sea, as a result of which it is separated from the sewage system in the event of flooding. The city’s pavements also catch the water before slowly releasing it again.
As a result of these measures and the city’s modernised sewage system, the water in and around Copenhagen – collectively called the harbour area – is much cleaner than it used to be. It is hard to imagine that the harbour was once a dirty industrial area. The water is now so clean that we are tempted to jump right in. The city actually encourages swimming in the harbor. It has built swimming pools which are filled with seawater. Thanks to its targeted water management the harbor is now the place to be in the city.
It is obvious that the Danish capital is taking concrete actions to achieve its goals. At the same time, it is not pretending that it has all the answers. Right in front of the Parliament building in central Copenhagen we encounter a remarkable piece of art by Jens Galschiot titled “Unbearable“. The six meter high sculpture shows a full-size polar bear that is pierced by an oil pipeline. The shape of the oil pipeline mirrors a graph indicating the rising global carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The inscription reads: “We know the world’s climate is headed towards irreparable, self-reinforcing chaos – yet we insist on maintaining our lifestyle”. The stunning piece of art serves as a public reminder of the urgency of the climate crisis and that the government cannot address it without the people changing their lifestyles. At the same time we are convinced that the sculpture reinforces the commitment of the Danes to implement their world-leading policy changes.
We are impressed with the actions Copenhagen has already taken to reduce its carbon footprint and to make the city more sustainable. By doing so, it is also raising the city’s living standards, which shows that in a nutshell, making the city more sustainable is really about putting people first. Of course, not all aspects of public life are sustainable yet, and there is still a lot of room for improvement. At the same time, Copenhagen proves that a city can set ambitious climate goals and adapt its policies to achieve them. Thanks to investments of more than $4.5 billion between 2012 to 2025 and the city council’s determination, the city is well on its way to meeting its goals. Other cities can learn from Copenhagen’s example and we encourage them to do so!
See images of our discovery tour of Copenhagen and our interview with Emil Damgaard Grann of Sustainia in our video.