Copenhagen takes up the climate challenge

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Floris van Hees in Copenhagen

All alone with her back to us, there she sits on her rock, Copenhagen’s little mermaid. As we sail past her into the city at five o’clock in the morning, we have her all to ourselves. In a few hours, hordes of tourists piling out of buses and cruise ships and armed with selfie sticks will be crowding around her, trying to get a photo with this statue, an iconic symbol of Copenhagen. We, on the other hand, have come for something else: we want to witness for ourselves what the Danish capital’s future holds in terms of sustainability.

Targeted water management has transformed the port of Copenhagen from a dirty industrial area into the place to be. Ivar Smits Ivar Smits Skipper

The city council of Copenhagen has set ambitious sustainability targets for itself. In fact, it aims to be the very first CO2-neutral capital in the world by 2025, and we’re interested in learning how it plans to achieve such a laudable objective.

Priority to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport

As we approach the marina, something remarkable happens – a bridge that’s not on our map blocks our way. So we decide to moor opposite the imposing opera house. Moments later, we set out to explore the city. It looks as if the bridge was opened only a few weeks ago. It connects the east and west sides of the city, and is accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists. A similar bridge is planned two kilometres from here. The city council anticipates more bicycle traffic in the coming years and is doing everything it can to encourage it – including building better infrastructure, which means that cycling will be safer, faster and thus more appealing.

It’s not long before we, too, yield to the temptation to hop on a couple of shared electric bicycles and whizz along the city’s greenways. These paths have been created to offer cycling commuters fast and safe access to the city centre. The traffic lights are even timed for “green waves” – in other words, they’re synchronised to ensure cyclists don’t hit a red light if they maintain their speed. In some places, car lanes have been replaced by wide cycle paths, where the flow of cyclists is proof of the project’s success. We, too, feel right at home amongst all the cyclists!

Bye-bye, car – hello, metro

Emil Damgaard Grann confirms our findings. He lives in Copenhagen and works as an analyst with Sustainia, a leading consultancy firm specialising in sustainability. Emil enthusiastically tells us more about what’s happening in the city: “Increasing public transport provision is a major priority. Two new metro lines are planned, which will double the number of lines and help encourage residents to leave their cars at home.” Later on, when we discover a giant construction pit in the main square, we see just how far-reaching these measures are.

A power plant and wind turbines in the middle of the city

Another main source of carbon dioxide emissions is being tackled here: heating. Copenhagen is using biomass and waste incineration as alternatives to coal, with the heat released during combustion used to heat businesses and households.

The Danish capital has the most extensive city heating network in the world, and soon that network will be extended to include a cutting-edge power plant, the Amager Resource Centre. The plant has a futuristic design, including a new-build development right next door. The idea is that the centre should be the central aspect of this new neighbourhood, in close proximity to all residents, both literally and figuratively. There’s even a ski run on the roof!

A number of municipal wind turbines are visible from here, too. To get residents to back its wind turbine project, the city gave them the option of becoming equal shareholders. Some 9,000 inhabitants have since invested. Residents received detailed information about the turbines, and were given the chance to see for themselves that they aren’t a noise nuisance. The turbines now allow Copenhagen to produce a significant portion of its electricity from wind energy. The city also makes a profit on this, and plans to erect another 100 wind turbines in the near future.

A noble gesture or a dire necessity?

Unfortunately, the Copenhagen climate goals aren’t just about a long-term vision – they’re also about self-preservation. Like many other major cities, Copenhagen lies on the coast, which makes it vulnerable to sea level rise.

On 2 July 2011, the city was confronted with another, more immediate, effect of climate change: heavy rainfall. In just two hours’ time, 150 millimetres of rain was recorded. The city’s sewers flooded, and public life came to an abrupt standstill. The resulting damage was estimated at around €1 billion, and over 60 per cent of the population suffered water damage.

Shortly after the disaster, plans were made to create a new water infrastructure. Rainwater is now separated from the sewage system in the event of flooding, and can be stored or diverted directly into the sea. In this way, the city hopes to be prepared for heavier, more frequent rainfall due to climate change.

Port = pool

As a result of these measures and the city’s newly modernised sewage system, the water in and around Copenhagen is now much cleaner – so clean, in fact, that we’re tempted to jump right in. Swimming is even encouraged. Indeed, the city has built a number of swimming pools in the area which are filled with seawater. Targeted water management has transformed the port of Copenhagen from a dirty industrial area into the place to be.

A number of streets in the city centre have also had a facelift – four lanes of traffic have been reduced to two to make room for playgrounds, fields and trees. These areas serve a second purpose, absorbing water in the event of heavy rain and helping to keep the city from flooding.

From aims to action

We’re impressed with all that Copenhagen has done to reduce its carbon footprint and to make the city more liveable and sustainable. Obviously, there’s still a lot of room for improvement, as not all aspects of public life have been made sustainable – not yet, at least. Still, Copenhagen is proof that a city can set ambitious climate goals and adapt its policies to accommodate them.

Thanks to investments of more than €4 billion made from 2012 to 2025 and the sheer determination of the city council, Copenhagen is well on its way to meeting its goals. It’s an investment in the future to ensure that the city can meet the challenges of climate change and a growing population. Not to mention even more tourists, who, like us, will hopefully want to visit the Danish capital to witness its successful climate initiatives.

We’re staying on here in Denmark a little while longer to explore how the national government is trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from buildings. In our next post, we’ll be telling you what the renovation of our boat has to do with rocks…

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