Carbon-free Copenhagen: how the Danish capital is setting a green standard for cities worldwide

Looking for ways to cut your travel carbon footprint this year? Set your sights on Copenhagen. The Danish capital is on track to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025 and is setting a green standard for urban centres worldwide.

Monday, 16 March 2020,
By Mark Stratton
Copenhagen
The Danish capital first made a commitment to go carbon-neutral in 2010.
Photograph by Alamy

I’m boarding a train from London for a 16-hour rail journey to a city that is, to paraphrase Greta Thunberg, ‘listening to the scientists’. My Eurostar rolls out of St Pancras International on schedule at 06.40. Ahead lies a tight change in Brussels, a quick stop in Cologne and an overnight train ferry to Denmark, all covered by my Interrail Pass. I could’ve flown to Singapore in the time this journey will take me, but with Copenhagen on course to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025, travelling there by train seems appropriate.

The Danish capital first made a commitment to go carbon-neutral in 2010 — five years before the Paris Agreement, which saw global leaders agree to combat climate change and intensify efforts towards a sustainable, low-carbon future. Going carbon-neutral means the city will produce no more carbon emissions than it can offset elsewhere; essentially, there will be no net release of carbon dioxide. The move is significant as most scientists agree there’s a link between the rising CO2 levels and Earth’s rising temperatures.

Discover our Copenhagen travel guide

What’s clear is that the travel industry generates a hefty carbon footprint, not least through aviation. A 2018 study published in Nature Climate Change found travel accounted for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2009 and 2013, with the number of international travellers growing at a rate of 3-5% per year. I myself possess a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint, but I mitigate it somewhat by sticking to public transport, avoiding the energy-intensive production associated with eating meat and offsetting my air travel carbon emissions.

Yet individual action feels like a drop in an overheating ocean, so it’s up to countries and cities to create a collective framework of sustainability and carbon-free options that help residents and travellers negate their carbon footprint. And Copenhagen is leading the way.

Half a decade on from the Paris Agreement, as countries and politicians across the globe renege on CO2-reduction targets — or, in President Trump’s case, withdraw from the agreement entirely — Copenhagen is making impressive strides towards carbon-neutrality. In 2017, it produced around 1.37 million tonnes of harmful climate gases, down 42% from 2005, explains Jørgen Abildgaard, the city’s executive climate program director. He’s confident the 2025 goal will be met.

“We’ve 20% to go to reach the target,” he says, adding that tackling private road emissions remains Copenhagen’s biggest challenge. “Many cities, like Washington, Amsterdam and Helsinki, are following our lead — even if their targets aren’t as ambitious. We can learn from others — even London,” he adds, perhaps generously. “We’re looking at your congestion charge to deter car journeys.”

Copenhagen’s own methods, however, are exemplary. Having pledged to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, the city increasingly generates renewable energy from offshore wind turbines and its largest power plant has replaced coal with wood pellets. Around 98% of the city is heated by waste heat from electricity production, 49% of all journeys are made by bike, and all diesel buses are being replaced by electric substitutes.

“But carbon-neutral isn’t just about environmental targets. It’s about creating healthier cities for people to live in,” explains Jørgen.

And so, with a little thought and planning, I’ve identified four key sectors in which to lessen the carbon impact of my journey: travel, activities, accommodation and food. Taking the train from London produces far less in the way of CO2 than flying. However, for travellers short on time, these emissions are straightforward enough to offset. Had I flown, the 0.2 tons of CO2 my journey would have produced could have been offset at sites like myclimate.org at a cost of just £5 — a donation that would then go on to fund carbon-ameliorating projects such as reforestation in Nicaragua.

Tivoli Gardens, the world's second-oldest funfair, is now implementing new sustainability measures.

Green on the ground

In Copenhagen, I travel everywhere by bicycle, finding myself amid pelotons of suited businesspeople and parents taking children to school. Here, cycle lanes are safe, segregated from the road by a curb, and green-wave traffic lights allow a faster flow of cyclists. The city’s cycle network is the envy of the world.

“Copenhageners own 6.6 times more bikes than cars,” says Josefine Wulffeld, a climate change student who leads GreenBikeTours of Copenhagen’s carbon-reducing highlights; the three-hour cycling trip is saving me 1.1kg of CO2 compared to a bus tour.

After admiring uber-stylish cycle bridges and roof gardens designed to insulate homes and sequestrate carbon, we visit Tivoli Gardens, constructed in 1843. The world’s second-oldest funfair is doing its bit to promote sustainability, with measures including replacing 85,000 lightbulbs with LED alternatives and charging visitors extra for reusable drinking cups, a move that has saved 10 tons of waste per year. 

The next day, I avoid adding a further 2.4kg to my carbon footprint by cruising Copenhagen’s Venetian-like canals via a solar-powered electric GoBoat vessel rather than a conventional-engine boat. Chugging along at three knots per hour, it’s a sedate way to explore the city’s handsome mercantile architecture.

“We’re not 100% carbon-neutral as this would require big investment and we’re a start-up,” says GoBoat co-founder Kasper Eich-Romme. “But our boats are usually packed with the maximum eight people, whereas conventional canal tours run CO2-costly boats that could fit 100-plus people, sometimes with only 5-10 people on board.” 

Finding hotels that are tackling carbon use is becoming ever easier, too, particularly in Copenhagen, where 70% are eco-certified. Hotel Kong Arthur, a stately dame facing Copenhagen’s lakes, is among those leading the charge. It has been carbon-neutral since 2007 and employs simple, subtle touches to help guests play their part: low-pressure showers encourage minimal water wastage, and there’s no air-con installed — instead, rooms are cooled simply by opening the windows.  

Design for life

I’m transfixed by the aesthetics and trail-blazing brilliance of Copenhagen’s efforts — and particularly taken with the Amager-Bakke waste-to-energy plant, dazzling like an aluminium-finished wedge of cheese on the city’s outskirts. Its sloped roof doubles as a year-round artificial ski slope, hiking trail and climbing wall and, from the summit, there are panoramic views over the city and towards the colossal Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen to Malmö.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, whose Bjarke Ingels Group designed Amager Bakke, describes it as “hedonistic sustainability”. He tells me that around 600,000 Danes would drive overseas to ski each winter, but having this facility on their doorstep lowers the carbon footprint of those journeys. 

“Normally, power stations are marginalised, but Amager-Bakke is part of our social life,” he adds. “Denmark has no mountains — but we do have mountains of trash.” 

As well as functioning as a recreational facility, Amager-Bakke is a state-of-the-art incinerator, burning non-recyclable waste from homes and businesses. In 2018, more than 400,00 tons of waste passed through the facility, producing enough electricity to power 30,000 homes. 

The building is located on the island of Refshaleøen, an industrial wasteland now transformed into Copenhagen’s hippest neighbourhood. The shrill winds of the North Sea cut through the former ship-building yard as I meet Refshaleøen’s communications manager, Kasper Hyllested. As he shows me around, he tells me the island’s ethos is sustainable innovation based around reuse. It’s evident all around: in the student accommodation fashioned from old shipping containers; in Broaden & Build brewery, where food waste flavours artisan beers; and in the fact that all of Refshaleøen’s 200 businesses are startups. 

“It’s a creative hub for artists and architects — edgy and world-class in creative output,” Kasper says. “It’s now one of Copenhagen’s most sustainable and greenest districts.”

Refshaleøen attracts foodies from across the globe to world-class restaurants, including the acclaimed Noma. Food is, of course, integral to the carbon-neutral equation, with locally sourced, organic and meat-free diets having the potential to help reduce road transportation carbon emissions, minimise the use of artificial fertilisers and lessen the heavy toll on land caused by animal agriculture. Here, it’s easy to eat your way to a better planet, with many of the city’s best restaurants entirely vegan or totally organic — not considered a luxury, but the norm.

At Refshaleøen’s Reffen street food market, I wander between outlets housed in repurposed shipping containers, sampling Japanese sushi and vegan tacos. It’s inexpensive: plates go for 85-90DKr (£10). The brainchild of restauranteur Jesper Møller, Reffen encourages new talent; startups pay nothing for the first month, then a percentage thereafter. It’s also working towards a zero-waste output, with a composting machine transforming all food leftovers, biodegradable plates and cutlery into organic waste compost. 

Nearby Amass restaurant, launched by former Noma head chef, Matt Orlando, is set in a formerly derelict warehouse and offers an eight-course tasting menu for around 695Dkr (£80). Its radical dishes incorporate ingredients that would otherwise have gone to waste: the miso, for instance, features lemon peel, while the chocolate mousse uses grains from the restaurant’s own stout beer.

“Our mission is to prove to the industry you can operate at a very high level without compromising quality,” says Matt. “In fact, you can greatly enhance your guests experience, both physically and morally.” 

On my last morning before the return rail journey home, I cycle to Nordhavn to meet Jørgen again. Northern Europe’s largest metropolitan development, this new residential and commercial district is set  to be 100% powered by green energy when its completed in 2050.

“Cities produce 70% of global carbon emissions,but Copenhagen is showing transformation is possible,” Jørgen tells me. “Global trends show people are moving to cities — and if investment isn’t made towards sustainability, we can forget everything about solving climate change.”  

What does carbon-neutral actually mean?

One approach to mitigating the harmful impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere is to embrace being carbon neutral. This could involve replacing CO2-producing fossil fuels with clean green energy sources, or it could mean carbon offsetting — that is, paying to support schemes that focus on sequestrating (trapping) CO2 via the likes of reforestation. Alternatively, countries and companies can take part in carbon trading, allowing them to essentially cut their emissions by paying for the development of carbon-lowering schemes.

Do the maths: calculating your carbon footprint

Calculating a carbon-footprint isn’t straightforward. There are multiple apps available for calculating personal carbon use, but I couldn’t find one covering all aspects of my journey. Theoretically, staying at a carbon-neutral hotel meant my footprint was minimal. I ate at organic restaurants and only had vegan dishes. According to Greeneatz.com, a vegan diet has the lowest carbon footprint; it suggests your ‘foodprint’ could be slashed by a quarter by cutting out red meat. I cycled everywhere, so the only carbon used was in manufacturing the bike. Travelling by train was also a huge saving. The comparison with flying can be easily calculated at sites like Carbonfootprint.com. I can’t definitively say my trip was carbon-neutral, but it would have been close.

For more information on the Danish capital, go to visitcopenhagen.com

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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