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

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 at a cost of just £5 — a donation that would then go on to fund carbon-ameliorating projects such as reforestation in Nicaragua. 

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.

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

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