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Copenhagen makes an ambitious push to be carbon neutral by 2025

More bicycle lanes, biomass generation, public transit, cooling buildings with seawater – it's all intended to make Copenhagen the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

By Justin GerdesYale Environment 360 / April 22, 2013

Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (right) looks on as then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a Green Partnership for Growth event in Copenhagen in May 2012. The city has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025 through several innovative programs to cut carbon emissions.

Saul Loeb/Pool/Reuters/File

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Among the first sights to greet visitors to Denmark on the descent to Copenhagen’s airport is a sweeping arc of wind turbines rising from the harbor. From the airport, passengers can board an automatic Metro line that hustles them to the city center in just 15 minutes, crossing the path of the City Circle Line, a subway project that will place 85 percent of Copenhageners within 650 yards of a Metro station when the line opens in 2018.

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Everywhere, visitors are greeted by streams of bicyclists; 36 percent of trips to work or school in the Danish capital are made by bike, and more than 20,000 cyclists enter the city center at peak hours, filling Copenhagen’s 249 miles of cycle tracks. Less visible are state-of-the-art facilities where waste heat from power plants is used to keep buildings warm via the world’s largest district heating network, or where waters from the city harbor are deployed to cool department stores, office buildings, hotels, and data centers.

These innovations are just a prelude to what is planned in the coming years, all designed to make Copenhagen the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Acting on a City Council plan approved last August, Copenhagen intends to replace coal with biomass, to add more wind and solar electricity to the grid, to upgrade energy-guzzling buildings, and to lure even more residents onto bikes and public transit.

“Copenhageners like the ambition, they like being part of the idea of going green for the whole city,” Copenhagen Lord Mayor Frank Jensen said in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “Our focus as a city, as citizens, is all about livability.” The mayor said that city residents are putting their own money into the low-carbon drive, noting that half of the turbines in the harbor wind farm, known as Middelgrunden, were funded by individual Copenhagen shareholders.

Clearly, Copenhagen’s plans face significant challenges, especially since city planners expect Copenhagen to add more than 100,000 residents by 2025. But at stake is the notion that a growing, modern city with more than a half-million inhabitants can systematically wring carbon from its economy. The battle to slow climate change will be won or lost in cities, which are responsible for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions and two-thirds of worldwide energy consumption.

Copenhagen has already made major progress, reducing its emissions by 21 percent from 2005 to 2011. The city currently emits about 2 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, and earlier initiatives were on target to reduce emissions to 1.16 million tons by 2025. The new plan approved last year will slash CO2 emissions even further, to about 400,000 tons by 2025. More time will be needed to wean private cars from fossil fuels. So Copenhagen plans to add at least 100 wind turbines to the grid over the next dozen years, and wind electricity not used in the city will be exported to other parts of Denmark to offset Copenhagen’s remaining several hundred thousand tons of transportation emissions.

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