Committing to sustainability

Over the last 30 years, Copenhagen has transformed itself into a vibrant metropolis. It is one of the most densely populated areas in northern Europe, yet it is consistently ranked as one of the most environmentally friendly and liveable cities. Copenhagen has just received the prestigious European Green Capital Award 2014. Lord Mayor Frank Jensen and Kent Martinussen, Chief Executive Officer of the Danish Architecture Centre talk about what drives Copenhagen’s commitment to sustainability and how this translates to individuals in everyday living.

Harbour bath in Copenhagen
The Islands Brygge Harbour Bath is part of a comprehensive environmental project made possible by the tremendous improvement in water quality. © City of Copenhagen

Tell us about the Copenhagen Climate Plan. What are the measures that will allow Copenhagen to fulfil the ambitious vision of becoming the first carbon-neutral city in the world by 2025?

Frank Jensen (FJ): Copenhagen aims to be the first carbon-neutral capital in the world in 2025. In 2009, the first edition of the Copenhagen Climate Plan was adopted, presenting the strategy up through 2015. The initiatives which were launched have led to substantial reductions in CO2 emissions. The goal of a 20% reduction by 2015 was already achieved by 2011, when CO2 emissions were reduced by 21% compared to 2005.

The 2025 climate plan takes a holistic approach to climate action. A collection of specific goals and initiatives are established within four main areas: energy consumption, energy production, green mobility and the city administration. 74% of the total reduction needed to reach carbon neutrality has and will be found through changes in energy production.

What is driving this vision?

Kent Martinussen (KM): The drive comes from the desire to be self-sustaining in our energy supplies on a national level. We do not want to depend on foreign countries for energy supplies. Yet energy sources remain fragile. We may run out of gas in 20 years’ time. The question therefore is how we can create a truly sustainable society. This motivates us to start looking at other energy sources and we have been doing this for quite some decades including wind turbines, which Denmark was a first mover on. There is also the need for diversification of green industries and to look for smarter solutions. All these spur Copenhagen to want to take the lead in advancing its expertise and use of green technologies as it is also an answer to the question of what kind of industries we shall live on in the future.

What challenges do you anticipate in the process of fulfilling the vision? What has been done to address these challenges?

FJ: One of the major challenges is to make the right strategic priority action plan. The building stock is accountable for the majority of the city’s energy consumption. Major challenges are connected with the existing buildings, energy efficiency and new building projects. High rates of moving and the high level of rental apartments in Copenhagen have a tendency to stall energy renovations in existing buildings. The City of Copenhagen is engaging in dialogue with citizens, private companies and the national government to find solutions that can ensure more energy efficient renovations. Furthermore, new construction not only has strict energy requirements but also has to be built in a way that enables further energy upgrades in the future.

The changes in energy production bring along challenges to the existing system. A high percentage of energy from wind requires high rates of flexibility from producers and consumers. Intelligent systems have to be developed to balance energy production according to demand. At the same time, consumers have to adapt to the new systems and use energy, for example, charging electric vehicles when there is a surplus of sustainable energy. In this case, just as the rest of the climate plan, the strategy calls for a holistic approach.

In the citation of the European Green Capital Award, Copenhagen was noted for placing public-private partnership (PPP) at the core of its approach to eco-innovation and sustainable environment. Why the focus on PPP?

KM: The increasing emphasis on PPP in relation to public infrastructure has to do with the recognition that the public sector should not carry out building and infrastructure projects on their own. Partnering with the private sector can bring about greater expertise and innovation for projects and create a larger multiplicator effect in society at large, where more people benefit from the investments. For example, public buildings have been renovated with energy-efficient features that have also been financed by the private sector as part of the PPP. This has created higher performance buildings, lowered carbon emissions and fuelled innovation in the private sector. The focus on PPP is also about finding better ways to optimise our resources. In fact, this is something that is happening across Europe as part of our attempt to escape the financial crisis, and where there is a larger trend to re-evaluate and reform the structural organisation of society.

What role has Danish Architecture Centre (DAC) played in encouraging sustainability?

KM: The main role of DAC is to promote the right solutions. It is commonly accepted that we already have really smart solutions to many of our challenges. Therefore, is it important to make these visible and available to the key agents in society. As part of this effort, we also want to encourage architects and engineers to reconsider their roles. It is not just about designing chic buildings but also about focusing on sustainable urban development. To this end, DAC aims to encourage a greater awareness on the importance of sustainable developments and design strategies and to share more knowledge in this area. In the public realm, it is about helping the wider public to understand the necessity for sustainability and to encourage the people of Denmark to demand smarter solutions so as to benefit the total value chain.

In what ways can cities go beyond just being sustainable?

FJ: Sustainability in Copenhagen goes beyond simple CO2 reduction. The green transformation has to ensure liveability and economic growth while reducing emissions. In Copenhagen, urban green solutions are already implemented on a large scale and are used by the citizens.

For example, integrated transport and cycling solutions have reduced congestion significantly and increased the health of citizens resulting in lower costs for health care and fewer hours lost in traffic congestion. Cleaning the harbour made it possible to swim in it. Urban areas close to the new harbour baths experienced better quality of life, an increase in local business life and jobs and revenue generated in the area.

In Copenhagen, sustainability is seen as a growth opportunity. Studies from Copenhagen show that growth in the green sector in the capital region has increased turnover by 55% over a course of five years. The City of Copenhagen has taken action in promoting the knowledge, technologies and experiences from implementing sustainable solutions.

What does planning for sustainability entail and what does this mean to the individual in Copenhagen?

KM: It is about making life clean, safe and easy for residents. Making it easy to go to work, handle the children in the morning or buy basic groceries on your way back from work. People can get from one end of Copenhagen to the other in 15 minutes on their bike – in clean air and at the same time getting healthier. There are super safe bike lanes running throughout the urban network and bicycles are given priority to cars. It is also about giving priority to pedestrians. It is a gratifying experience when you do that because it creates a whole new quality of life for the individual as well for the public realm.

How do you bring across the idea of sustainability to citizens?

KM: Sustainability has to be built into the education system and integrated into peoples’ lives in the same way as good architecture is embedded in our culture. The important thing is for people to feel it and see the value. And there is absolutely no doubt that it helps if sustainability shows on their private bank account. We should not save our way to sustainability living a more boring life. Sustainability is about finding new ways to make our lives more interesting, funny and varied. And we can – with no doubt - invent solutions to make this possible! O

This article was first published in September 2012. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.


Frank Jensen

Frank Jensen

Frank Jensen has been Lord Mayor of Copenhagen since 2010. In 1987, he was elected to Folketinget (the Danish Parliament) and was soon appointed to several important posts. From 1994 to 2001, he was the Minister of Research, and, following that, the Minister of Justice. In 2008, he left Parliament to take up a business career. In 2010, he returned to politics as Lord Mayor of Copenhagen. Frank Jensen is married to Jane Frimand Pedersen and has two sons.

Kent Martinussen

Kent Martinussen

Kent Martinussen is educated at international schools of architecture and universities with MA of Architecture from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen. Besides being the CEO of the Danish Architecture Centre, he is a regular on national and international committees, boards and juries. He serves as an advisor for governments, municipalities and corporations and has received several national and international awards and accolades for his worldwide promotion and communication of architecture primarily focused on the capacity of architecture under the emblem of globalization. Knighted by HRM.