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ARC Incinerator Copenhagen via BIG

Climate Change

Copenhagen Net Zero By 2025 Plan May Depend More On Politics Than Technology

Copenhagen has an ambitious goal of becoming the first net zero capital city in the world as it prepares to address the challenge of climate change. Can cities overcome political foot dragging at the national level?

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Copenhagen has an ambitious plan to become the first net zero capital city by 2025. It has already reduced carbon emission by 42% compared to 2005. The biggest obstacle to reaching its goal is not technology — the tools needed to get there are readily available. It has overcome opposition from the Danish government and rural voters, a challenge that applies to many cities around the world.

ARC Incinerator Copenhagen via BIG

ARC Incinerator Copenhagen. Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group

Cities Can Change How We Behave

Mayor Frank Jensen tells the New York Times that cities “can change the way we behave, the way we are living, and go more green.” He says mayors, more than national politicians, feel the pressure to take action. “We are directly responsible for our cities and our citizens, and they expect us to act.”

In a jarring example of theory versus reality, the two halves of that quote on the NY Times website are interrupted by an ad for the GMC Next Generation Sierra Denali. In Denmark, rural drivers are still wedded to their diesel-powered cars. The Danish government recently slashed registration taxes on new cars, a move that has had the effect of making electric cars more expensive.

Danish transportation minister Ole Birk Olesen tells the NY Times his government wanted to reduce “the over-taxation of cars,” which the government apparently thinks is a bigger concern than preventing the extinction of human beings and all living things on Planet Earth due to rapidly rising average global temperatures. Idiocy, apparently, is not confined exclusively to conservatives reactionaries in the United States. Ideally, Olesen said, Danes would buy only zero-emissions cars in the coming decades, although how exactly he thanks that might happen without a nudge from the national government is unclear.

Clean Power From Many Sources

Unlike most US cities, residential and commercial buildings in Copenhagen are connected by a central heating system that helps keep them warm during the long Danish winters. The city has recently completed a new high tech incinerator that consumes 300 truckloads a day of trash and turns it into heat and electricity. The $600 million facility is almost 300 feet high and has a 2000′ ski slope on one side. Its exhaust gases are scrubbed of harmful chemicals so that it emits only steam. Trendy new restaurants are opening downwind from the incinerator.

The city has also invested heavily in wind turbines, many of them placed in the Øresund that separates Denmark from Sweden. Driving across the bridge that connects the two countries, it is easy to see where the international border is. The Danish side is festooned with wind turbines from horizon to horizon. On the Swedish side, there are none, as in not any.

Some of the coal generating plants that used to supply electricity to Copenhagen have now converted to burning wood pellets imported from Baltic states. While the pellets burn cleaner than coal, there is a debate as to whether they can truly be called renewable energy. That designation assumes the trees cut down to make pellets are replaced with new trees. Even at that, it takes many years for those new trees to mature to the point where they can be used to make more pellets.

The Carbon Cycle

The issue is simple. There is, in fact, a carbon cycle and it is essential to life on Earth. When animals and plants grow, they sequester carbon in their tissues. When they die, that carbon is returned to the environment. What climate deniers like William Happer refuse to recognize is that the carbon cycle is like a bathtub. Some water comes in the spigot and some goes down the drain. As long as the inflow equals the outflow, everything is fine.

The problem with fossil fuels is that they contain carbon that was captured millions of years ago. Adding massive quantities of it back into the environment over a relatively short period of time is like pouring Lake Superior into that same bathtub. Expecting that an influx of massive quantities of carbon won’t dangerously destabilize the system is disingenuous at best, and criminally negligent at worst.

43% of people who live in and around Copenhagen commute to work or to school by bicycle. The city has constructed bicycle highways that are physically separate from surface streets, providing greater safety for riders. It also has an extensive subway system. Today, everyone living in the city is less than half a mile from a subway station.

Despite the city’s ambitious carbon reduction goals, some feel they don’t go far enough. They say the plan focuses too much on trying to balance the city’s carbon books rather than change the way people actually live. “We run around in fossil fuel burning cars, we eat a lot of meat, we buy a hell of a lot of clothes,” Fanny Broholm, a spokeswoman for Alternativet, a left-of-center green party tells the NY Times. “The goal is not ambitious enough as it is, and we can’t even reach this goal.”

The Effects Of Climate Change On Copenhagen

Like many other world cities, Copenhagen is experiencing more rain that it is accustomed to. Coastal flooding along its harbor is becoming more common. In response, it is creating new parks and ponds where water can collect before is able to drain into the sea. There are new dikes by the harbor, and a proposal to build a new island in the northeast to block storm surges.

There is an old joke that asks, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is, “One, but first the light bulb must want to change.” A survey in 2018 found more than half of Danes are concerned about climate change. “People are honestly concerned about it,” said Klaus Bondam, a former politician and now head of a bicyclists’ lobby. “You are an extremely tone deaf politician if you don’t hear that.”

All Politics Is Local

If that is the case, there are lots and lots of tone deaf politicians in the world. “All politics is local,” said former Speaker of the House TIP O’Neill. Judging from what Copenhagen and other world cities are doing, the solution to climate change, if there is one, will come from cities, towns, and counties, not national governments.

The fossil fuel companies may have purchased politicians at the the national level, but even they don’t have enough money to buy all the citizens of every city on Earth. The political calculus is changing and the people who have made us all slaves to oil and gas and coal will be swept away in the ensuing flood. They are all on the brink of financial ruin. They just don’t know it yet.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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