Copenhagen. It’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit but not yet had the opportunity to go to. The colourful buildings lining the sides of canals, the Tivoli Gardens and open squares around the city all add to the attraction and charm of the Danish capital. However, in truth, its the drive for creating a sustainable city that makes me want to visit.

From the wind farms, on- and offshore, that power much of the city to the Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant that has a ski slope, hiking trail, rock climbing wall on its rooftop, the Danish approach to sustainability fascinates me. The city’s use of technological innovation has put it well on the path to achieve its carbon neutrality goal as well as usher in the beginnings of a return to circularity in the way we consume energy, water and other products.

Denmark itself is only a small country by size and its capital is home to a population of just over one million (including suburbs), so how does this Scandinavian city lead the way in becoming one of the most sustainable cities on the planet?

Putting the Environment at the Heart of Policy

Back in 2009, Copenhagen became the first capital city in the world to set a goal to become carbon neutral. It wasn’t something they aimed to achieve in 50, 40, or even 30 years, but in just 16 years. Their 2025 goal was, at the time, one of the most radical on the planet – making a city the size of Copenhagen carbon neutral is an enormous challenge – but a goal that would dramatically reduce the Danish contribution to the climate emergency. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this goal was set not long after the 2008 financial crash that almost crippled a number of countries and began the decade of austerity here in the UK.

In order to reach their goal of becoming carbon neutral, the Climate Plan that Copenhagen adopted in 2009 had a number of key goals to achieve within four areas:

  • Energy Consumption
  • Energy Production
  • Green Mobility
  • City Administration Initiatives

Energy Production

After being heavily reliant on oil and natural gas through most of the 20th century, Copenhagen began investing in wind energy in the 1990s and slowly drawing itself away from fossil fuels. Fast forward to the present day and 76% of the electricity used in Copenhagen is generated by wind, biomass or nuclear sources.

Copenhagen is also investing in innovative ways to produce energy that takes them closer to their carbon neutral goal. The Amager Bakke waste-to-energy facility that is part of that share was commissioned in 2019 and plays a large role in producing electricity for the city. The facility takes 400,000 tonnes of waste produced by people and businesses in the city of Copenhagen and generates enough electricity to power 62,500 homes at a 99% efficiency rate, recovers 100 million tonnes of water and and recycles 100,000 tonnes of bottom ash to be used as road material.

The Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen

Energy Consumption

Ensuring that electricity used to power Copenhagen comes from cleaner sources is vital, but so is ensuring that we use that energy efficiently with the goal of reducing the overall consumption. As well as the usual efficiency solutions like triple-glazing, LED lighting,  etc., Copenhagen also has a number of its own initiatives to reduce emissions in the city.

Waste heat produced by biomass and waste-to-energy plants across Copenhagen is also being recycled to provide heating to hundreds of thousands of homes all of the city. They call this ‘district heating’. It’s not a new concept, but it’s one that is highly effective and has now been rolled out to 99% of Copenhagen homes. ‘District heating’ has completely removed the emissions created by the warming of homes through more typical means simply by using produced heat that would otherwise be going to waste.

Copenhagen is also investing in infrastructure that will allow for ‘district cooling’ using cold seawater pumped between buildings. Using a similar process to the ‘district heating’ method of warming buildings across Copenhagen, this will reduce the need for air conditioning or other energy-intensive methods and dramatically reduce the city’s carbon footprint even further.

Green Mobility

Encouraging people to take alternative forms of transport and leave cars at home was identified as another challenge for Copenhagen to overcome. In 2000, there were over 300,000 cars making journeys into Copenhagen and it was the primary form of transport for people. The traffic issues and air pollution caused by that number of cars entering the city was a huge problem. So, to reduce this number, the city invested heavily in public transport and improving the opportunities for people to cycle.

Encouraging cycling is just one way that they’ve achieved this. Since 2005, more than one billion Danish krone (around £120million) on bike lanes and ‘super cycle highways’ in the city and, in 2015, was named the most bike-friendly city in the world. Taking cyclists off of the roads and into their own designated lanes dramatically increases the safety of cyclists and other road users, making it a much more attractive alternative to getting around. The results of this investment mean that 45% of people living in the city now cycle to work or school.

The use of public transport in Copenhagen mirrors that of other cities around Europe. A 2014 study found that 27% of all commutes to work in Copenhagen were by public transport. However, for those living in the city it was only 17%, mostly due to an increase  in the share of people cycling (car use of people in the city was also lower).


The encouragement of using more environmentally-friendly transport also extends to private transport. Denmark has proposed plans to ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 in order to encourage people to take alternative forms of transport or buy electric vehicles – a move that will help improve the air quality of the city of Copenhagen.

City Administration Initiatives

Whilst the city government and its buildings may have the smallest share of Copenhagen’s total emissions, ensuring the city government is leading the way towards becoming carbon neutral. Increasing the efficiency of government-owned buildings as well as street lighting is an easy way; the Copenhagen government aims to reduce consumption in buildings by 40% and in street lighting by 50%.

There are also plans to have every government vehicle running on electricity, hydrogen or biofuels – a move that will not only reduce carbon emissions but also the amount of air pollution in the city with less particulate matter being released in exhaust fumes. Renewables will also play an important role in producing the energy required to power government buildings with plans to put solar panels on the rooftops of all current and new government buildings.

Sustainability Goes Beyond the Environment

For all this vital work in developing an environmentally sustainable city, there also needs to be sustainability within society and the economy if Copenhagen is to call itself a sustainable city.

So how about the social aspect of the city?

Well, according to the United Nations’ Happiness Report that is released annually, Denmark is has been consistently in the top 3 since 2016 – even being named the happiest country in the world in 2016 and 2017. Copenhagen itself ranks at No. 9 in an annual quality of living survey for over 200 cities around the world. People living in Copenhagen earn more on average than other major cities around Europe and the cost of living in the city is cheaper. There is also 300m2 of green space per person within Copenhagen – dramatically more than many other European cities – which also holds a lot of health and wellbeing benefits for the population.

Copenhagen is showing itself to be socially sustainable, but what about the economy? For years the story goes that environmental protection and economic growth can’t go hand-in-hand and the idea of ‘green growth’ was little more than a dream for environmentalists – even as it becomes more and more urgent that we take action on the climate emergency.

Well, it’s quite the opposite, actually.

Between 2005 and 2015, even in the midst of one of the biggest financial downturns in modern history, Copenhagen continued to grow economically to the point where it had grown by 24%. Prior to the recent lockdowns related to the Coronavirus, unemployment was at just 3.7% after dropping year after year since the 2008 crash. A study by the London School of Economics also found that Copenhagen has long been one of the most economically productive cities in Europe, helping contribute to Denmark’s place in the top 10 countries in the world based on GDP per capita.

Learning from Copenhagen

By all accounts, Copenhagen is currently thriving and well on its way to being the first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025.

Announcing the goal of going carbon neutral by 2025 was a very bold statement from Copenhagen. The financial crash in 2008 took almost everyone’s attention away from tackling climate change – that had been gaining some traction – to recovering from the economic shock that had just hit almost every major economy on Earth. On a national or global scale, almost nobody saw it as an opportunity to rebuild with sustainability at the centre of policy.

Copenhagen did though. It saw the financial crash as an opportunity to rebuild the economy with the environment at its core – and it hasn’t looked back. It has become an example for cities to show that ‘green growth’ is very real and it is absolutely possible to better the environment that we live in whilst continuing to grow the city’s economy and provide a better quality of life for all that live within cities.


Right now, we stand at the same point Copenhagen found itself at 2009. The Coronavirus has had such an impact on the economy and on all of our lives that we need to restart and rebuild. There was more than enough science that showed the importance of tackling climate change back in 2009 when Copenhagen made the decision to prioritise ‘green growth’ and sustainability. Now, we have a decade more that has only confirmed that same science but highlighted just how important it is that we reduce emissions and build our cities sustainably.

Building sustainable cities is no longer the dream of environmentalists – it’s a reality. All we need to do is look towards Copenhagen.

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