Nordic Solutions: Cities Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Scenic summer view of Nyhavn pier with color buildings, ships, yachts and other boats in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark
Scenic summer view of Nyhavn pier with color buildings, ships, yachts and other boats in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark

In the future, Copenhageners will be able to get through the cold winter months with heat from giant heat pumps as well as geothermal energy. Today, the Danish capital gets 98 percent of its heat from district heating - a source of heat that is already 53 percent carbon-neutral. However, to make the transition to a completely carbon neutral energy system, the city will need to employ interim technologies - like biomass in Copenhagen's case.

Copenhagen and cities around the world are currently between the proverbial rock and a hard place: If they do nothing to curb their GHG-emissions, increasing global temperatures will have dire consequences for the economy and their inhabitants. On the other hand, decision-makers are understandably cautious, as many of the technologies needed to replace our present fossil-dependent energy systems have higher capital costs, although operating costs are lower. Furthermore, national legislation and subsidies often stifle innovation, and law-makers seem slow to realize that we live in a world where business-as-usual no longer suffices.

Fortunately, fewer and fewer consider inaction a viable strategy, and major cities across the globe are increasingly pushing for transformation of their infrastructure and energy systems. In the City of Copenhagen, we have committed ourselves whole-heartedly to the ambitious goal of making the Danish capital the world's first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

Our strategy for Copenhagen employs flexibility - not towards our overall climate ambitions but towards the technologies needed to get there. Through systematic collaborations and partnerships with private companies, citizens and universities, we are able to create and test new solutions to urban climate-related challenges. We have set ambitious reduction targets for the way we consume and produce energy as well as for the way Copenhageners transport themselves.

For instance, Copenhagen is making large investments in wind power to deliver a third of the emissions reductions needed in the city's energy production.

For the foreseeable future, biomass will be playing an important role. Next year, Copenhagen is expected to begin replacing a coal-fired block with a biomass block at one of the city's major combined heat and power plants (CHP). The new unit, called BIO4, will be ready by 2020 and will run on wood chips from sustainable sources. This means using only residues felling and forest thinning operations.

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Just a few kilometers from Copenhagen's busy city center are the clearly visible wind turbines at the Middelgrunden wind farm. Photo by Ursula Bach

However, using biomass as an energy source is only an interim step in Copenhagen's transition to carbon-neutral energy production. Beyond 2025, parts of the biomass-based heat supply will be phased out, while other energy technologies, like heat pumps and geothermal energy will be gradually phased in.

Changing the way we produce our energy is just one step on our path to a fossil-free future. Any gains we make in reducing emissions in our energy production will be wasted, if we do not also learn to use energy more efficiently. In the City of Copenhagen, we are systematically retrofitting our public buildings, like schools, libraries and kindergartens. However, progress has been slow in retrofitting private rental buildings, as owners are reluctant to make long-term investments because energy savings tend to end up with tenants.

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On the edge of Copenhagen stands 8-tallet - a unique building designed by the award-winning architects from the Bjarke Ingels Group. Photo by Ursula Bach

Therefore, Copenhagen is developing promising models and incentives to promote large-scale retrofitting. As an example, the City of Copenhagen has already helped develop a new model to stimulate retrofitting of office buildings. Called "The Copenhagen Model", the model aims to deliver incentives to all the actors in the value chain -from owners and administrators to tenants.

Another promising private initiative has been the establishment of a fund for private energy-retrofit projects. What makes the fund particularly interesting is the fact that it promises to fund energy savings from the reduced heating and electricity costs. This means that the projects are fully financed and usually pay-back within 4 to 6 years.

Apart from retrofitting its buildings, Copenhagen needs to change the way city residents transport themselves. This may seem surprising for a city that was recently awarded the title of the World's Most Bicycle Friendly City and where 63 percent of Copenhageners take their bicycle to work or their place of study. However, transport emissions still make a large contribution to the capital's overall emissions, and traffic is expected to increase due to a rise in population.

Like with retrofitting, the City of Copenhagen is leading the way by replacing a large part of its fleet with electric vehicles. Copenhagen is also replacing most of its municipal garbage trucks with biogas-powered trucks. Recently, busy Copenhageners were also offered a new car-sharing service, making it possible to easily pick up an electric car from a city-wide network.

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The recently inaugurated Circle Bridge in Copenhagen allows cyclists and pedestrians to cross the inner harbour. Photo by Ursula Bach

Each of these small steps brings us closer to a fossil-free future. Moreover, and more importantly, Copenhagen is learning and developing solutions with other great cities like Berlin, New York City, Sydney, Vancouver, London, San Francisco, Yokohama, Oslo and Stockholm.

These and many other ambitious cities are at the forefront of the fight against climate change and the best thing national governments can do is to support and encourage the tremendous work cities are doing.

Bio for Morten Kabell

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Morten Kabell is Mayor for Technical and Environmental Affairs at the City of Copenhagen. His vision is to transform Copenhagen into a greener city with a higher level of livability. His political focus is changing the traffic mix in Copenhagen so that more people use bicycles and public transport.

This post is part of a "Nordic Solutions" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on climate solutions from the five Nordic countries, and is part of our What's Working editorial initiative. To view the entire series, visit here.