City of Copenhagen, Denmark

City of Copenhagen, Denmark

Alex Fletcher, Member, Sustainability Solutions Group
Published February 3, 2011

Case Summary
Copenhagen, Denmark’s Capital, has a population of half a million, within a wider metropolitan area whose population is over a million. Connections with neighbouring Malmo in Sweden, which is linked by bridge, are very close, and some demographers treat the two cities as a single metropolitan region, with a population of over two million. Copenhagen is the economic and financial centre of Denmark, with a service-oriented economy, and strong recent economic performance.

Sustainable Development Characteristics
The City of Copenhagen has a track record of comprehensive long-term planning and regulation for climate change, and is seen as an innovative leader in several areas including wind energy, district heating, and bicycle transportation. Copenhagen continues to set high goals for the future including, by 2025, becoming the world’s first carbon neutral capital and, by 2015, defining itself as the world’s ‘eco-metropolis’.

These achievements and sustainability-related initiatives will have taken place in the absence of any overarching sustainability or sustainable development plan. This is due, in large part, to the long history of understanding for the concept of sustainability in Copenhagen; comprehensive long-range planning has been a common practice for decades throughout Denmark. Aspects of sustainable development have long been integrated into government frameworks and are now typically intrinsic in the planning and decision-making processes.

Critical Success Factors
Three factors are regarded as critical to Copenhagen’s success in advancing sustainable development:

  1. Broad political commitment. Collaboration and unity are considered cultural norms in Denmark. In Copenhagen, significant efforts were made to collaborate across party lines and between government departments, thereby gaining approval from both the city council and the public.
  2. A long-term vision that reaches beyond mainstream initiatives. As the Copenhagen case study shows, ambitious, large-scale projects, that in some cases span decades, are possible and can provide many benefits.
  3. Priorities and initiatives based on facts and sound science. In Denmark, education is highly valued and free to all citizens, resulting in a well-informed public and an educated workforce. The city employs experts and scientists and engages external expertise, when needed.

 In Copenhagen, cycling is widely accepted as a very practical and rational mode of transportation. Copenhagen has a long history of cycling transportation dating back over a hundred years. Due to its size, density, and the city’s comprehensive planning, most commuters only travel a few kilometers to their destinations. At distances up to 5 kilometers, bicycles offer an efficient mode of transport in Copenhagen that can easily compete with buses and cars. Furthermore, because so many young students bike or walk to school, there is strong support, sometimes demands, from the parents to provide safe routes for their children.

Community Contact Information
Hans Christian Christiansen
Senior Advisor, Technical and Environmental Administration, City of Copenhagen
Njalsgade 13, 2. sal
Postbox 259
1502 København V
Telefon: 3366 5866
Telefax: 3366 7133

What Worked?
Successful strategies and initiatives that worked for the City of Copenhagen include:

The Environmental Protection Act, passed in the 1970’s, provided Denmark with a legislative foundation to make incremental advancements in sustainability over the years.

High taxes have provided the government and municipalities with most of the revenue needed to manage large public programs and projects.

Tax incentives for renewable energy have been effective in incorporating clean energy and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) into the district heating system, as well as encouraging investment in wind energy.

Subsidies and feed in tariffs for renewable energy have been instrumental in securing investments in wind farms.

Wind co-ops have helped increase investment in renewable energy while also increasing public support for windmills.

A strong tradition of collaboration between political parties, municipalities, and different branches of government leads to integrated and comprehensive decision-making and planning, which receives broad political support.

Extensive planning processes, with 4-year cycles and 12-year horizons are standard, ensuring targets are up-to-date, progress is regularly measured, and plans modified to ensure continuous improvement.

The Integrated District Heating (DH) network is a versatile system providing more efficient and affordable heating with lower emissions. The network integrates the DH system between several municipalities strengthening unity and collaboration.

Combined heat and power plants use the waste product (heat) from one system to create efficiencies which translate to reduced emissions and a more affordable energy supply.

Investments in cycling infrastructure have established a safe and efficient cycling environment, which in turn has resulted in a viable and popular mode of transportation that contributes to health and reduced emissions.

Waste incineration for heat has both decreased waste being sent to landfill and provided a local source of energy.

The Finger Plan, a comprehensive urban plan dating back to the mid 1940’s, established a smart growth strategy that concentrates urban growth around transportation routes and services, allows for short and efficient travel distances, and protects green space in close proximity to inhabitants.

What Didn’t Work?
Public campaigns have been unable to engage 100% of the population. As a general standard, about a third of the population is responsive while the rest is either not interested or complacent.

Despite the city’s comprehensive waste management plan and its efforts in waste prevention, recycling, and separation, the city has not been able to decouple waste and prosperity. The waste management plan cites higher spending power in recent years in Copenhagen leading to higher levels of waste.

Introduced in the 1990’s, the Public Bicycle program was initially unsuccessful due to numerous thefts of the free bikes and insufficient resources to support the program; however, through a partnership developed between the city, ministries, and private interests, eventually a system of free public bicycles was successfully implemented and is maintained throughout the city. Collaboration was key to sourcing the initial funding, attracting major sponsors, building public support, promoting theft prevention, and integrating the program into the broader cycling infrastructure planning.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources
The size and capacity of Copenhagen’s administration has played a significant role in enabling the city to manage sustainability projects. High taxes contribute revenue and also enable tax incentives to be very effective in directing investment into priority areas like renewable energy projects. While partnerships with the private sector have not played a large role in financing sustainability projects to date, partnerships are becoming more common and are strategies being considered for financing initiatives in the Copenhagen Climate Plan. Also, as part of the climate plan, an Energy Fund is being considered to capture and reinvest savings from efficiency upgrades to buildings. The Adaptation plan has yet to be approved but is calculated to cost 12 B DKK (approx. $ 2.2 billion CDN) over 100 years. If approved, the next step will be to determine a financing system as well as integrate the planning objectives into existing areas of the government.

Copenhagen spends approximately 40 million DKK per year (approx. $ 7 million CDN) on its cycling infrastructure. One kilometer of traditional cycle track costs 8 million DKK (approx. $ 1.5 million CDN). In the Public Bicycle program, sponsorship and advertising funding was essential to continuing the program.

Research Analysis
This case study was prepared using in-depth interviews with city officials considered experts in the area examined and exchanges of email correspondence. All interviewees were asked what worked and what didn’t work in the city’s approach to and its achievements in sustainability. Interviewees were also asked to provide insight into replicating similar models in the Canadian context. Government documents, literature and websites were also reviewed. For some government documents, it was a challenge to locate the text in English. Also, English translations of city plans and other documents were sometimes only available in abbreviated forms of the original Danish versions. Language is, therefore, a limitation in this case study.

Detailed Case Background Description
Sustainable Development: Historical Context
The broad political and social motivation for sustainable development can be traced back to the political climate in the late 1960’s and the far reaching influence of such events as the Youth Revolution in Paris. Components of sustainable development, including concerns for human rights, women’s rights, and the environment became popular at that time, particularly amongst Denmark’s large student and youth population. During this period, the governing Social Democratic Party shifted further to the left of the political spectrum adopting these popular concerns and developing policies to address them.

In 1972, the Danish Parliament also passed the Environmental Protection Act, a ‘framework act’ which defined the newly formed Environmental Protection Agencies’ fundamental objectives. The Danish Act was the first environmental Act to be implemented in the world and was part of a wider trend in the region. In neighboring Sweden, similar advancements were being made and the first United Nations (UN) Conference on the environment took place in Stockholm that same year. Compounding this growing awareness of the environment was the energy crisis. At the time of the energy crisis in the 1970’s, Denmark was importing almost all of the fossil fuels it used for heating. The price shock provided a strong incentive for the Danish government to take action and pursue greater energy independence.

The year after the 1987 Brundtland Commission (UN World Commission for Environment and Development), Denmark developed an Environment and Development Action plan, which was a move towards a broader sustainable development focus. In 1988, Denmark developed its Energy 2000 plan introducing a target of a 20% reduction in green house gas emissions, by 2005.

Decentralized Comprehensive Planning
Considerable authority is delegated to municipalities in Denmark. The national government often coordinates planning through legislation requiring municipal-level planning. For example, since the early 1990’s, under the Danish Statutory Order on Waste, local authorities are required to prepare a Waste Management Plan every 4 years with a horizon of 12 years. The plan is to include a survey section, an objectives section, and a planning section.

Under the 1974 Planning Act, municipalities must go through a planning process before starting a major project. The threshold for a major project has decreased over the years so that planning processes are very commonplace within municipal government.

Political Stability and Collaboration
The City of Copenhagen is governed by a council with representation from seven, mostly left-leaning, political parties. The Social Democrat party has held the mayoral position for over 100 years. While municipal governments may have changed, concern for the environment, sustainable development and climate change mitigation remained constant across all partly lines.

The city’s committees involve all stakeholders in decision-making and planning processes. At the national level, there is an association of local authorities that is consulted when new legislation is proposed. This strong tradition of collaboration in Denmark is considered a practical necessity for advancing projects and legislation. Both the Copenhagen Climate Change Plan and the Adaptation Plan were developed with a broad spectrum of input from opposition parties, as well as different government agencies, to ensure broad support and potential for being adopted by city council. Copenhagen’s Climate Change Plan was adopted unanimously in 2009 and the Adaptation plan is expected to be approved this year.

The tradition of collaboration also has a bearing on leadership styles in Copenhagen. It is not very common for individuals to build a reputation as a champion of a certain cause as this goes against the culture and tradition of building agreement and seeking unity and equality that is associated with a “Nordic way of living”. While there have been ministers that, for example have had the reputation of championing the environment, they are not considered to have been more effective than their less visible counterparts.

In Copenhagen, there are approximately 50,000 employees equivalent to 40,000 full time positions. The size and capacity of the administration of Copenhagen has played a significant role in the city’s ability to manage and finance large-scale sustainable development projects. The city has considerable human and financial capital to work with. There is a tendency to incorporate new issues and initiatives into existing management positions and to integrate them across the different areas of government. For example, a program like the Climate Ambassadors, that trains students about climate change and encourages them to educate their family and friends, is relatively easily absorbed within the existing system of government and education. Also, it has become common practice to include sustainability issues upfront in most areas of planning and decision-making. The strength of government and public institutions has also meant that there is less dependence on non-governmental organizations to fill the gaps.1   

Comprehensive Urban Planning: The Finger Plan
Developed in 1947, the Finger Plan is a comprehensive growth strategy that continues to direct urban development in Copenhagen today. Under the plan’s concept, central Copenhagen represents the palm of a hand and 5 transportation and development ‘fingers’ extend out from it. By concentrating growth along designated highway and S-train routes and locating shops, schools and services and dense housing near the stations, people have easy access to essential services and can get around efficiently without the need of cars. In between the fingers green space and agricultural land is protected with the objective of being easily accessible for everyone.

Integrated District Heating (DH) System
Copenhagen is considered to have one of the most extensive and successful district heating systems in the world. It supplies 97% of the city with clean, reliable and affordable heating through a 1,500 km double-pipe network. Established in the 1980’s, with partnerships between municipalities in the metropolitan area, the DH network connects Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants, waste incinerators and boiler plants to distribution companies in a one pool-operated system with a total heat production equivalent to about 20% of Denmark’s total heating demand. The integration of four DH systems servicing 18 municipalities in the metropolitan region, allows transmission companies the flexibility to choose which production plants to purchase from on a per hour basis to supply heat and energy at the lowest possible cost, incorporating energy taxes and CO2-quota-costs. The system is adaptable to different fuels and technologies. Some CHP plants have converted from coal to natural gas and others have begun incorporating biomass into their feedstock. As described in the Climate Plan and the Heat Plan Copenhagen, future plans include converting more of the plants to biomass, adding a new CHP plant based on renewable energy, continuing to expand and improve the distribution infrastructure, and increasing the heating capacity of the city’s demonstration geothermal facility. The Heat Plan Greater Copenhagen also projects four different scenarios for the heat supply system, by 2025, based on an assessment of the present and future regulatory framework and an evaluation of future technologies. The plan includes considerations based on a 2050 horizon and a 100% renewable energy scenario.

Today, about a third of Copenhagen’s district heat comes from biomass and waste incineration and the other two-thirds from fossil fuels. Cogeneration of heat and electricity is said to result in around 30% savings compared to the equivalent production in separate heat and power plants. Similarly, green house gas emissions reductions of approximately 40% to 50% are said to be achieved by using centralized production plants instead of individual household boilers running on gas or oil. Waste incineration handles about 40% of the city’s waste production, a significant redirection of waste from landfill. In Copenhagen less than 2% of waste is directed to the landfill. Furthermore, in 2009, the heating cost for the consumer was calculated to be about 50% less when compared to oil or gas. The infrastructure has proven to be durable with pipes installed during the 1970’s still in use today.

Wind Energy
Denmark is home to the world's second largest offshore wind farm, Horns Rev. The 80-turbine wind farm produces an annual output of 600,000,000 kilowatt-hours, equivalent to the demand of 150,000 Danish households and representing nearly 2% of Denmark's total electricity consumption. Denmark is also home to Vestas, the world’s largest windmill company.

Key factors in the growth of wind energy include financial support for research and development and development as well as regulatory incentives. Subsidies and feed in tariffs are key to promoting wind farm development. Wind farm co-ops have also played a role and are promoted through tax exemptions for investors. A recent law has made it mandatory for new wind turbines to sell at least 20% of their shares to people who live within 4.5 km of the turbine. An example of local ownership, The Middelgrunden farm is owned jointly by Danish Oil and Natural Gas and a cooperative with 8,650 members. The farm supplies more than 3% of the power used in Copenhagen. Besides increasing investment in wind energy, local ownership has the added benefits of helping generate social acceptance of wind mills, minimizing line loss over the energy grid, and promoting local engagement, empowerment, and employment.

In 2009, 37% (150,000) of people in Copenhagen cycled to work or school. By 2015, the city aims to increase this number to 50%, in effect adding 55,000 more cyclists to the roads. Existing infrastructure includes approximately 350 kilometers of isolated cycle track, 15 kilometers of painted-line cycle lanes, and a system of green routes being built featuring less stops and more natural surroundings. Bicycle lanes are inspected for quality every two years as part of the bicycle policy’s evaluation process, which measures progress towards the policy’s goals. There are also bicycle parking facilities at bus stops and train stations and bicycles are allowed on trains and subways outside of peak demand periods. Safety initiatives like pre-green traffic signals, which turn green for cyclists a few seconds before turning green for cars, have led to a decrease by 67% between 1996 and 2009 in the risk of serious injury to cyclists. In order to accommodate planned growth in cycling, new paths are constantly being created. In 2010, 100 million DKK (approx, $ 18.4 million CDN) was committed for further infrastructure. New efforts target newcomers and seek cooperation with the surrounding municipalities to better accommodate commuters traveling larger distances.

The city maintains a Public Bike program with 120 bike racks and coordinates a winter collection and maintenance each year. Initially unsuccessful due to theft and lack of financing, the program is now financed through sponsorships and advertisement. Maintenance work provides employment for inmates and unemployed people. A new public bike system is being planned that will attract more commuters, expand the bike zone into a neighboring municipality, improve the bikes, and increase the number of free bikes available.

Adaptation Plan
Copenhagen is currently in the process of approving a Climate Change Adaptation plan. The plan focuses on three key areas: 1. Increased rainfall, 2. Sea level rise, and 3. Heat waves. The plan includes economic risk analyses with projections for 30, 50 and 100 years. With predictions of a 30% increase in rainfall over the next 30-40 years, storm water management presents a significant challenge. The plan takes the approach that it would be too expensive not to take preventative action. It also seeks solutions that provide multiple benefits, such as green roofs, increased green space, natural holding areas and other methods that are included in a catalogue as part of the plan. The plan projects implementation to cost 12 billion DKK (approx. $ 2.2 billion CDN) over 100 years. Once approved, work will be needed to determine how to finance the adaptation projects as well as to integrate adaptation planning into other areas of planning and regulation.

Applicability to the Candian Context
This case study highlights the importance of the following factors for meaningful implementation and exploitation of best practices at national and local levels in Canada.

A culture and tradition of collaboration, open communication and debate and a tendency towards finding common ground and building unity between political parties, municipalities, and different areas of government.

Strong collaborative political leadership.

Developing a standard of ongoing, extensive planning processes every 4-years with 12-year horizons for most projects and across all management areas of municipal governance.

Strong coordination between national and municipal level governments and decentralized municipal level planning and decision-making.

Market incentives, in the form of subsidies, tax incentives, and feed in tariffs to direct private funds towards priority areas such as renewable energy.

Cooperation between multiple municipalities to advance complex large-scale projects.

Large government work force and high taxes.

Strong regulatory framework and collaboration between municipalities and across different levels of government led to the achievement of Copenhagen’s extensive district heating system

Strategic Questions

  1. How does Copenhagen’s system of comprehensive planning compare to Canadian municipalities planning practices?
  2. How has Copenhagen’s historical context shaped its sustainability outcomes?
  3. How has Copenhagen’s cultural and political context influenced its sustainability outcomes?
  4. How critical are district heating systems to achieving sustainable development and are there any equivalent examples in Canada?

Resources and References
Braden Reddall, Reuters, Vestas will not chase market share at any price. Sep 1, 2010. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

C40 Cities, Best Practices: Transportation. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

C40 Cities, Best Practices: Energy. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

C40 Cities, Best Practices: Wind. Available: Retrieved Jan 11, 2011.

Cahasan, Paul, Arielle Farina Clark. Five Fingers Plan. Available:
Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

City of Copenhagen, Waste Management Plan 2012 (the short version). The Technical and Environmental Administration, 2008.

City of Copenhagen. Copenhagen Climate Plan (The short version). The Technical and Environmental Administration, 2009. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

City of Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s Green Accounts 2009, The Technical and Environmental Administration, April 2009. Available: Retrieved October 26, 2010.

Danish Board of District Heating, Development in Denmark. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

District Heating in Copenhagen: An Energy Efficient, Low Carbon, and Cost Effective Energy System. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Infrastructure Factsheet Denmark January 2008. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

Network of the Heads of Environment Protection Agencies (Europe), Danish Environmental Protection Agency. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

Sørensen, Hans Christian, Lars Kjeld Hansen, Jens H. Mølgaard Larsen, SPOK, Blegdamsvej Middelgrunden 40 mw Offshore Wind Farm Denmark – Lessons Learned, Sept 2002. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

Varmeplan Hovedstaden, Newsletter-October 2009. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011.

Varmeplan Hovedstaden, District Heating in Greater Copenhagen: Energy efficiency & CO2 reduction. December 14 2009. Available: Retrieved Jan 10, 2011

1 In order to finance this robust public sector servicing, Danes pay some of the highest taxes in the world, roughly 50% on income. Danes are used to high costs of living and they are generally accepting of it because of the great social benefits they experience as a result (per.comm., December 23, 2010).