Aarhus taking an ambitious step to be carbon-neutral

Denmark, one of the most environmentally-friendly countries in the world, is further equipping its cities to be ambitious to lower carbon emission. Aarhus is one of them.

By Justin Tong and Shajia Abidi

Kristian Würtz from the Aarhus Municipality talking to bunch of students about the preparation of making Aarhus CO2-neutral by 2030.
Kristian Würtz from the Aarhus Municipality talking to bunch of students about the preparation of making Aarhus CO2-neutral by 2030. (Credit: Shajia Abidi)


The stage is usually empty and covered, except today the twin violet velvet curtains are drawn with a projector screen placed in the middle, a tripod with microphone attached, and a big black speaker with MacBook on top.

The room is flooded with people with not enough seats to accommodate them. They are standing at the back, hanging around the bar, leaning against the football table, some are even going to the front to sit on the floor.

Everyone is gathered at this event organized by Green Drinks Aarhus, café networking for people interested in sustainability, to learn more about CO2-neutral Aarhus.


CO2-Neutral Aarhus

CO2-neutral is a policy term used to describe the action to balance the input and output of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

“CO2-neutral means to have no net impact on climate change,” says Henrik Gudmundsson, Chief Advisor at Concito, Danish green think tank. “It doesn’t mean that it won’t emit CO2, but it means to compensate carbon [emission] through either increase absorption or through storage in the ground.”

In 2007, the city of Aarhus set up an ambitious goal to be CO2 neutral by 2030. Aarhus is one of the six official Eco Cities in Denmark: Kolding, Copenhagen, Skive, Albertslund and Herning being the other five.

The City of Aarhus has composed a vision based on this political goal of reaching CO2 neutrality by 2030. The vision states:

“In order to develop a sustainable city, Aarhus takes the lead in the effort to tackle climate change by means of initiatives involving buildings and physical structures as well as citizens’ behavior. The City of Aarhus will sweep before its own door, carry out demonstration projects and influence national legislation.”

Henrik D. H. Müller, the Climate Manager at the city of Aarhus, believes that carbon emission is the most serious threat to the human being on Earth, which sparked off the emergence of the carbon neutrality plan.

The municipalities are taking steps to combat the emission by developing networks of charge stations for electric cars to charge, constructing energy efficient properties and running green district heating.

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CO2 is emitted into the environment through various ways, but most of the contribution in Aarhus comes from heat, electricity and transportation.

According to the recent mapping, 2,210,000 tonnes of CO2 is emitted which is roughly equivalent of 7.5 tonnes per citizen.

Carbon emission distribution. (Source: Danish Centre For Environment and Energy, Aarhus University)
Carbon emission distribution. (Source: Danish Centre For Environment and Energy, Aarhus University)

The largest source of CO2 emission is the energy sector which includes the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas followed by the transport sector.


Green District Heating

Aarhus is one of those cities that provide district heating to its residents.

District heating is a much more efficient way of providing heat for entire district through network of heating pipes.

Through district heating, the surplus heat generated by electricity stations, factories, farms and transportation can be captured and redistributed which would otherwise be wasted. This helps in lowering carbon emissions and saves money.

The municipality have agreed on a new biomass-based heat agreement which means that Studstrup power station in Aarhus will have to be converted from coals to wood pellets. This will result in the reduction in CO2 emissions.

According to the Biomass Energy Center based in UK, “Biomass is a biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms.”

“That is the advantage of biomass you could replant the area,” says Gudmundsson. “From a theoretical point of view, you can have a neutral carbon system.”

Although biomass is said to be more environment friendly, there are certain kinds of biomass that aren’t as environmental friendly.

“There are biomass that is worse than coals actually,” says Gudmundsson. “It depends on which kind of biomass is used to produce heat.”


Huge transportation reform ahead

Transportation system is also playing a huge role in contributing efforts to achieve the carbon neutral goal for the city.

The landmark light rail project is the leading example.

Local, regional and national governments have primarily funded a total budget of DKK 3.5 billion for the construction of Aarhus Light Rail project, while four-year construction of the first stage is expected to cease in 2017.

The first phase is a 12 km tramway that connects the central Aarhus to Lystrup, which accounts more than 10 per cent of the overall light rail plan with 110 km in total length.

The light rail is reported to be operated solely by renewable energy, generated naturally by wind and solar radiation. According to the data from the Light Rail Secretariat (Letbanesekretariatet), the project can bring a total benefit of DKK 7 million in terms of external costs, where the cost of DKK 7 million produced by carbon dioxide emission is substracted from a total gain of DKK 14 million due to the reduced air pollution.

The construction site of the light rail at Randersvej. (Credits: Justin Tong)

The figures can also be observed technically. A research conducted by US’s Action Committee for Transit proves the fact that light rail serves as a ‘greener’ mode than ordinary bus, which is the most common transportation mode of Aarhus people currenly. Light rail emits an average of 0.0240 gram per passenger in each km’s distance, which is three times lower than that emitted by bus in average, i.e. 0.0713 gram.


Ride more to save more

Denmark is renouned for its cycling atmosphere. And the government is further cultivating this habit as a driver for achieving carbon neutrality.

Bikes do not save emission of air pollutants themselves, but the government is contributing resources on safety issues and building facilities to appeal more people to cycle. The City Council passed a bill of improving cycling conditions. The new parking facilities, cycling lanes and barometers will cost DKK 65 million in total.

Currently the cycle lanes in the city last for 250 km long and more are expected.

Facts about Cycling in Denmark. (Sources: Cycling Embassy of Denmark)
Facts about Cycling in Denmark. (Sources: Cycling Embassy of Denmark)

The cycling embassy of Denmark demonstrates figures, showing that 48% of Aarhus people cycle everyday; which is even higher than the percentage of people in Copenhagen, the capital of the country.


Electric vehicles to challenge the dissel-fuelled cars

Transportation in Aarhus counts about one-third of the city’s carbon dioxide emission. Emphasising the aim of developing “energy efficient transport”, the authority does not neglect targeting at emission from its major source, that is the ordinary vehicles.

In the previous two years the national government promised to install 13 charging points for fast electric vehicles (EV), along the expressway connecting Aarhus and Copenhagen. The Minister of Climate, Energy and Building, Rasmus Helveg Petersen, said earlier that, “the new charging stations are a crucial step in the transition of the transporation sector towards electrification. It must be just as easy to drive electric vehicle as is the case for petrol and diesel cars.”

While he described the plan as a “very good” one, the government did not always make a smooth way for the promotion of electric cars.

On one hand, the Danish government has planned lower its enormous new vehicle registration tax on ordinary cars from 180 percent to 150 percent in this year’s budget; on another hand, it is gradually phasing out the exemption of registration tax on electric vehicles in the coming five years.

Karsten Lauritzen, the Minister of Tax, said in a press release last year that, “many regular Danes have a hard time understanding why they should pay the full registration tax for their regular cars while those who can afford an electric car have gotten off completely free.”

The government stressed the importance of striking a balance between the fiscal reserve and the demand for electric cars, as Tax Ministry could miss DKK 650 million every year under the current exemption.

Tesla, the best motor seller in Denmark, has prepared to file a complaint to the European Union, accusing disapointedly that the new agreement is anti-competitve.

Müller admited that this would be a burden for achieving carbon neutrality, but he added that his encounter with motor corporations, including Tesla, showed that they have an ambitious plan to achieve the widespread usage of electric cars in the city.

“So I am sure, in ten years time, electric cars will be competitive with fossil fuel cars.”


Ambitious goal in forests

Forests are predominant features found in Aarhus, mainly the southern part. Despite the pressure of population growth where the town has to be expanded, the government has adopted plan to build more trees simultaneously.

The steps are vigorous. The ultimate goal is to double the current forest area by 2030, which accounts for 3200 hectares of new forest.

What’s more than that, the government is actively looking for NGO partners to encourage private afforestation and donation, after its first allocation of DKK 38 million to plant 320 hectares of trees over the next three years.

Tree figures. (Sources: Arbor Environmental Alliance)
Tree figures. (Sources: Arbor Environmental Alliance)

Growing Trees Network is a social enterprise collaborated with the Department of Technical Services and Environment. It accepts public fundings, from individuals or corporations, for planting trees, building paths and fencings, and other maintenance costs. And this model is called ‘People Woods” concept.

The initiative of joint afforestation is encouraged by a quote on its official website, that says, “when you buy trees for planting in new woods above the groundwater resources, you are helping to ensure clean drinking water and clean air in the future.”

Integrated findings prove a single tree can absorb, at its most productive stage, 48 pounds of CO2 every year. On the other hand, it is also said that the shading effect of trees can help reduce the weather and save 30% of the demand for fossil fuels for air conditioning.


More challenges for the goal ahead

“The biggest challenges are the cost of investment on new technology, and the legislation issues,” Müller, who is also the carbon-neutral project manager, adds.

The cost of solar panels and wind mills are too high, according to Müller. But he believed the a more cost-effective and electricity-saving approach will be soon discovered in a couple of years.

Nevertheless, he is at no doubt confident on the outcome of the plan.

“The goal has made a very big change in the administration … that is very progessive and the next step will be more difficult but we will get that, I am sure,” Müller says.


Danes participation

Aarhus will only be able to achieve this goal if the citizens are participating and adopting new climate friendly habits to make their city CO2 neutral.

“Convincing the citizens is just one part of it, but we will need to introduce some kind of policies,” said Gudmundsson.