A Small Danish Town With Big Zero Carbon Ambitions

 The coastal town of Sønderborg has developed a strategy to go zero carbon by 2029. Photograph: Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy
The coastal town of Sønderborg has developed a strategy to go zero carbon by 2029. Photograph: Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy
“Denmark joins more than a hundred places around the world making business-friendly zero carbon commitments as they transition away from fossil fuels.”

Almost completely surrounded by water, the little-known Danish town of Sønderborg is no stranger to flooding from both seawater rising along its coastline and heavy rainfall. With climate change ensuring more of both, Sønderborg is learning to tackle the immediate problems of adapting to a warming world while becoming part of the broader solution.

Its ProjectZero plan, launched in 2007 as a joint venture between the people, politicians and businesses of Sønderborg, aims to enable the town of approximately 77,000 to become zero carbon by 2029.

Map of Sønderborg, Denmark
Map of Sønderborg, Denmark

In practice, this means an aggressive shift (pdf) to renewable energy and energy efficiency measures through initiatives including the establishment of new on- and off-shore wind turbines and the introduction of biogas in transport and manufacturing processes to replace oil and natural gas. However, in keeping with the norms of setting carbon targets in the international climate negotiations, it has not yet included the emissions “embedded” in goods imported to the area.

Sønderborg is already the global home of green technology companies like Danfoss, a big player in solar power, and Linak, which makes key components for wind turbines and solar PV installations that track the sun. There is, however, also a large number of pig producers in the area (an estimated 2m pigs in total) and a small regional airport. Neither air transport nor methane and nitrous oxide emissions from farms are part of the zero carbon master plan, although there are plans to increase installation of biogas to take pig waste.

More than 50 companies have become part of ProjectZero to date, which requires them to produce provable plans to reduce their emissions by at least 10% in the first year of operation. Some have already exceeded this target, reaching reductions of more than 45%. In return, the companies are insulated from energy price volatility and make savings through associated efficiency measures.

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“When countries and cities commit to targets backed by plans and scenarios it gives businesses certainty and an indicator of where their investments will be safest and most able to thrive,” says Isabel Bottoms, an author of Who’s Getting Ready for Zero?, a new report from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and Track0. “Those on the wrong side of that direction of travel can then also clearly see the need for them to change direction.”

For Sønderborg itself there is also a range of benefits, adds Paul Allen, project coordinator of the Zero Carbon Britain project, such as a better, more stable economic system, greater equity, increased health and wellbeing, strengthened communities and improved relationships with nature.


Zero Carbon Sønderborg is just one of more than a hundred examples of scenarios of cities, regions and countries making the transition to low or zero carbon included in the CAT report. According to the report, around 36 cities internationally are known to have decarbonisation targets that range from achieving net zero greenhouse gases to generating 100% energy from renewables by 2022.


Adelaide in Australia, for example, recently said it was joining the race to become the world’s first carbon neutral city. The Australian thinktank Beyond Zero Emissions warns that if the country continues its coal dependence and ignores the clean energy shift it has a 50% chance of systemic economic decline, meaning high unemployment, high debt and deep recession.

Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, meanwhile, produced a plan demonstrating that by building on its renewable energy strategy Europe’s powerhouse economy could go carbon neutral by 2050. Already, Germany’s positive approach has allowed districts like Rhein-Hunsrück in the South West to go 100% renewable in terms of electricity generation, and it aims to have net zero emissions from heat and transport by 2020.

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Over in the US, the Solutions Project, a not-for-profit co-founded in 2011 by banker Marco Krapels, filmmaker Josh Fox and Stanford scientist Mark Jacobson, has developed transition scenarios for all 50 states based on renewables and excluding both nuclear and carbon capture for fossil fuels. Under these scenarios, all new energy sources would be renewable by 2020 with 80-85% substitution of fossil fuels by 2030 rising to 100% by 2050. The Solutions Project calculates that building and operating these green power systems would create 2.8m new jobs.


“The momentum is shifting in the right direction when it comes to zero carbon,” says James Goodman, director of futures at Forum for the Future. “There are, of course, key questions to be raised about how quickly this transition can happen, how we are going to fund it and which vested interests might pose potential barriers to change, but overall we are at a phase shift where one system is making way for another.”


Goodman reiterates, however, that the shift is still fragile. As an example he cites recent changes in UK government policy which, he says, threaten to pull the rug from beneath the UK’s nascent clean energy sector.


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.


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