Louise Purup Nohr’s morning routine is like something out of a sustainable future.
When she hustles her kids into the bathroom, what flushes down the toilet will later turn into the natural gas that warms breakfast on the stove. The eggs come from the chickens in the backyard. The coffee machine’s gurgling is powered by electricity generated from the wind. The water that washes the dishes is heated by sustainable sawdust pellets. The recycling gets shunted in eight directions, so little ends up in the dump. And the commute — first to school, then to work — is on a cargo bike that bumps across Copenhagen’s extensive bike-lane network.
Amid mounting global concern about climate change, Denmark has turned into a buzzing hive of green experimentation, with efforts underway inside homes, across cities and on a national scale.
Households such as Purup Nohr’s are seeking to limit their carbon footprints by cutting back on consumption.
Copenhagen is trying to become the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025 — a full 25 years before Washington and other major world cities expect they might have a shot at canceling their emissions.
Denmark’s newly elected center-left leaders are trying to turn the whole country into a showcase for how to go green without going bankrupt.
Danes hope they will inspire others to follow suit, creating an example that goes beyond the borders of this country of 5.8 million people. The societal effort is also a measure of just how much needs to change to slow climate change.
For Purup Nohr’s family, being environmentally conscious has involved conscious trade-offs.
“We’re not minimalists,” said Purup Nohr, 31. But she and her husband have examined every aspect of their lives for its environmental impact.
“It is a journey,” she said. “You start looking, and then you look at your food, and then you look at your transport. When you start thinking about the environment, you want to make your life fit.”
Some of their adjustments have been relatively minor. They phased out liquid shampoo in favor of soap bars that don’t require bottles, and hung an hourglass to the shower to keep themselves from dawdling under the water. They bought used reusable cloth diapers — which they plan to resell to someone else when they are done with them. The little red cart their 1-year-old uses to toddle around is secondhand, as are the rest of the toys, so as not to fuel more production and consumption.
But the family has also made more significant lifestyle decisions with climate and the environment in mind. Purup Nohr, her husband and two small children don’t travel on planes — they’ve committed to exploring Denmark’s many islands during their vacations for years to come. She works part-time, reasoning that earning less, spending less and consuming less all go together. And they’ve contented themselves to live in a small apartment in town instead of something like the more spacious suburban houses they grew up in.
The family isn’t radical by Danish standards. They haven’t cut meat from their diet, for instance, though they’ve reduced it. They rent cars from time to time, and they try not to be doctrinaire about their efforts.
Danes have long tilted toward green-friendly action, especially in Copenhagen, a city of 624,000 with a rich countercultural tradition.
Nearly half of Danes — 47% — consider climate change to be the most serious problem facing the world, according to European Union polling. That’s more than double the E.U. average of 23%.
And yet researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology pegged the annual carbon emissions of the average Dane at 14.5 tons, above the E.U. average and reflective of the country’s wealth.
Many scientists say a 2-tons-per-person annual limit will be needed to meet the 2050 goals of the Paris climate accords.
“People are always saying that Denmark is doing so much,” said Mathilde Vallat, 16. “We’re still polluting like hell.”
Vallat is among the Danish students who have joined the Fridays for Future movement. Inspired by the example of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who comes from neighboring Sweden, thousands of high schoolers have marched through the cobbled streets of Copenhagen, decrying their parents’ generation for not doing enough.
The deliberate choice to “live small,” Purup Nohr said, is one way people can be kinder to the planet than their parents might have been.
She and her husband, she said, “live in a world where our parents live in big houses with a lot of money and we don’t. We have no debt. We have no savings. It’s a choice. We could also have chosen to have different jobs with more money. I think we live the good life.”
She acknowledged that climate issues can feel overwhelming.
“I don’t read articles about the ice melting or the biodiversity crisis,” she said. “We never talk about climate with the children. I think it’s way too scary.”
Instead, she focuses on things within her control, while asking herself: “Do you want to give a better world to your children, or a catastrophe?”
Having a motivated population with families like Purup Nohr’s has enabled Copenhagen to set one of the world’s most ambitious climate goals.
The dash to become carbon-neutral within the next six years has sent city planners scouting across the Baltics for sustainable sawdust, turned what were once traffic-choked roundabouts into tree-studded miniature wildernesses, and led to the construction of an urban ski slope atop a hulking new power plant that burns trash to make electricity.
“Livability and the green transformation go hand-in-hand,” said Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen, who helped establish the climate goals soon after taking office in 2010.
The combined ski slope and power plant, with emerald green artificial turf that can be used year-round, is visible from the historic 18th-century city center across the harbor. It’s the visual centerpiece of the city’s efforts to reduce emissions by shifting to greener energy sources.
The city has also switched from coal to sawdust pellets left over from logging and lumber production to heat the water that runs from central plants to homes — a pre-existing system called district heating that was already more efficient than home boilers.
“It’s only a small city,” said Joergen Abildgaard, head of the team running Copenhagen’s climate plans. “But it matters. Because when you look at a global perspective, we know that people are moving to cities. We know there’s a growing middle class. If those investments are done in a sustainable way, it’s positive.”
Another major focus of the city’s efforts is how people get around. Copenhagen officials estimate that at least 75% of all trips must be done by foot, bike or public transportation to meet the 2025 goals.
And to reduce cars in the city center, Copenhagen has raised the annual resident parking fee from $1.48 to $148.
Jensen, the mayor, said the green sales pitch got more buy-in after a 2011 downpour in which 6 inches of rain fell on Copenhagen in less than three hours, causing massive floods and more than $1 billion in damage.
“All the citizens of Copenhagen could see: We have to act,” Jensen said.
Since the flooding, city planners and residents have sought to make the urban landscape more absorbent.
In one stretch of streets in Oesterbro, a dense district just outside central Copenhagen, parking spaces have been given over to plots of land where trees and bushes grow wild. A roundabout that was once a desolate stretch of pavement is now a birch-studded parkland. Cars still move through — but on narrowed lanes. Birds fly from tree to tree. Kids run across small footbridges.
In total, the city plans to spend about $400 million over the course of the 11-year effort, which started in 2013. But officials emphasize that economic growth has continued even while the city has invested in becoming greener. And they say residents will be shielded from rising fossil fuel prices, as well as from some of the damage from extreme weather events in a warming world.
Some have suggested that Copenhagen is cheating by not including its international airport — officially outside city limits — in its calculations.
And, perhaps the biggest issue of all, according to critics: The city’s plan doesn’t demand much sacrifice from its citizens.
“It doesn’t require any changes at all for individuals,” said Fanny Broholm, a city council member from the left-wing Alternative party. “And we need to change everything if we are to get to two tons” of carbon emissions per person per year.
Broholm said Danes need to consume less — something not addressed by Copenhagen’s emissions plans, which focus on what comes out of the city’s smokestacks, not on the environmental impact of purchasing a plastic toy from China, flying for a beach vacation to the Mediterranean or eating red meat.
“We’re at 0.1 percent of emissions” globally, said Danish Environment Minister Dan Joergensen, whose government-issued car is a gleaming electric Mercedes sedan. “That’s not going to save the planet. But we want to show the world that we can do this.”