In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, ‘hedonistic sustainability’ is attempting to stem the rising tide of overtourism and carbon emissions. Stuart Wood reports
I’m standing on the roof of a green garbage burning facility in North Copenhagen.
Copenhill, which has been open for only a week when I arrive, is the city’s newest tourist attraction. It features skyline views over the Danish capital, as well as the many wind farms off its blustery eastern shore. The emissions coming out of its gleaming main tower (pictured left) are cleaner than the air we are breathing below, while the facility is providing heating and electricity to homes around Copenhagen.
But it isn’t the garbage which is drawing in visitors – it’s the enormous artificial ski slope which runs down the entire back side of the building.
‘Hedonistic sustainability’, the venue’s sales director tells us, was the guiding principle of world-renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, whose studio masterminded Copenhill. The goal was to make sustainable technology fun, and accessible for everyone. It is a daring new approach that is focused on educating with a carrot, not a stick. It is also nothing short of absolutely genius.
The facility has already attracted some high-profile guests. An hour before we arrived, we’re told that Game of Thrones’ Jamie Lannister (aka Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), was here. The space was used for a live gig on its opening weekend, and Copenhill has formed a partnership with the nearby Scandic Falkoner hotel, to send groups of conference delegates launching down its green slopes.
The war on overtourism
They were just in time, too. Copenhagen served as the host city of two major environmental congresses in October – the C40 Mayor’s Summit, and Tomorrow’s Urban Travel (TUT). CMW was in attendance at the latter event, which attracted a selection of experts to discuss the current state of tourism worldwide, and the challenges it faces in the future.
“Tourism is no longer a hobby – it is an economic force,” says New York Times journalist Elizabeth Becker, who delivered the first keynote of the event. “Today, the tourism industry is the world’s largest employer. Last year, studies found that one in five jobs worldwide were in tourism, and that the industry was collectively worth USD$8 trillion. But, in an age facing a climate crisis and traffic jams on Mount Everest, this growth must be managed responsibly.”
Becker analysed some case studies in overtourism, with a particular focus on Barcelona. The Spanish capital has a local population of 1.6m, but attracts a staggering 30m tourists every year. Ada Colau, who was elected Mayor in 2015, has been on a controversial mission to tackle this problem. She has cut the number of cheap flights to the city, and faced a legal challenge from Airbnb after shutting down many unregulated properties on the site. These measures are an attempt to stop ‘drive-by tourism’ – in which travellers hit a destination quickly, with little respect for local culture, and more concern for getting the best Instagram snap.
In an increasingly globalised world, it might seem an impossible task to stem the rising tide of tourism. But Christopher Paling, Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, offers us some hope. He runs down a few of the ground-breaking aviation projects attempting to cut carbon emissions in the sector. Rotterdam Airport, he says, is trialling a new kind of synthetic fuel which extracts CO2 out of the environment, while Norway is currently developing electric planes. It also bears mentioning that SAS, which I flew with to Copenhagen, gives the option of offsetting the entirety of your flight on sustainable biofuel.
It’s no surprise that Scandinavia is leading the way in sustainable aviation, but these solutions are still small-scale, and cannot mitigate the huge rise in air traffic coming from developing parts of the world.
Here’s a question for you, eventprofs. If your government set a limit on the number of flights you could take every year, how would you feel? Would you feel your personal freedom was being restricted?
In a seminar discussion between TUT keynotes, one member of our group pointed out that many people felt the same way about the smoking ban some decades ago. The trick, it would seem, is to remind people of the benefits provided by the alternative, rather than focusing on what is being left behind.
A force for good
That, in a nutshell, is what the city of Copenhagen is all about. Everywhere we go, venues jump at the chance to tell us about their sustainable initiatives. Reffen, a street food market in the trendy Refshaleøen district, has a magical machine that turns biodegradable plastic into compost. Bella Center, the city’s largest conference and exhibition venue, is Green Key certified and sorts all its waste into 16 categories after each event.
Wonderful Copenhagen, the city’s tourist board and our hosts for three days, have a dedicated Sustainability Manager. Nanna Thusgaard runs us through a survey which was carried out to ask locals how they feel about tourism in Copenhagen: what issues it creates, and what areas of the city are most affected. “Overtourism is not something measurable – its a feeling,” she says. “This is why it is important our first step is to ask the locals for their thoughts, and then work on building tourism as a force for good in Copenhagen.”
Standing on the roof of Copenhill, that lofty goal seems more than achievable. Watching families laughing as they barrelled down the ski slopes, set to a utopian backdrop of green energy plants and crisp Autumn sunshine, I felt genuinely moved. It gave me some hope that humanity isn’t just burning our planet to the ground for the sake of increasing profit margins.
Copenhagen’s thoughtful destination management is leading by shining example when it comes to sustainability. It serves a crucial role as a vehicle for the kind of brilliant madness that Bjarke Ingels and his friends are dreaming up, and in bringing the message of responsible tourism to the world at large.