Interview with Connie Hedegaard and Morten Kabell
Today (June 3) is World Bicycle Day - Copenhagen is internationally regarded as a shining example of climate-friendly transportation. In 2020, Connie Hedegaard and Morten Kabell talked about mobility in the Danish capital and climate protection in Europe. Hedegaard was EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Danish Minister for the Environment. She has been a member of Volkswagen’s independent sustainability council since 2016. Kabell was Mayor of the Environment in Copenhagen and co-CEO of the European Cyclists’ Federation.
“We now have the opportunity to support the economy, fight the climate crisis and create jobs at the same time.”
Ms. Hedegaard, last year you said: We cannot afford an economic crisis to slow down climate protection. Are your fears coming true?
Hedegaard: I hope not. The conclusions of the EU summit show: Europe has understood that the rebuilding after the pandemic must be ecological. We cannot afford to deal first with the corona crisis and then the climate crisis. Both must happen simultaneously. The big question is: How is the EU implementing its plan? We need to do better than before the pandemic.
How can this be achieved?
Hedegaard: There is much to improve: Infrastructure and energy efficiency are two examples. When did we ever have the chance to invest so much money? We now have the opportunity to support the economy, fight the climate crisis and create jobs at the same time. We can design our cities better, build our houses better and transform our economy into a circular economy. To do this, we need decision-makers who don’t think in silo terms but see the bigger picture.
Do we have such decision makers?
Hedegaard: The pandemic has made us aware of this: It is extremely expensive to ignore the warnings of the experts. Government leaders have realized that things can be changed much faster. You just have to explain clearly to people why change is necessary. Then you get support and respect. I hope that we take this experience from the corona crisis with us and use it in the fight against global warming.
Sustainable mobility is an important task in climate protection – especially in cities. What do you recommend?
Hedegaard: Ultimately, it’s all about people changing their behavior – like in Copenhagen, for example, where the bicycle has been growing in importance for years. In democratic societies, this can only happen voluntarily. That is why it is important to create a sense of community, that people really want change.
Kabell: Now is the time to convince people. The practical solutions are known. We know under which conditions people change from car to bike. We know that we can reduce traffic jams and that logistics companies can save billions if their vehicles are not stuck in traffic. The EU should invest at least six billion euros to help cities build a cycling infrastructure. This will make mobility safer and create many jobs.
Despite the billion-euro package, money is scarce – why should it flow into cycle paths in particular?
Kabell: Compared to other transport projects, cycling infrastructure is cheap. When Copenhagen started the expansion, it was not an ideological decision. The city was poor and needed transportation that it could afford. Today, Copenhagen is more prosperous than 20 or 30 years ago. This is also because the city has invested very efficiently in mobility.
How does the bicycle interact with other means of transport?
Kabell: Copenhagen has ensured that people can take their bikes to the train station and into the train without any problems. Commuters and tourists should reach their destination as easily as possible. It would be extremely short-sighted not to think of all means of transport together.
Hedegaard: My house is located eight kilometers from the city center. When I have to go to the center, I know that I can bring the bike home on the train if necessary. That gives me a feeling of freedom.
What role does e-mobility play?
Kabell: In terms of climate protection, e-cars are much better than internal combustion engines. However, there is one problem: If I were to buy an electric vehicle, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea where I could charge it in our neighborhood. And that’s even though I live in the middle of Brussels. Companies, cities and governments must work closely together to change this.
Hedegaard: By expanding the charging infrastructure, we could immediately create many jobs – that would be immensely important in the crisis. At the same time, we would prevent bottlenecks if the number of electric cars increased. In my case in Copenhagen, the infrastructure is fine – although we could do more in the cities, too. The real problem is in the countryside. The further out I drive, the fewer charging points I find. We should make the expansion a joint project. The goal: When the crisis is over, there will be enough charging points in Europe. At the same time, we have to push ahead with the energy transition so that electric cars run on clean electricity.
What can companies like Volkswagen contribute towards making the rebuilding process green?
Hedegaard: An extremely important point are the products. That means more and more electric cars with increasingly better ranges. Volkswagen has sent out a strong signal by announcing that the time of the combustion engine is running out. The company is building on electric mobility. In the supply chain, Volkswagen is committed to clean raw materials and clean logistics. And last but not least, large companies have large marketing budgets. They have the chance to convince people: e-cars are the future, e-cars work in everyday life.
“Copenhagen has done nothing that any other city could not do. The model is exportable.”
Copenhagen wants to be climate-neutral by 2025. What can other cities learn from this?
Kabell: Two things. Firstly, it needs not only a clear goal, but also a precise timetable. That was missing in Copenhagen at the beginning. The city has now corrected this initial error. Today there is a detailed timetable with more than 400 individual targets. Second: climate-neutral cities are possible. With the measures adopted, Copenhagen will achieve more than 90 percent of its objectives. The city now has a few years to achieve the rest – which I am sure it will. However, becoming carbon neutral requires close cooperation with the surrounding regions, national governments and the EU. No city can become climate-neutral on its own.
Copenhagen has at least secured the unofficial title of World Cycling Capital under its own steam. How did you manage that?
Kabell: It was a long journey over many decades. Some things were well planned, some things were luck. The city has tried a lot. Within 12 years, 14 new bridges were built around the harbor alone. This has created connections that have made the bicycle the best means of transport for many people. All this is neither difficult nor expensive. Copenhagen hasn’t done anything that any other city could not do. The Copenhagen model is exportable. Any city can become a bicycle city.
Hedegaard: A decisive advantage when cycling is that you save a lot of time spent in traffic jams. Personally, I can get to the city center reliably by bike in 25 minutes. By car it can take up to 50 minutes. There are other plus points as well: I have exercise, I am in the fresh air. I save money because the parking fees for drivers are high. In the meantime, cycling has become so popular that you sometimes get stuck in traffic jams on the cycle paths. If all Copenhagen residents drove to work by car, the traffic would collapse.
How do you begin the journey to becoming a bicycle city?
Kabell: Start with the bicycle path construction! Build a coherent network that includes the suburbs. And think about safety! No need for hi-tech to separate cyclists from cars. It’s not so much about middle-aged adults. It becomes interesting when children feel safe enough to ride their bikes to school. Learn from Copenhagen, from Amsterdam or Freiburg. Avoid their mistakes and progress will come quickly. In Copenhagen today, more than 60 percent of residents’ commute to work or school by bike. That is unique. But cities like Oslo, Rome, Berlin or Paris are catching up. It is an international movement.
Hedegaard: Urban planners need to change their thinking: motorists are not the only ones whose needs need to be taken into account. Cities need networked traffic solutions. And role models. In some places it is still trendier to drive by car than by bicycle. We need to rethink.
Connie Hedegaard is Chairman of the Board of Aarhus University and Chairman of the Board of the KR Foundation, an international climate foundation. From 2010 to 2014 she was EU Commissioner for Climate Action and from 2004 to 2009 Danish Minister for Environment and Nordic Cooperation as well as Minister for Climate and Energy. Hedegaard has been a member of Volkswagen’s independent sustainability council since 2016. She lives in Copenhagen.
Morten Kabell was Mayor for Technology and Environment of the Danish capital Copenhagen from 2014 to 2017. He then worked as COO and CEO for Copenhagenize Design, a consulting firm for urban planning, and in Brussels as co-CEO of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF). Today he works for Ramboll, an engineering, architecture and consultancy company.
1ID.4 – power consumption (NEDC) in kWh/100 km: 16.9–16.2; CO₂ emission in g/km: 0; efficiency class: A+