Columnist Cooper Heilmann: Climate action from a Danish perspective

  • Bicyclists in Copenhagen on a gray Sunday morning. VICTORIA IRIS STEINER HENRIKSEN

  • Electric “city bikes” in Copenhagen can be rented for a small fee. VICTORIA IRIS STEINER HENRIKSEN

  • This 36.4-mile bike highway runs through recreational area in Copenhagen and its suburbs. VICTORIA IRIS STEINER HENRIKSEN

  • This bridge called the “Bike Snake” is one of several that connect different areas of Copenhagen. VICTORIA IRIS STEINER HENRIKSEN

  • A mother and her daughter cross a bike bridge in Copenhagen. VICTORIA IRIS STEINER HENRIKSEN

  • This bicycle parking lot in Copenhagen has several layers. VICTORIA IRIS STEINER HENRIKSEN

Published: 5/1/2018 8:29:46 PM

As the issue of climate change persists and international governmental action lags, citizens and local governments should look to Denmark, a small northern country, for advice.

In June, I will return to the United States to resume my education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst after a life-changing semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. I chose to live and study politics at the University of Copenhagen for five months, hoping to experience the Danish way of life and to gain a better understanding of its remarkable achievements in combating climate change. The country is a pioneer in wind energy, having powered over 40 percent of its total electricity through wind power in 2015.

However, Danish climate awareness extends all the way to the local and individual level. Upon arriving in Copenhagen, I instantly noticed a cleanliness in the air, a noticeably quieter buzz of traffic. Bicycle highways that run parallel to every street and extend far into the suburbs are populated by hundreds of cyclists commuting to and from work.

The city has provided bicycle parking lots and traffic infrastructure, as well as an efficient bus and metro system accessed by quickly tapping your “rejsekort” (travel card) on an electronic scanner.

All of this may seem like far-out goals for the small cities of the Pioneer Valley, but many small steps taken by citizens of the area and local governments will help reduce the carbon emissions that threaten our planet and its future generation.

My Danish colleagues and I collaborated on this article to communicate the people of Denmark’s success, and to make suggestions about how environmentally conscious individuals and municipalities in the U.S. can assist in climate action.

Using bicycle transportation is one of the simplest ways that a person can reduce emissions. It is common for Danish commuters to cycle up to 10 kilometers or more to and from work or school. Even throughout the snowy winter, the bicycle highways of Copenhagen are bustling with professionals and students traveling from the suburbs and other neighborhoods.

Cycling several miles to work will undoubtedly be a significant adjustment for some people. Commuters will have to sacrifice the comfort and flexibility granted by hopping in their cars and enjoying an air-conditioned ride to work. Weather conditions will not always be favorable, and will necessitate extra precautions such as rain gear or warm dress.

However, there are several benefits to be obtained by leaving your car at home and choosing to cycle. Perhaps the most obvious is that money is saved on gas. Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the average American spends $1,909 per year on gasoline and oil. I think of how much money I might save on my own car, which costs about $40 to fill with gas every two weeks.

Apart from the occasional tune-up, maintaining a bicycle costs almost nothing. In a commuter environment, there is also less risk of becoming stuck in infuriating traffic jams like the one that often plagues the Calvin Coolidge Bridge between Northampton and Hadley.

In a few instances, cycling may take even less time than commuting by car. I often find myself overtaking cars on my way to the university due to the efficiency of bike traffic. Idling cars trapped in traffic jams emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide over concentrated areas, which can be severely damaging to the atmosphere and the plant and animal ecosystems nearby. If people choose to cycle whenever possible, fewer cars will be left on the roads, which would reduce vehicle emissions.

In addition to being an efficient, climate-friendly alternative to driving your car, there are obvious health benefits to cycling. Choosing to bike is an easy way to stay fit and burn calories without having to make a pointed effort to exercise. Cycling, just like any casual exercise, is sure to improve your mood and wake you up for a focused and productive day. Perhaps it is due to small lifestyle choices like these that Denmark was ranked the world’s second happiest country in the United Nation’s World Happiness Report of 2017.

Although switching to bicycle transportation would be ideal, it isn’t a solution for everyone. Some people may live too far away to comfortably cycle to their commuting destinations, and others may choose not to bike for health reasons.

In these cases, public transportation is a good alternative. If more people were to ride Pioneer Valley Transit Authority buses, it would reduce the number of cars on the road. This may seem an obvious point, but the reduction in carbon emissions that would result from this small lifestyle change would be profound.

Individual action to combat climate change, even in the smallest steps, comes as welcome assistance to a planet that is suffering from human negligence.

Government support

However, progress through individual action must usually be supported by government if significant change is to be accomplished.

While higher levels of government may be hamstrung by lengthy discussion and the influence of interest groups, local governments can take their own initiatives to foster sustainable living and practice.

The municipalities of Copenhagen have done so by building green transportation infrastructure, such as the bike highways, traffic infrastructure and public transportation described before. This type of support from local government encourages people to choose the environmentally friendly alternatives by making them more convenient.

If the municipal governments of the Pioneer Valley were to follow in Copenhagen’s footsteps and allocate funding for bicycle and public transportation infrastructure, they could motivate a population that already is aware of the dangers of climate change to take action themselves.

Establishing more bike lanes and bike paths along major commuter roads would make cycling to work or school safer and more convenient. Creating bike rental services such as Copenhagen’s City Bike might lead people who don’t own bikes to consider borrowing them for shorter time periods.

Increased funding for public buses like the PVTA would likely improve the range and schedule of service, allowing more people to choose public transport as an alternative.

Unfortunately, state and local government are experiencing shortages of funding. While Copenhagen’s municipalities are funded by a 28.3 percent municipal tax from citizens, cuts in state funding in Massachusetts have forced the PVTA to reduce its service. This will not only affect residents who rely on the PVTA for transportation, but it will mean that those who own cars will be using them more often, increasing pollution from emissions.

Here there is a chance for municipal governments to step in and prioritize funding for public transportation, or perhaps turn to bicycle infrastructure as an alternative.

Local governments in the Pioneer Valley have vastly fewer funds than those in Copenhagen. However, it is important that local government reserves some funds for sustainable transportation.

The effects of climate change are worsening. We are experiencing more frequent and severe storms and hotter summers, like the one that caused a short-term drought in Amherst last year.

Municipalities across the U.S. are in a position of power and responsibility to do what they can to move the country toward a more sustainable future. Encouraging alternative transportation by building bicycle infrastructure and funding public transport is one way they can do so.

My semester in Denmark has inspired me in countless ways. The small Nordic country is idealized across the globe as a leader in climate action.

Living in Copenhagen and studying environmental politics at Denmark’s top university has led me to realize that efforts by the smallest actors can have profound effects. Denmark is a country with a population of under six million, yet it has become an efficient model for sustainability and an inspiration for the world to act against climate change.

My colleagues and I believe that this message can be translated to the lowest level of government. The local governments of Amherst, Northampton and the rest of the Pioneer Valley can support environmentally friendly lifestyle choices of individuals through infrastructure and funding.

In turn, people who are aware of the increasing dangers of climate change should weigh the benefits against the consequences of using their cars. Invest in a good bicycle and leave your car at home when you’re not going too far.

I, for one, am looking forward to cycling down Route 116 to work this summer.

Cooper Heilmann, of Sandwich, is a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst student who is spending the spring semester on exchange at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Three Danish students in his environmental politics class, Andreas Møller Iversen, Hannah Juul Petersen and Victoria Iris Steiner Henriksen, contributed to this column.


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