My First Day in Copenhagen

I knew I’ve been working in China too long when I couldn’t stop comparing everything in Copenhagen to Beijing. I couldn’t even pass for an ordinary American to the immigration officer – my passport gave me away. He took one look at all the visas and entry and exit stamps covering the pages and said to me “This sure isn’t like China, is it?”

In many ways he is right. For example, I saw more bicycles on the streets of Copenhagen today than I’ve seen in Beijing since I lived there in the early 1990s, when there were no private cars and most people relied on bicycles as their primary form of transportation. Now Copenhagen is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, with 36% of the population commuting to work by bike for a daily total of over 1.3 million kilometers. The government wants that number to increase to 50% by 2015 and in addition to building a world-class system of interconnected bicycle routes and allowing bicycles on the metro, it imposes a 200 percent tax on new cars. It’s a far cry from today’s Beijing, whose car population reached 3.96 million last week, and at the rate it’s going, will reach the 4 million mark in a couple of weeks.

Yet I was struck by some unexpected similarities as well. As I walked through Copenhagen Airport this morning, I was reminded of nothing more than my regular trips through Beijing’s Capital International Airport, which was named the World’s Best Airport by Conde Nast Traveler magazine this year. It was more than just the bright atmosphere and ease of service in both airports that rang a bell. What really resonated was the fact that most of the billboards and posters that shouted at me from all directions were advertising eco-friendly, green and energy efficient products. Now that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone here in Copenhagen as it prepares to welcome an estimated 25,000 negotiators, NGOs and journalists intensely interested in climate change. But the fact that the Beijing Airport features the same theme, long after the hordes of Olympic visitors have left town, is a small but important signal – clearly pointing out which way the city is moving.

Beijing has a long way to go before it can achieve a level of environmental quality similar to Copenhagen, whose inner harbor is so clean that it can be used for swimming. But I have no doubt it will get there.

When I worked at the Beijing office of the United Nations Development Programme from 1990-93, everyone’s main complaint was the stench that emanated from the fetid Liangmahe canal nearby. I had little desire to return to that area as a result, and managed to stay away for many years until I joined California EPA Secretary Linda Adams and her Special Advisor Margret Kim for a meeting at UNDP last spring.

I could hardly believe my eyes and nose when I returned to the canal, now transformed into a sparkling stream edged by willow trees and flowers in full bloom. And as I watched, a solitary swimmer in a green bathing cap made his way upstream. A fitting symbol for Beijing’s green efforts – and hopefully for its CO2 reduction efforts as well. Here’s to Hopenhagen!