Saturday, January 16, 2010

My experiences in Copenhagen at UNFCCC

The Bigger Picture
Published on January 21st 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In this week’s column I will try to describe my experiences and what it was like to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the company of over 100 world leaders in Copenhagen last month.
After an uneventful two and a half hour flight from Dublin I touched down at Copenhagen’s Roskilde Airport around 3:30 in the afternoon. My first impressions about Copenhagen were very favorable because not only were the airport’s gate areas clean, modern and well lit, but then when I got to Danish Customs, lo and behold there were NO queues to be found anywhere! Then when I walked into the baggage claim area, believe it or not, my bag was already waiting for me on the carousel!
Although there were free buses labeled COP 15 available to take travelers to the Bella Center, site of the climate change conference, and on to the hotels in the city as well, I opted to take the train and purchased a return ticket for 70 Kroner (roughly €8). Much like the airport, the S-train was clean, comfortable, smooth and right on time! I was also delighted that the trip between the airport and Copenhagen’s Central Station only took about 15 minutes including a brief stop at the Bella Center en route.
But during the course of my 5 minute walk from the train station to my hotel I couldn’t escape the feeling that something just didn’t seem right. So later that evening I decided to wander around the city to see if I could put my finger on what it was that seemed so strange to me about the city of Copenhagen. After about 20 minutes of walking around looking at the sights in the center of the city, I spotted a local restaurant that looked inviting so I decided that I would continue my search for an answer over a dinner of corned beef, roasted onions and mashed potatoes. Grand idea!
Because sure enough, as I sat waiting for my dessert of chocolate fondant and fresh fruit, a cyclist rode up, parked her bike and came inside. And that’s when I realized what it was about Copenhagen that just didn’t compute with me; she didn’t lock her bike before she came into the restaurant! In fact neither this woman nor any of the other hundreds of cyclists I saw in Copenhagen that week had bike locks.
I must confess that I am still amazed that no one in Copenhagen, or Denmark for that matter, feels they have any need to safeguard their primary mode of transportation. That’s right; I said their PRIMARY mode of transportation since actual traffic counts show that 37% of Copenhagen residents use bicycles to go to school or work and almost 60% claim that it is their primary mode of transport. This also explains the other thing that didn’t seem quite right to me: the almost total lack of automobile traffic congestion in the middle of a city of over 500,000 people.
To put that 37% bike commuter number in perspective, consider the fact that while another 5% walk and 33% use public transport (buses and trains) to get around the city, only 25% actually drive their cars to school and or work each day. In fact most Copenhagen residents who own cars only use them if they plan to be out very late or on the weekends to travel to and from more rural areas of the country.
Another thing that was missing in Copenhagen was the “tourist buses” that seem to be everywhere in Dublin from spring until autumn. But it’s not because Copenhagen doesn’t get as many tourists as Dublin does. It’s due to the fact that during Copenhagen’s tourist season, between April and September, the city provides visitors with free bicycles to get around on at 110 city bike parks. What a concept!
Last but not least, Copenhagen has made its city center very bike friendly in a number of interesting ways. To begin with, the bike lanes are as nearly as wide as the car traffic lanes and are separated from auto traffic by a small raised curb. Sidewalks are in turn separated from the bike lanes by another small raised curb with rows of 2 by 2 wheel racks to allow cyclists to park bikes on the street side of the sidewalks.
As for why Copenhagen cyclists don’t lock their bikes or even own bike locks, I was told that because there are so many bikes in Copenhagen, the chance of theft is extremely low. As a consequence, most people simply don’t think it’s worth either the time it takes to lock a bike or the money it costs to buy a good bike lock. Regardless, I must say that it was nice to be able to take a deep breath of fresh air while I was walking around the city without choking on automotive exhaust fumes.
But while my experiences getting to and from Copenhagen an around the city center were grand, I can’t say the same for my experiences at the site of the climate change conference, the Bella Center. The conference facilities were actually quite nice and there was plenty of food and drink available for participants, much of it provided for free by various business, NGO and quasi-governmental interest groups. But the problem for many attendees was the effort that was required to get into the Bella Center so you could make use of facilities provided there.
Much of the chaos and hours long queues to go through security screening each morning were due to the fact that the UN accredited over 45,000 people to attend COP 15, but the Bella Centre only had capacity for about 15,000 people. I avoided this trap by waiting until 11am each morning to grab one of the free COP 15 buses but still couldn’t avoid having to pass through a gauntlet of demonstrators, an experience I’ll discuss in more detail next week.

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