Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, Frank Jensen

Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, Frank Jensen

If you love cities, interviewing the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen is a little bit like loving design and interviewing Steve Jobs (‘s spirit, which will answer you back if you ask Siri in the correct manner). Brett Petzer attended the launch of the Copenhagen Solutions exhibition at The Bank, 71 Harrington Street, and briefly sat down with the leader of possibly the rich world’s greenest capital city.

Brett Petzer: Denmark’s incredible success in managing collective sacrifices for collective gain is the envy of many larger societies. At a time when many rich countries are whittling away the welfare state and slashing budgets for science and research, Denmark is investing heavily in technology and research, and its welfare state remains intact. How have Danes justified the investment in cutting-edge green technology that is on show at this exhibition, in a difficult financial climate? 

Lord Mayor, Frank Jensen: The consensus in Denmark about going green, and investing in a sustainable solution, has been achieved because we have been able to make the case that sustainability goes hand in hand with economic growth and job creation. We can see that our green sector [To date, Danish companies have installed 90% of the world's offshore wind turbines*] is one of the fastest-growing for export and job creation. The good news from Copenhagen is: if you choose firmly and collectively to go green, and you cooperate with business and research, you can create secure welfare systems, economic growth and a sustainable and environmentally just economy.

BP: Denmark’s population is ageing. Germany’s is too, and rapidly. In the future, the youth will have to bear a much larger tax burden to pay for this infrastructure. How have you sold the youth on the idea that it’s worth it to pay a bit more now for infrastructure, because it will be cheaper in the long run? Do you have specific programmes to engage the youth, or – considering these are Danes we’re talking about – do they just already know?

FJ: Our social compact is that of a welfare society where we pay taxes because we want to have real quality in our schools – for all the children. We expect meaningful welfare for everyone, and healthcare at the highest standard. Therefore we don’t base our welfare system on insurance – we pay our taxes, and then all people have the right to benefit from them. That’s one of the answers. The other answer is that Denmark has a long tradition of sustainability, of investing over the very long term. This is not new for us. Climate change isn’t a new conversation for us. We saw long ago that jobs could be created in clean sectors – back in the 1970s already.

We were already first movers in wind turbines then. And now we’re a leader in the sector, producing hubs that are being exported to South Africa. Now we can see that this transformation in mindsets – we are all going green, whether we want to or not. It’s not only a possibility, it’s a necessity. It’s a must for us. All leaders in the world agree that we cannot continue to produce the negative impact on our climate. Even in Denmark, in my city, we can see the climate changing rapidly. We had flooding two years ago in Copenhagen. All our citizens and also the taxpayers can see that if we’re not going to protect the city and citizens from climate change we will become ever more vulnerable it will end up costing us a lot of money. The cloudburst we had on 2 July 2012, for example, cost nearly €1 billion. That’s a lot of money – prevention is simply cheaper.

BP: Your green climate sector is booming. Green exports are booming, at a time when European countries are fighting to maintain high-tech manufacturing capacity. Copenhagen is really the place to be if you’re a green startup. But does this same solidarity you speak of – high taxes, great public services – make it difficult to attract foreign investment and talent? Do you have tax incentives in place to mitigate this?

FJ: At national level, there are some incentives. We don’t have these at the local, municipal level. However, I think that what’s bringing investors to Denmark is not taxes. It’s more being part of an environment that fosters innovation –  a high-quality cluster. If you have a cluster, talent can be concentrated; it can innovate and compete amongst itself. Many of the Danish companies are working closely together while also competing, and this creates excellent synergies in actually bringing technologies to the market.

Frank Jensen (born 28 May 1961) has been Lord Mayor of Copenhagen since 2010. He is a former Minister of Research and of Justice in the Danish Cabinet, and narrowly lost a bid for the leader of his party to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who went on to lead the Social Democrats into power and who is now Prime Minister of Denmark. Jensen was in Cape Town to promote Copenhagen Solutions, a travelling exhibition outlining the Danish capital’s efforts to become a more sustainable city on several fronts.  

* The Danish Energy Ministry