COPENHAGEN — Danish people have a unique feeling called “hygge,” which is commonly described as warmth or coziness. It can often be found indoors, when the conversation flows and warm (or alcoholic) beverages are involved, and it’s a way to cheer up and connect with others in the long, cold dark winters of Denmark (and no, it’s not like hyphy).
I experienced a bit of hygge minutes after finally sitting down in the well-lit and warm Bella media center here, on the night before the United Nations Climate Change Conference begins Monday.
It’s hard not to feel some sense of warmth and companionship after waiting in hour-long lines in Copenhagen’s freezing cold weather (6 degrees C, a little above zero) to get a badge to attend the summit.
The organizers seriously overbooked — the venue can hold 15,000, but the organizers say nearly 34,000 have requested to attend. The organizers have started sending out emails about “capacity constraints,” and asking NGO delegates to only enter the building on “a quota system,” during peak times. There were just a small handful of security checkers, registration officials and photographers (to take our mug shots for our badges) for the thousands of people expected to check in the night before. The whole area and the closest train line shut down for a while, as well, due to a “suspicious bag that was left unattended. Talk about chaos.
But now I’m inside the building (writing from the media center), with badge in tow, and warmed by the presence of so many international and eager attendees hanging out, who’ve arrived to witness what Achim Steiner, the head of the United Nations Environment Program, called “perhaps the largest [event] of its kind on the environment,” in an interview with The New York Times this weekend. Steiner arrived on Saturday in Copenhagen on the “Climate Express,” a special low-carbon (compared with flying) train service that a variety of European policy-makers and environmental groups rode from Brussels to Copenhagen.
I myself arrived Saturday afternoon and took the un-climate friendly approach of taking the 12-plus hour flight from San Francisco (via Frankfurt). While I debated watching the events live online from the GigaOM office in downtown San Francisco (which would have been a lot better for my carbon footprint) I thought the event was just too important to skip. It will be interesting in itself to see how the city of Copenhagen deals with all of the travel logistics and overcrowding that the conference is bringing — the city only has about 1 million people in it, so tens of thousand of official attendees, plus all the unofficial attendees (protesters, non-approved NGOs and press) will be a massive population swell.
The event will also be a testament to how Copenhagen and Denmark’s world-famous sustainable transportation resources hold up under the attendee crunch. The city, whose residents mostly bike and take public transportation to work and which has sky-high taxes on cars making them unbearably expensive, will be maxing out the trains and the roads during peak times. The car traffic on the highway from the airport to the city was jammed for about 45 minutes when I landed, causing my driver (and longtime friend and Copenhagen resident) to be aghast.
When the people crunch isn’t pushing resources to the limit, Copenhagen and Denmark are models of an advanced sustainable society that works because of the residents’ small, well-off and homogenous makeup. The residents pay very high taxes, but many public services are free and the arts and academics are well-supported. It’s the kind of model demographics where a company like electric vehicle infrastructure company Better Place could — and plans to — try out its EV charging and battery swap stations with local utility Dong Energy.
Clean technology startups like Better Place will be attending the events in droves over the next two weeks in hopes that their presence will show how important the international decisions and agreements are to their industry. While entrepreneurs won’t necessarily be able to change the outcome of the talks, their presence is important for helping create a high level of public awareness about the climate crisis and the green economy. The agreements at the event will help determine how big or small their markets will be, how long until those markets pick up, and how to determine the price on carbon, which is an integral key to many greentech firms.
The conference itself is already giving its own feeling of hygge. At a press conference on Sunday afternoon UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer said, “Never in 17 years of climate negotiations have so many different nations made so many firm pledges together,” and that while “there will be more steps on the road to a safe climate future, Copenhagen is already a turning point in the international response to climate change.” And just before the weekend President Obama decided to switch his agenda from attending the talks on Dec. 9 to attending the summit over the last couple of days when the rest of the heads of state will attend. It’s a move that shows he and the U.S. are serious about the negotiations.
Still ahead, many like the U.N.’s Steiner hope that both the U.S. and China will make additional (and more aggressive) emissions cuts. And expect hard negotiations over technology transfer (an issue at the heart of silicon valley) and financial commitments from the richest nations to support the poorest nations’ mitigation and adaptation.
When the conference officially opens Monday morning, likely my initial feeling of hygge here in the Bella Center will quickly fade as the reality of the difficulty of the negotiation process sets in. But there are two whole weeks of hope here for the attendees and delegates to help work on getting that feeling back.
Photo credits: Images 1 and 2 I shot with my camera in Copenhagen — the first is Tivoli gardens at night, and the second is the big ‘ol lines at the registration. Image 3 is courtesy of ollily’s photostream on Flickr Creative Commons and Image 4 is courtesy of Kakadu on Flickr Creative Commons.