How event host cities in Denmark are using sport to drive sustainability

April 27 2023

Denmark is considered one of the most sustainable countries in the world, lauded for its green energy policies and reduction of carbon emissions as well as sustainable social policies and progress towards gender equality. But the country is also paving the way for a sustainable approach to hosting sports events. Sport Event Denmark, along with organisers in cities and regions across the country, are using the power of sport to continue Denmark’s world-leading reputation.

How event host cities in Denmark are using sport to drive sustainability

Sport and sustainability in Denmark

Danish cities host many national and international sports events, from football to sailing and cycling to stand up paddleboarding. The country has been heralded as a sustainable tourist destination, particularly for events and conferences: the Global Destination Sustainability Index listed three Danish cities—Copenhagen, Aalborg, and Aarhus—in its top ten sustainable cities in 2022, and its many port cities and coastal areas have made it a particularly popular destination for marine sports.

Meanwhile, Denmark and its cities have established ambitious and comprehensive sustainability policies and climate action plans, though some of these have had mixed success: the Climate Act, approved by the Danish parliament in 2020, set a target to reduce emissions by 70 per cent by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Meanwhile, the capital city, Copenhagen, made headlines after launching a plan in 2012 to become the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025—a target which the city recently abandoned, despite the city having already made an impressive 80% reduction in CO2 emissions since 2009.

In a country with world-leading climate targets and an emphasis on achieving broader social and economic sustainability goals, sports events in Denmark are especially well-placed to promote sustainable outcomes. But how exactly are event host cities working with event organisers to do this?

Image credit Magnus Andersen/Grand Depart Copenhagen

Image credit Magnus Andersen/Grand Depart Copenhagen

Sport Event Denmark

Sports events in Denmark are overseen by Sport Event Denmark, the national sports event organisation supported by the Danish government. Sport Event Denmark works with host cities and national sports federations to bid for and host major international sporting events, and over the past decade the country has successfully hosted over 300 international events.

Despite ambitious national targets and a broad culture of sustainability, Sport Event Denmark did not have a sustainability strategy until recently. This year Sport Event Denmark, along with all the cities in the Sport Event Alliance, the network for sport event hosts, signed a declaration that agreed to minimize the climate impact of its sports events, with a particular focus on suppliers and procurement, green energy, transport and infrastructure, circular consumption, waste management, and water use.

The organisation, along with the National Olympic Committee and Sports Confederation of Denmark, are designing a sustainability guide for sports federations to use for greener event management, and are allocating funds for sustainable actions. The Sport Event Denmark website now hosts a green transition (Grøn omstilling) section, along with a guide, Guide til grønnere events, which draws on case studies and expertise gathered from previous events. The network of host cities meets regularly to discuss sustainability topics, share best practice, take part in seminars, and develop their sustainability strategies.

As a national body that supports cities and federations and does not host any events themselves, Sport Event Denmark has a very particular role to play. The organisation has emphasised the importance of empowering each city to make decisions and policies that fit their own unique needs. As a result, the organisation has not set specific goals or targets. ‘It’s more like a process goal,’ says Hanne Sejer, Deputy Chief Executive at Sport Event Denmark. ‘Not everyone can do the same, because they’re on different levels. Our role is to set some focus points.’

The dynamic between host city, event organiser, sports federation, and national body varies for each event. While some events are co-hosted with the city and the event organisers, for other events the city plays a far smaller role. This means that the dialogue around sustainability can vary hugely, depending on whether the event organiser has its own sustainability policy; the differing priorities and targets of each city administration; and the type of sporting event taking place. While some sports events, such as The Ocean Race, already have well-developed sustainability plans, others have not integrated sustainability at all. The host city must develop strategies to work with all of them.

In this way, event host cities in Denmark are demonstrating how, by setting a broad focus on sustainability, learning from others, and collaborating with event organisers, sports events have huge potential to drive sustainability even further.

Image credit Lars Moeller/Grand Depart Copenhagen

Image credit Lars Moeller/Grand Depart Copenhagen

Case study: Copenhagen

The capital of Denmark is internationally renowned for its ambitious climate and sustainability goals. ‘Copenhagen has had ambitious plans for sustainability for a long time,’ says Sine Midtgaard Hansen, Host City Sport Event Project Leader at the Copenhagen Municipality. ‘We have high ambitions—we see Copenhagen as a sustainable and green city, and we want to integrate a sustainability focus in everything we do, including with external partners.’

While it is often Copenhagen’s environmental targets that have made headlines, Midtgaard Hansen and her colleagues work with a broader definition of sustainability. ‘When we talk about sustainability we talk about social sustainability, cultural sustainability, and environmental and economic sustainability,’ she says.

This means that, in the sports events they host, they focus on driving participation and inclusion, improving quality of life for local residents, raising awareness of sustainability, and emphasising legacy, as well as reducing the environmental impact and remaining financially sustainable.

‘We also want to focus on social and cultural aspects, because that’s where we can leave a strong legacy which makes a difference for everyday lives in Copenhagen,’ says Midtgaard Hansen. ‘A big event can really raise the bar and political awareness, not only to get more resources for local clubs but also more public facilities.’

The city hosts hundreds of smaller sports and cultural events each year, in addition to between one and three major international events. In recent years this has included the Tour de France Grand Depart, which took place in 2022, the delayed EURO 2020 tournament, and WorldPride and EuroGames, which the city hosted in 2021. This year will see the Badminton World Championships take place in August.

At each of these events, the city administration has worked with event organisers to reduce environmental impacts and drive sustainable outcomes in line with the city’s own targets. At the EURO 2020 tournament, the city worked with UEFA to test out new waste management strategies and a ban on single-use plastic. This meant working with authorities in the city to experiment with logistics, such as the best way to transport and wash reusable cups at a large washing station.

The city also set targets of reaching young people in disadvantaged areas and improving their access to sport and promoting girls’ participation in football. Working with UEFA, organisers provided a set number of free tickets for children in disadvantaged areas of the city. Since the event, the city has installed more green spaces for young people to be able to play football in urban spaces and has worked with local clubs to establish new girls’ teams, reaching 2,000 more girls since 2021. Since the tournament, the city has been called on to work with future European Championship host cities in Germany to discuss best practice. Sharing event-specific knowledge with future and past hosts is a real opportunity for cities to help change standards internationally.

Cities also learn their own lessons for the future. After developing and testing a range of sustainable initiatives during the EURO 2020 tournament, the city was able to put their lessons into practice. During the Tour de France Grand Départ last summer, the city and event organisers worked together to institute a range of sustainable policies, including waste separation guided by volunteers; ensuring that 80% of meals served were organic and with vegetarian options; limiting printed materials and the use of plastic in signage; and promoting the use of public transport.

The city administrators are clear that partnerships and sharing lessons more widely are key parts of a sustainable approach. Here the national body plays an important role. ‘Sport Event Denmark do a great job setting sustainability on the common agenda,’ says Midtgaard Hansen. By integrating the city’s sustainability priorities with guidance from the national network, Copenhagen is developing a flexible and comprehensive approach to sustainably hosting sport events.

Case study: Aarhus

Aarhus is Denmark’s second-largest city, and, like Copenhagen, it attracts many international sporting events. The city aims to be climate neutral by 2030, and sustainability sits at the heart of its Event Strategy, which was published in 2020: the strategy states that the city will use events as a ‘showcase for how the city of Aarhus will focus on sustainability and green change’.

Event organisers in the city make sure to align their sustainability approach to wider goals. ‘We look at an event and say, what is Denmark’s goal within the next few years on the Sustainable Development Goals, what are the regional goals, and what are the local goals?’ says Charlotte Kirk Elkjær, Chief Advisor at Aarhus Events and Stopover Director for the Ocean Race. ‘We use the event as a platform to push agendas that we need to succeed as a city, as a region, and as a country.’

Aarhus was named the European City of Culture in 2017, and as part of this developed the Aarhus Sustainability Model, a tool created to help others develop cultural initiatives and events in a sustainable way. Since then, Aarhus Events have been adapting many of these approaches into the sporting events that they host, including the 2018 Sailing World Championships, SailGP, the Tall Ships Races, the Badminton World Championships and the Dressage World Cup.

In May this year the city will become the first Danish city to host the Ocean Race Stopover, and Aarhus Events have worked closely with organisers of the Ocean Race to put sustainability front and centre. Together they have published a Sustainability Programme, which lays out the main sustainable initiatives planned for the event. These include a Sustainability Island, where exhibitors and entrepreneurs will showcase sustainable technologies; a Sustainability Summit, which will host a series of knowledge sharing activities; a youth summit, in which young volunteers will create content for younger learners; and a research and educational programme, which will work with up to 7,000 children and young people to educate them on topics including ocean health, plastic pollution, and sustainable behaviour.

The event has also laid out its targets, including minimised use of single-use plastics; prioritising sustainability in catering choices; aiming for an 80% recycling rate; and calculating and minimising or offsetting the event’s carbon footprint. As in Copenhagen, organisers have built on the knowledge gained from hosting other events in the city over the past few years. This includes a gradual expansion to include social sustainability initiatives as well as environmental ones. ‘We have focused more on the environmental side, but slowly we are working on the social side as well,’ says Kirk Elkjær.

Partnerships and profile are also central for sport events in Aarhus, as well as promoting sustainability more widely. An event such as the Ocean Race, which already has a strong sustainable message and a large platform, provides the perfect opportunity to collaborate with event organisers to promote a wider message. ‘We constantly make sure that we keep educating the public,’ says Kirk Elkjær. The team also focuses on educating volunteers who work with them on sports events and ensuring that they are spreading the word to their local community. ‘We have a good pool of volunteers in the city who work on a lot of different events, so educating them constantly is important. When people ask them, they are carrying a sustainable message.’

Like Copenhagen, Aarhus has developed an approach to hosting events that draws on its own strengths and contributes to local targets while pushing the sustainability message beyond its borders.

Lessons from Denmark

The case studies of Copenhagen and Aarhus, and the leadership example set by Sport Event Denmark, provide food for thought for other cities around the world looking to host international sporting events.

Each and every international sporting event is unique: the requirements and sustainability standards of each sport are different; the local needs and sustainability targets of each city are different; and budgets, logistics, and requirements vary. This means that the task of consistently putting on a sustainable event requires communication, collaboration, and guidance, but with the autonomy for each city and event to develop its own approach.

Despite the fact that Denmark and its cities have set ambitious climate and sustainability targets and have signed leading climate agreements, Sport Event Denmark has not set specific public targets and does not have official structures in place for regularly reporting on their sustainability activities. Most cities have followed suit, and few publish annual sustainability reports or official reporting policies. This may be because hosting such a wide array of events means that standards and specifics are always changing, while the teams operating the events are often small. Organisers in Aarhus and Copenhagen emphasised the importance of open discussion and lesson sharing rather than concrete goals and formal regulations. ‘It’s more on a conversational level, so that we are all in dialogue,’ Kirk Elkjær says.

The importance of working with local communities and meeting local and regional goals, while also aligning with national priorities, is a consistent theme. It is also important to keep in mind that each city needs to ensure that events are economically sustainable and meet the needs of the organiser and the local economy. ‘Every city has a different local policy and priority,’ says Hanne Sejer. ‘Therefore different actions are taking place at different events.’

By providing guidance, rather than regulations, Sport Event Denmark have enabled host cities to learn from each other and work to develop sustainable policies that best fit their needs. As well as Aarhus and Copenhagen, signatories to the recent sustainability declaration include the cities of Aalborg, Randers, Herning, Esbjerg, and Fredrikshavn, in addition to the Triangle Region Denmark and Destination Fyn. Event organisers in each of these locations have developed their own bespoke approaches to sustainable events, including introducing KPIs for waste reduction and single-use plastic, focusing on gender balance in volunteer programmes, and supporting green initiatives created by members of the local community.

Event host cities across the world can learn a lot from the approach taken by host cities in Denmark. Working together, both nationally and internationally, means that cities can share best practice. Drawing on the strengths of each sport, and using the platform of each event, can promote sustainability at home and abroad. Learning from each event and applying lessons to the next can help each city develop its own specific approach to sustainable events that meets the needs of its communities. Denmark has long been a leader in efforts to create a more sustainable future, and its sport events are no exception.

Read moreBethany White

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