The small Danish municipality of Sønderborg is an example of how close community collaboration can turn great, green visions into reality.

At first glance, the Sønderborg-area of Southern Denmark might seem rather isolated and disconnected from the rest of Denmark. Most of the area is made up of the island of Als which presses up against the Jutland peninsula as if it was knocking on the door to get in. But in fact it’s quite the other way around. With unique access to mainland Europe and strong cultural and historical ties to Germany, Sønderborg has green ambitions far bigger than its size, and climate targets that go far beyond Danish national climate targets.

That is also the reason why we at Sustainia have struck up a partnership with Sønderborg municipality. Within the next three years, Sustainia will help the municipality make the Global Goals an integrated part of everyday life for its 75,000 inhabitants, from nursery schools to nursing homes. With the project titled “Sønderborg Scores Global Goals”, we will involve citizens on a whole other level: not only inspiring them to change their behavior, but also fostering an understanding of the world’s biggest problems – and how they as members of the municipality can help tackle them.

Sønderborg already acknowledges the importance of the 17 Global Goals, but it also understands that if it fails to put them into the context of its own citizens and actively involve them, the goals will fade into oblivion sooner or later. That is the challenge ahead, but Sønderborg and Sustainia are equal to the task.

Carbon-neutrality in 2029

Sønderborg didn’t just casually jump on the sustainability bandwagon, but has planned a green transition for years. 10 years ago, before clean energy became more of a mainstream political issue, Sønderborg municipality founded ProjectZero with the ambitious target of creating a carbon-neutral municipality by 2029. With a strong involvement from local politicians, citizens and businesses, and with the support of big Danish corporation Danfoss, whose HQ is located in the municipality, the project has so far generated a 35% decrease in CO2 emissions and over 800 new jobs in the area, which puts the municipality well on track for their 2029 goal.

One key initiative in ProjectZero are the so-called “ZERO-certifications.” The certification is awarded to local retail stores and businesses that can document energy savings of more than 10%, and ongoing commitment to integrate sustainability concerns into all decision-making. The certifications come in three categories, white, bronze and gold, representing respectively a 10%, 31-50% and 51-70% reduction in energy consumption.

Today, more than 150 retail stores in the area (that’s more than half of the total stores) have these certifications hung on their walls. Given this success, the municipality is expected to be halfway through to its carbon neutrality goal by 2020.

A green ripple effect

“Our job is to start initiatives that can make a ripple effect”, Peter Rathje, Director of ProjectZero, told a local newspaper recently, and that is exactly what ProjectZero has accomplished. The project provided a solid foundation for the municipality’s strategy “VidensBy Sønderborg” (translated to KnowledgeCity Sønderborg), a strategy which seeks to create the best learning environment possible for Sønderborg’s youth, with a strong focus on sustainability. For example, the strategy is responsible for teaching sustainable building practices to students within arts and crafts in the local education center, EUC Syd. Furthermore, ProjectZero has also positively affected city development in Sønderborg. With famous architect Frank Gehry as the masterplanner, Sønderborg’s new harbor offers a brand new multicultural learning center, a hotel and a student dormitory, which are now among the most sustainable buildings in Denmark.

ProjectZero and its sister projects have revealed a strong local willingness and readiness to create more sustainable communities. They show a municipality like Sønderborg can act as a green beacon for the rest of the country. With “Sønderborg Scores Global Goals”, we want to continue this ripple effect. Even though our project is still in its early stages, we are starting with engaging the youngest citizens, whom we hope will grow to adulthood in a sustainable, carbon-neutral municipality.

Please contact Project Lead Dida Hartvig Jørgensen on for more information about the project or check out the key findings in our latest Cities100 report, which demonstrates small cities’ potential as sustainability testing labs.

Author: Joachim Marc Christensen