As the Danes prepare for the National Parliament elections on Thursday, most polls show that the centre-left parties are looking to return to power after ten years with a liberal-conservative government. The economy has been the dominant issue in this election, leaving little time for issues of climate change, energy and the environment. However, a new scheme for a congestion charge in Copenhagen has surprisingly dominated the debate.

By Bo Normander, Director, Worldwatch Institute Europe

Since Denmark’s prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen (Liberal Party), called a general election for September 15th, the difficult state of the Danish economy has been the main issue. Both the centre-left (the ‘red’ block), led by prime minister candidate Helle Thorning-Schmidt from the Social Democrats, and the liberal-conservative (the ‘blue’ block), led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, have launched a number of policy initiatives to help the Danish economy regain growth.

In this debate there are no discussions on the apparent links between the economic crisis and the crisis of climate change and environmental degradation by any of the blocks. Despite a recent poll showing that 57 % of the Danes consider climate as one of the Top 5 issues in the election and 67 % want more ambitious targets on climate and energy, these issues have basically been ruled out. The Danish prime minister’s poor handling of the Copenhagen climate-change summit (COP15) in December 2009 has left a long-lasting vacuum that the political mainstream seems not willing to recover from and has even left the opposition party leaders unenthusiastic to bring up the issue.

From this perspective, it has been a surprise to most commentators that the issue of a congestion charge has drawn all the attention for the last 3 weeks since the Social Democrats and the Socialist People’s Party launched their initial proposal. The socialist Red-Green Alliance and the centre-left Social-Liberal party also support the idea, while the right-wing parties are against. Hence, a classic left-right battle has arisen leading to a furious and continuous debate on who will suffer and who will win from this transport measure.

Following the examples of Stockholm, London and Oslo, the congestion charges should help combat the increasing problems with traffic jams and air pollution in Copenhagen and other larger cities. The parties supporting the policy suggest a maximum charge of 25 kroner (approx. Euro 3.50) for each car crossing the border of the congestion zone within the city of Copenhagen (see below). The charge will be lower outside rush hours and free at night and during the weekends. The revenue from the charge should be invested in improved infrastructure and cheaper bus and train tickets. A study by Tetraplan consultants shows that a congestion charge can reduce road traffic by 23 %, air pollution by 5 to 10 % and CO2 emissions by 10 to 15 %.

In contrast, the liberal-conservative parties argue that a congestion charge is an inefficient and unfair way of regulating traffic. They suggest that the charge will particularly hit low-income families hard as they are dependent on a car to go to work and pick-up their children after school. Also, saying that business will suffer from the regulation of traffic. On the other hand, the priority for the blue block parties is to expand the city’s infrastructure; that includes the construction of a car tunnel under Copenhagen’s harbour, linking the North and South.

A total of nine parties are running for the 179 seats of the Danish Parliament and all parties (except for the Christian Democrats) are likely to be represented by passing the minimum threshold of 2 % of the votes. Despite the polls showing that the centre-left parties can form a majority, the margins are so small that anything can happen. The polling ends on Thursday at 8 pm and soon thereafter the first results will be available from Danish media.

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The dotted line indicates the border of the congestion charge zone in Copenhagen.
Green roads will experience less traffic, while red roads will experience increased traffic,
according to a model by Tetraplan consultants (2008)