22 January 2024

DK2020 Climate Initiative – Cities of Tomorrow


As part of the “Cities of Tomorrow” series, Philea spoke with Realdania’s Pelle Bournonville to learn more about this project, to understand the organisation’s motivation to work at the cities level, and to inspire others working or considering working in cities.

Many of the global challenges we face play out at the level of cities. These complex, interconnected and dynamic ecosystems are where many social, economic, environmental and political factors converge. This series, curated by Philea’s Funders Forum on Sustainable Cities, showcases philanthropic initiatives that aim at making cities sustainable.


The DK2020 project is an easily replicable model for municipalities of all sizes to develop ambitious climate action plans through a facilitated peer-learning process. It is based on the Climate Action Planning Framework (CAPF) created by the C40 cities network and adapted to the Danish context. It has successfully engaged Danish municipalities, who have politically committed to develop, approve and implement climate action plans in full compliance with the Paris Agreement ambitions.

Realdania is a large philanthropic association based in Denmark committed to improving quality of life through the built environment. The history of the association is linked to the first lending institution in Denmark which was established by a group of Copenhageners to extend loans secured through mortgages on real estate.

CityAll 98 municipalities in Denmark
Primary constituentsInhabitants and residents of the 98 municipalities
Partners and collaborationsLocal governments, knowledge partners, political groups

Why are you investing at cities level and what are your association’s main priorities and strands of work within this programmatic area?

Pelle Bournonville: Since its conception in 2000, the association has always worked at the city level, especially on urban planning and urban development. We had a mortgage credit lending history which involved municipalities and stakeholders in the “urban arena”, so it was a given that we would not only work with individual buildings but also with the urban fabric and its context, hence the cities. Currently, our field of activities is the built environment, i.e. large and small towns and cities, villages as well as urban spaces, parks, buildings and built heritage. The built environment also includes all the related activities and change processes: construction, architecture, landscape architecture, restoration, urban development and spatial planning in rural areas and in the city.

Concerning the work on climate mitigation, we started back in 2012-2013 more concretely but we had an interest already before then, more on the building rather than the city scale, looking at energy renovation and efficiency, along with climate adaptation. This was due to the fact that in 2011 there was a massive cloudburst event in Copenhagen and around the same time, we were beginning to look more into climate matters at the city level. But first, we needed the necessary data and knowledge background to be able to understand more about what cities can do around the climate agenda and what support might be needed. The impetus for this work was the idea that we could demonstrate the connection between long-term quality of life (which is the focus of the association) and climate change.

In Copenhagen in 2013 we hosted the annual conference of Philea (EFC at the time), which was centred around sustainable cities. It was then that we started to work more strongly on climate in general and specifically on climate adaptation at city level – and it was at that time that we joined Philea’s Funders Forum on Sustainable Cities. For Realdania it was clear that the climate crisis had to be addressed both at global and at local level. It’s simply something that cannot be solved just at local level – we have to collaborate at global level to then apply solutions locally. It was felt that there was a need to share and transfer knowledge among cities, not just in Denmark, but worldwide. So, with this mindset, in 2013, we entered a strategic partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation to support the global network of cities committed to combatting climate change – the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. It is from the work developed by the C40 group that the DK2020 was born.

What was the challenge you aimed to address through the DK2020 project?

We wanted to transfer the experience and knowledge gained through C40 at the local level in order to benefit all cities in Denmark. At the time when C40 had started, political support for climate mitigation was spotty at best. Some cities were working mostly around renewable energy, but they didn’t necessarily consider all factors. The right arguments and data were needed to raise awareness, inform and drive the political agenda and get the voters and stakeholders on board.

Hence, we started working on the co-benefit of climate mitigation actions, creating compelling arguments on how phasing out sources of air pollution – including oil burners at home, to point to a specific example – would increase public health, which in turn of course not only benefits individuals, but society at large as well through government savings on health care. Having the solid data and evidence as well as developing the right arguments were two prerequisites to drive this change. In addition, we were actively listening to our city’s stakeholders, and they told us very clearly that they did not need new networks, but rather more cases, examples of what other cities were doing. They wanted our support in collecting and disseminating this knowledge. So, this is how we started collecting evidence on climate action.

How did this lead to the launch of DK2020?

When the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, it created some form of global measurement of the direction where we needed to go and provided a roadmap. In addition, C40 together with Arup published a fantastic report called Deadline 2020 which calculated the fair share of emissions reductions individual cities should deliver in order to reach the goals set by the Paris Agreement.

This roadmap, together with the data and knowledge gathered by the C40, were then transformed by the C40 alliance into concrete planning frameworks for cities. In 2017, the cities involved in the C40 alliance finalised their Climate Action Planning Framework (CAPF), and in the following year, Copenhagen’s Climate Action Plan (the only Danish city participating in the C40 group), was officially approved as Paris Compliant according to the CAPF.

This official recognition inspired Realdania to create a pilot programme for Danish municipalities to follow a similar process, adapted to the Danish context. At that point, the association had already consolidated its relationship with cities, and had also worked diligently and patiently to create a standardised tool for municipalities in Denmark to account for their emissions. So, all of this brought us to the launch of a pilot of DK2020: Realdania invited all municipalities to apply to the initiative, and 20 were selected for this pilot phase, based on their diversity (in terms of localisation and typology, and on the maturity level of their climate actions). Additionally, the municipalities had to prove that they had secured political support at their local level.

Who are the key actors involved in the project, and have you encountered any particular challenges during the implementation?

The initial partnership during the pilot phase consisted of Realdania as the financial partner; C40 as the knowledge partner; Concito – an independent Danish think tank as the project manager and knowledge partner; and the 20 selected municipalities.

In the pilot phase, we worked with Concito on a translation of the Climate Action Planning Framework, not only in terms of language but also specificity of the Danish context. We tested the framework with some cities, and then in a few months we had it up and running with the 20 municipalities selected. In June 2020, just a few months after the beginning of DK2020, there was an important referendum in Denmark which turned out to be a sort of a “climate election”. All of a sudden, there was massive public support for climate action across Denmark, which resulted in a big push on mayors and cities, and therefore our board decided to scale up the DK2020 project. Meanwhile, the 20 municipalities had spread the word about the DK2020 project among their colleagues around the country, and many more wanted to join: This showed us that through DK2020 we were filling a gap in municipal planning that until then had not been possible to address, as municipalities had no capacity to build this without support.

While entering the replication phase with the other municipalities, we wanted to make sure that the climate action plans would be anchored and owned by the cities in the longer term. To enable this, a natural ally would be the local Danish government (KL) which is a sort of an association of municipalities. But this organisation had not previously worked on climate mitigation but only on climate adaption, and hence they were initially somewhat uninterested. On the other hand, the five regions in Denmark were highly interested in joining this effort and were already working very closely with their municipalities on both adaptation and mitigation agendas, therefore they saw themselves playing the role of supporting this cross-municipal work.

Getting these two organisations to work together was initially a challenge but turned out to be part of the success of this project as until that point their relationship had historically been more competitive rather than collaborative. Realdania played an essential mediator role in this sense.

In the following phase of the project, we replicated the model that we had developed during the pilot, together with the other 78 municipalities, splitting the process into two steps, first including 45 municipalities and then continuing with the remaining 33. In addition, to better coordinate the work, and have the knowledge support and technical assistance closer to them, these municipalities were divided into five geographic groups corresponding to the number of Danish regions. For each geographic group, we created a small secretariat that would be driving, arranging and following up with the necessary meetings and also assisting with any basic questions that would come from the municipalities, leaving the more complex ones to Concito.

Therefore, the partnership for the full-scale project included Realdania, the Local Government of Denmark (KL), the five Danish Regions (providing equal funding and constituting the project leadership), C4, Concito and finally the municipalities backed by the political groups. The Local Government Denmark really stepped into its role and demonstrated extraordinary leadership by preparing the municipalities to reach out to their city councils to secure their participation. This approach has been instrumental in ensuring political backing and buy-in for the project.

The climate action plans have been developed in close collaboration with the local communities and have reinforced the involvement of citizens and other key stakeholders in the cities.

What progress has been made since the beginning of the project (in the specific context of the city, for the citizens, etc.)? 

Denmark will soon become the first country in the world where every municipality has a climate action plan to reduce emissions: By the end of 2024, 97 of the 98 Danish municipalities across the 5 Danish regions are expected to have climate action plans aligned with the Paris Agreement, with the final municipality following in 2025. Through the implementation of their climate action plans, local leaders could reduce emissions by 73% by 2030, contributing to the realisation of Denmark’s national target.

The impact of the DK2020 climate plans on the national climate target was assessed during the spring of 2023, demonstrating that the project contributed significantly to Denmark’s 70% reduction target in 2023. The learnings have also served to develop further the Climate Action Planning Framework so that it not only supports large cities but also medium-sized and smaller cities. All DK2020 partners have extended their commitment until 2027 with the Climate Alliance, a new partnership that supports Danish municipalities to move from climate planning to climate action.

It is very interesting to see that the different municipalities have adapted the framework to their local context: No two plans look alike, but they are all created from the same framework. In addition to the overall goals, many municipalities have also set interim targets for the individual sectors (for example, increased production of renewable energy by 2030).

I’ve now been in a number of deep conversations with countries, states and regions as diverse as Wales and India and Argentina: There is an opportunity in every single country to find out the specific layers of governance and recreate this project in their contexts. What it boils down to is that you can mobilise enough trust between these layers and actors to sit around the table and get the job done. DK2020 is a brilliant example of collective impact: We got the key actors around the table and did the groundwork to build trust and now they work together. I think the association played the role of that enzyme that brings together the right parties to start talking.

If you were to describe your ideal city, what would you select as its 3 most important characteristics?

I’ll borrow a thinking that has been developed by the London School of Economics, together with the C40 and other partners which is the idea of Compact, Connected and Resilient cities. I think those three ideas translate into having an urban planning where you have a densification of functions, an urban life intra-and-interconnected with other cities and the world in general, and you build for what’s to come, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

Curiosity Corner

Catalytic Philanthropy

Mark Kramer first used the term in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2009. According to him, the four main characteristics that make catalytic philanthropy organisations effective are:

  1. The ambition to change the world and the courage to accept responsibility for achieving the desired outcomes.
  2. The involvement and empowerment of other actors in compelling campaigns, creating the conditions and space for effective collaboration.
  3. The use of all available tools for social change.
  4. The creation of measurable and actionable knowledge to improve effectiveness and influence the ecosystem.

Realdania can be seen as an example of catalytic philanthropy due to its strategic approach in leveraging funds to initiate innovative projects with broader societal impact. Beyond providing financial support, Realdania actively builds and engages in partnerships and invests in sustainable urban development and the built environment, with the aim of stimulating additional investments and contributing to systemic change. Its collaborative efforts, of which DK2020 is an example, coupled with a focus on long-term solutions and measurable outcomes, demonstrate a catalytic role in driving positive social and environmental change.