“Be a pain in the ass”: Engagement is the main challenge for sustainability

Interview with Peter Rathje, ProjectZero CEO

The Danish ‘ProjectZero’ started in 2007. Its main goal: for Sonderborg to co-create a zero-emission municipality. Sonderborg, in southern Denmark, hit the 50 percent CO₂ reduction mark in 2020. By 2029, the municipality is expected to reach zero carbon emission for its energysystem. “Not expected to, it will”, states Peter Rathje, ProjectZero’s CEO.

Rathje, well-known in the world of sustainability, is one of the keynote speakers at the Positive Energy Districts Workshop in Amsterdam in June. The successes of ‘his’ project are testimony to its holistic and no-nonsense approach. Sonderborg now has ‘zero plus’ houses that produce more energy than they consume. District heating, together with local produced biogas and electricity from local wind turbines will serve Sonderborg’s future need for energy and generate Power-to-X fuels. For, Rathje however, the technical challenges we face are not the biggest hurdles to cross: “Maybe some technologies need to become more mature – technologies like sustainable transport of goods and people. What we lack is not technology, but action. We have started to run out of time – this is not just my own opinion; this is a widely shared concern.”

What is the main challenge right now?

“The main challenge is engagement and commitment. And not only engagement of citizens; I am talking about industry, the banks, the political level. And at the political level, don’t just look at the national level. At the municipality level, politicians are not used to dealing with sustainability. It is not one of their main concerns; they traditionally need to work on education; they need to take care of the elderly. Climate was in Denmark never a ‘need to do’ issue.”

How do you turn it into a ‘need to do’ issue?

“To put it simply: by being a pain in the ass. Of course, with industrial companies we started off by committing them to attainable goals; 10 percent reduction here, 15 percent there. But to really get results, you must stay impatient.”

Which lessons learned in Sonderborg could be applied to most situations?

“ProjectZero has always been about trying to be an example project. We have visitors from cities all over the world, all operating within very different contexts. But in all contexts, from Chinese to Dutch, the question of how to engage people is the most pressing. Education in all levels of society is key to that. Engaging people, businesses, and government to act – that is what I will be focusing on in June at the workshop.”

About Peter
Peter Rathje has broad management experience in businesses, primarily industry before he joined ProjectZero. He has also been an active board member in education institutions and employer organizations. Since 2007, Peter has been the CEO of ProjectZero, the public-private company driving Sonderborg´s transition to a ZERO carbon community by 2029.

Several EU-projects have supported Sonderborg´s journey, the most important however has been the SmartEnCity-project, which also has created the SmartEnCity Network with current 62 city-members across Europe – all committed to complete a similar zero carbon transition journey as Sonderborg.