Hitting Green Goals: The 15 Greenest Cities In The World
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard.
We ask that you please fasten your seatbelts and power down all ethical electronics as we take off to explore the 15 greenest cities in the world.
Currently, roughly half of us are urban dwellers, accounting for 75% of global energy consumption and 80% of energy emissions.
By 2050, two thirds of the global population (around 7 billion people) will live in cities. Which means cities will account for an even higher percentage of global emissions.
That’s why our need for green cities grows right along with the cities themselves.
What does it take to become the most sustainable city?
There’s no standard, but the most eco friendly cities often rank well in terms of:
- Green space
- Public transportation and infrastructure for bicycles
- Local food production and markets
- Renewable energy
- Recycling rates
- Consumption targets and climate plans
- Bans on single-use plastics
- Air quality and pollution
- Waste policies
- Transportation-related CO₂ emissions
- Affordability and accessibility
- Pollution levels
- Organic farming
- Alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Organizations like C40 provide a network for mayors to collaborate and make commitments to an equitable and sustainable future. Other organizations have also established relevant methodologies to determine the most sustainable cities:
- Resonance Consultancy’s 2020 World’s Greenest Cities Index
- Schroders European Sustainable Cities Index
- Arcadis Citizen Centric 2018 Sustainable Cities Index
- The Global Destination Sustainability Movement (considers a city’s sustainability from a tourism perspective)
- Sustainable Development Solutions Network’ 2019 US Cities Sustainable Development Report
- Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Liveability Ranking
Given the complexity of determining a green city, there’s no concrete answer for: what is the greenest city in the world?
What can be said, however, is that European cities are leading the way, even when compared to the greenest cities in the US.
Regardless of location, we’ve come a long way.
Over the past decade, many cities introduced their first climate plans, banned forms of single use plastic, or made significant shifts towards zero waste, circular economies, greener urban areas, and renewable energy.
Let’s dive into these green efforts a little more.
QUICK LINKS TO THE GREENEST CITIES IN THE WORLD
1. VIENNA, AUSTRIA
Vienna’s Green Credentials
Green spaces make up almost half of Vienna’s area—higher than any other European city.
Vienna sets a high bar in terms of conservation, circularity, wastewater management, clean air and water, and public transportation.
The city boasts a 96% residential recycling rate and has bans on plastic bags. If traveling there, don’t forget your reusable bag when checking out one of the many local markets.
In fact, bring your whole zero waste kit, especially your eco friendly water bottle, which you can fill with natural spring water from any tap – eliminating the need to know how to purify water for all you backpackers.
2. BERLIN, GERMANY
Berlin’s Green Credentials
A C40 Cities member since 2005, Berlin has taken numerous actions to support clean air, divest from fossil fuels, and bring nature into urban areas via green spaces.
The city has an impressive walking and cycling network, making it one of the most pedestrian-friendly and greenest cities to live in.
Combined with public transportation systems like the U-bahn underground rail system means Berlin has, by far, the fewest cars per person among German cities.
You’ll also find numerous repair and recycling centers, food rescue programs, organic farming systems, and an entire department store devoted to sustainable and ethical fashion.
3. MADRID, SPAIN
Madrid’s Green Credentials
Madrid boasts 300,000 trees—one for every 20 inhabitants—among 6,400 hectares of green spaces.
In 2018, the city introduced Madrid Central, a city center only accessible on foot and by public transportation. Capable of reducing emissions by 40% by eliminating passenger cars, it’s considered one of Europe’s most significant air quality improvement efforts.
The city has also embraced sustainable food and farming systems.
Even their soccer (er, football) team, Real Madrid, partnered with a meatless farm to promote more sustainable, vegetarian eating habits.
4. CURITIBA, BRAZIL
Curitiba’s Green Credentials
Curitiba’s sustainability efforts are designed to respect its culture and rich history.
They’re also accessible to everyone, no matter the financial citations. Their Free University for the Environment, for example, enables both wealthy and economically disadvantaged citizens to learn about sustainable living.
Citizens also receive food and tokens to the city’s rapid bus system in exchange for utilizing its impressive recycling program.
Since the 1970s, they’ve planted more than 1.5 million trees and opened 28 public parks.
5. AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
Amsterdam’s Green Credentials
If there’s any city in the world that needs to be concerned about climate change, it’s Amsterdam.
Sure having some of the cleanest water in the world is great but when the entire city lies below sea level, it doesn’t exactly quell those flooding fears.
They already experienced a flooding tragedy in the 1950s.
With a $150 million Climate Fund, the city has the motivation, money, and measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
This includes ambitious goals to reduce the city’s emissions by 55% by 2030, and 95% by 2050—by which point they also intend to be fully circular (i.e. nothing single use).
Within the next decade, their water and road transportation will be exclusively emission-free.
Individual Amsterdammers are making a positive impact, too, evidenced by the abundance of cyclists. It doesn’t hurt that cycling is the easiest way to get around the city.
Singapore’s Green Credentials
Considered a city, state, and nation, Singapore is many things at once, including the most sustainable city in Asia.
More than 50 years ago, Singapore was polluted, lacked healthy sanitation, and faced high unemployment rates. Realizing economic development couldn’t come at the expense of social or environmental sustainability, it transformed into a green metropolis.
Known as a “City in Garden”, 50% of Singapore is green spaces.
With more than 80% of residents in public housing, Singapore has impressive plans to build a 42,000-home eco ‘smart’ city. This won’t just house more people, but will also preserve green space, consider future hot temperature trends, and promote sustainable transportation.
They have other ambitious plans for the future, and an entire division of the government (known as Cleantech) to grow the renewable energy, green building, and conservation sectors.
7. STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN
Stockholm’s Green Credentials
The first country in the world to pass an environmental protection act in 1967, Sweden is a role model for other countries.
In its capital city of Stockholm, 100% of operations are powered by renewables, 99% of solid waste is recycled, and 80% of hotels are third-party certified to be sustainable.
By 2040, the city aims to be totally fossil-free and climate-positive. To do so, they’re taking a holistic approach that considers transportation, tourism, hotels, and restaurants, all while meeting the needs of a growing population.
8. COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
Copenhagen’s Green Credentials
Deemed the most sustainable city in the world by TimeOut, Copenhagen stands out for its unique approach.
Enter CopenHill, a multi-purpose urban mountain that transformed a waste-to-energy plant into a place to ski, snowboard, run, hike, and climb.
Their more conventional approaches include a pledge for carbon-neutrality by 2025, residential areas constructed out of material sourced from abandoned homes, and a booming circular fashion scene.
They also have a target 70% recycling rate and numerous urban farms—some of which use regenerative agriculture to grow high carbon sequestering crops like seaweed.
9. LONDON, ENGLAND
London’s Green Credentials
Home to more than 9 million people, London still maintains enough public green spaces and parks to account for over 40% of the city’s entire area.
Some parts of the city are being redesigned to become pedestrian and bicycle-only zones, while others will be totally internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle-free.
Heavily investing in 40% less-emitting diesel-electric hybrid buses, they’re also consistently improving upon their mass public transport systems.
Perhaps most impressive is the ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2030, revised from an earlier plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Did we mention all the zero waste shops London boasts, or the plethora of London thrift stores spilling onto the streets (Camden street style)?
10. CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA
Canberra’s Green Credentials
The federal capital of Australia, Canberra, is considered one of the most sustainable cities for a few reasons.
First, for every 100 particles of air, just 13.89 are polluted (compared to 90+ for cities like Delhi, Beirut, and Dhaka).
48% of its energy comes from solar and wind renewables, thanks in part to generous zero-interest loans for residential installations of rooftop solar panels. Not to mention improved efficiency in public housing buildings.
But are solar panels sustainable? How much benefit do these green-power initiatives actually reap? Read our deep dive on why we think this is still the most responsible choice.
Canberra also boasts an excellent public transport system and is home to the highest number of electric vehicle charge stations per capita.
11. WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
Wellington’s Green Credentials
New Zealand capital Wellington also ranks highly for having a low pollution index (13.95).
Just behind #1 Auckland, Wellington is considered the fourth most “liveable” city. The city scores well on healthcare (and its effective response to COVID-19), stability, culture, environment, education, and infrastructure.
It intends to remain one of the best places to live by becoming a Biophilic City—one that preserves natural capital by incorporating it into all areas of land use, open space management, and urban design.
An example is the first fully-fenced eco-sanctuary in the world, Zealandia.
12. WASHINGTON D.C., USA
Washington D.C.’s Green Credentials
As of 2019, none of the most populous American cities are on track to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and as of 2021, most US states are still not on track.
But some cities are doing better than others!
Washington D.C. tops the list of the greenest cities in the US, alongside San Francisco, Seattle, and New York.
It was one of the first global cities to achieve a high rating for LEED-certified buildings, is home to one of the largest municipal solar projects, and the Clean Energy DC Act (100% renewable energy by 2032) is one of the most aggressive in the US.
D.C. also fares well when it comes to health, education, gender equality, poverty reduction, clean water, circularity, climate action, sustainability commitments, and preserving life on land.
13. VANCOUVER, CANADA
Vancouver’s Green Credentials
Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan makes it one of the most eco friendly cities.
Over a decade-long effort (2010-2020), they upped the use of hydroelectricity, rolled out sustainable transportation systems, significantly increased recycling rates, invested in highly energy-efficient buildings, retrofitted existing buildings, and developed targets for transitioning to a fully green economy.
Today, 95% of the city’s electricity comes from renewables and it boasts the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any major city in North America.
They also have their eyes set on becoming a global leader in urban food systems, having already significantly increased their production and sourcing of local food in recent years.
14. PARIS, FRANCE
Paris’ Green Credentials
We rarely think of the infamously indulgent French capital as a green city, but it’s trying to change its reputation.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo has placed sustainability at the forefront of her campaigns since 2014, during which time the city established over 900 miles of bike lanes and banned plastic produce packaging—following France becoming the first country to ban plastic plates and cutlery.
Starting in 2024, diesel cars will be banned and petrol cars will follow suit in 2030.
By 2026, more than 170,000 trees will be planted, including four ‘urban forests.’ By 2030, they plan to have 50% of the urban area converted into green spaces.
15. DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
Durban’s Green Credentials
Durban, formerly recognized as the world’s greenest city, has taken steps to divest from fossil fuels, support cleaner air and equity, and bring more nature to urban areas.
Not only has the C40 member introduced more indigenous trees and exotic plants, but as one of the world’s 35 Global Biodiversity Hotspots, it’s taking significant strides to protect its natural biomes and increase biodiversity on the whole.
It plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 and is in the process of constructing a 400 mW solar plant to help run on 40% renewables by 2030.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE GREENEST CITIES IN THE WORLD
Lists of the greenest cities in the world are often changing and—if these last five years are any prediction of the future—growing!
That said, whether you live in an eco friendly city, in one that will likely never make the list, or in a rural town, you can do your part to make it a little greener.
A common theme in many climate plans or urban greening strategies is the incorporation and commitment of a city’s residents. Government officials can produce fancy reports and shout their ambitious plans from the rooftop, but without the support of their constituents, their efforts are for naught.
So get out and vote for local officials (no matter how small their office is) who stand for sustainability.
Education arguably plays the biggest role in this. Get familiar with what your city is doing and understand how you can play a role, whether that’s learning how to reduce your carbon footprint at home or helping your city do the same on a larger scale.
And of course, share this list with friends and family. As this list of green cities shows us, we are always stronger and more empowered when we work together.