Today, over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that figure is expected to rise to as much as 66% by 2050. Economic development and growth seem to be inextricably linked to urbanisation in our societies, and as more and more people abandon the countryside and concentrate in urban environments it becomes ever more important to think of ways to mitigate the environmental impact this has and develop models for more sustainable, green cities.
A few years ago it was widely believed that city-dwellers had a lower environmental impact than people in the countryside. Economies of scale, public transportation, and generally smaller living quarters which require less heating and energy were thought to be more efficient and friendly to the environment. Recently that belief has been called into question by research that links carbon emissions to income and consumption levels, which are usually much higher among city dwellers. Researchers have also found that while the urban nucleus of large cities appear to be less carbon intensive, the gains they produce are often offset by the much more carbon intensive suburban sprawls that surround them. On a per-capita level this means that people that live in cities produce more carbon on average than those that live in rural areas.
All of this speaks to a problem with our current model of societal development, and with more and more people emerging from poverty and with rapidly-growing middle classes in the world’s developing nations the environmental impact of cities will only continue to rise. Because of that we wanted to take a look at some of the world’s greenest cities, to see how large, urbanised areas can be friendlier to the environment.
Copenhagen, Denmark: Copenhagen is routinely rated one of the best places to live for a myriad of reasons, among them being one of the greenest and healthiest cities in the world. Copenhagen’s most important environmental goal is to be carbon neutral by 2025. This objective was adopted in 2009 and its mid-term goal was to reduce carbon emissions 20% by 2015. Remarkably this milestone was passed four years ahead of schedule, in 2011, meaning Copenhagen is well on the right track to achieve its environmental objectives. As an interesting data point, nearly 50% of Copenhagen’s residents use bicycles to get to work, school, and to move around on a daily basis.
Oslo, Norway: If you guessed this list was going to be heavily populated with Scandinavian cities you were right. The Norwegian capital has some of the most ambitious environmental plans in the world, including producing 100% of its heating from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020 as well as powering 100% of its public transport by the same date. Oslo has one of the lowest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita out of all European capitals, at under 3 tonnes of CO2 per citizen/year. Its goal is to reduce its total emissions by 50% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.
Stockholm, Sweden: Sweden’s capital was the first city to win the EU Commission’s European Green Capital Award, in 2010. Like Oslo, Stockholm has one of the lowest rates of per-capita greenhouse gas emissions out of all European capitals, at around 3 tonnes per citizen/year. Its long-term goal is to be fossil fuel free by 2050, and it had managed to reduce emissions per inhabitant by 25% in 2010. The city also boasts 1,000 green spaces, which make up about 30% of its total surface area. Stockholm is surrounded by water, and unlike many other large cities where water pollution is rampant, the lakes, rivers and canals are so clean that inhabitants can bathe and fish in them, and some areas in downtown Stockholm serve as spawning grounds for trout and salmon.
Bristol, England: The last entry on our list is our very own city of Bristol. Winner of the European Green Capital Award in 2015, Bristol is the greenest city in the United Kingdom. Its ambitious plans include reducing energy use by 30% and CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020. In 2010 domestic energy use had already decreased by 16% according to plan, and by 2011 housing energy efficiency had increased by 25%. The city has committed £240 million to energy efficiency and renewable energy development by 2020, making it the cradle of the country’s green economy. Last but not least, Bristol is the home of many community energy and green initiatives, among them our very successful member co-op Bristol Energy Cooperative.