The idea of Canberra being beautiful one day and the most sustainable city in the world the next is not necessarily the view held by some of Canberra’s thought leaders, despite a United Kingdom energy comparison website ranking the capital as the world’s most sustainable place to live.
UK energy comparison website Uswitch says Canberra is the world’s most sustainable city based on six criteria of energy, transport infrastructure, affordability, pollution, air quality, CO2 emissions and the percentage of green space.
Canberra scored 427 out of a possible 600 points. Brisbane was ranked third with a rating of 382 behind the Spanish capital, Madrid.
“The country’s capital relies heavily on solar power and nearby wind farms, while also ensuring an incredible 94 per cent of its residents have internet access to make this one connected city,” the website said.
However, Region Media spoke with some experts on the ground to see if Canberra is really ahead of the pack in terms of sustainability.
“Absolutely not,” said environmental economist Professor Frank Jotzo, a director of the ANU’s Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, “because we all live in very large houses and drive cars around this city on a daily basis.”
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Director of the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions Professor Mark Howden said Canberra is one of the world’s most civilised places to live but needs to address transport use and energy consumption to be considered truly sustainable.
“The ACT is one of the world’s leading jurisdictions in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and we’re already past our first interim milestone ahead of time to get to net zero emissions by 2045,” Professor Howden said.
But he said there’s still plenty to be done on transport and energy policies.
“We have the technologies needed to wean us off fossil fuels, but the gap with electric vehicles is vastly a policy and price issue which largely relates to political decisions that are not congruent with our peer jurisdictions overseas.”
Edwina Robinson, the founder of the social enterprise The Climate Factory, which has established a number of micro forests in Canberra suburbs, also questioned the affordability of electric vehicles but welcomed the ACT Government’s incentives to buy them.
She also said the ACT has been proactive by developing an urban tree strategy that aims for a 30 per cent canopy cover in urban forests by 2045, and regional councils are still catching up to Canberra’s green machine.
“I think there needs to be some more specific targets and actions around urban biodiversity, particularly planting understorey trees and shrubs in urban spaces for pollinators, skinks and small birds,” she said.
The Uswitch website may have been wearing rose-coloured glasses when it said Canberra’s transport infrastructure had “a vast network of public transport options”, meaning “you can get almost anywhere without a car”, and “the city also runs a ride-sharing service, encouraging people to travel as groups and cut back on solo driving”.
Chair of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Canberra Professor Barbara Norman agreed that transport is Canberra’s next big challenge in terms of being compared to countries such as Switzerland where cars are seen as unnecessary by most residents.
“We need to look at how we manage our urban growth if the city is to sustainably reimagine its suburbs, particularly in new housing establishments,” Professor Norman said.
“But Canberra has done very well in terms of its renewable electricity initiatives and fitting itself in the landscape and should be congratulated for those measures.
“That’s something large cities around the world envy because they are trying to retrofit their cities to bring those ‘green fingers’ back to offset the urban sprawl.”
Canberra is indeed a long way ahead of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, the least sustainable city in the Uswitch report, which it says “suffers from a heavy reliance on fuel and gas”.
Professor Mark Howden said Canberrans should simply enjoy living in a city that “walks the talk” when it comes to balancing its development with sustainable living.
“We have clean air, good water, a great education system. It’s generally a safe place to be with a very progressive government, and regardless of what you want in Canberra, you can get it without hours of travel that you have to put up with if you’re in a big city,” he said.