Is Canberra really the most sustainable city in the world?

Michael Weaver 20 May 2021 8
Trees in Canberra

One of the many spectacular autumn landscapes to be found in Canberra this year. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

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.”

Woman and two children on electric bike in Canberra

The Canberra Electric Bike Library loans out electric bikes to see how they might fit with people’s lifestyles. Photo: Supplied.

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”.


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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.”


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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.


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8 Responses to Is Canberra really the most sustainable city in the world?
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g210 g210 11:10 am 04 Jun 21

“because we all live in very large houses and drive cars around this city on a daily basis.”
So I’ll call BS on this quoted statement by Professor Frank Jotzo.
Clearly exaggerated statements like this do not help.
Unless a very large house is 10sq and carpooling once a day is the benchmark of environmental unsustainability.

Leon Arundell Leon Arundell 9:53 am 04 Jun 21

I asked Uswitch what it meant by “An incredible 88.6% of Canberra’s transport infrastructure is green … The city also runs a ride-sharing service.”

Uswitch provided the following evasive and uninformative reply:

“In terms of methodology:

“All data was available and used from Numbeo and Nomad. The factors considered and used to weight the ranking to determine sustainability were crime rates, affordability of property, traffic levels (including commute time, CO2 emission and inefficiencies of traffic system), pollution levels (air, water and smaller types), use of renewable energy.

“For the response regarding Canberra’s transport:

“The transportation composite index was calculated through factors such as: time consumed in traffic due to job commute, estimation of time consumption dissatisfaction, CO2 consumption estimation in traffic and overall inefficiencies in the traffic system. Additionally the public transport services were taken into account, such as Canberra’s electric rail system and fossil fuel buses – which when taken into account with the former factors of traffic pollution was relatively low compared to other global cities. Ride-sharing services are also available in the city as mentioned, whilst these may not be government implemented all make-up part of the cities overall transport infrastructure and were factored into considerations when ranking cities on their sustainability.”

Leon Arundell Leon Arundell 9:32 am 02 Jun 21

The rating by Uswitch is hardly credible.
* Canberrans are among the world’s highest greenhouse emitters: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/canberra-leads-world-co2-emissions-leon-arundell/
* The claim that “An incredible 88.6% of Canberra’s transport infrastructure is green” seems to refer to the bitumen roads that make up about 88.6% of Canberra’s transport infrastructure.
* The rating is also based on the incorrect belief that “The city also runs a ride-sharing service.”
* The article makes the nonsensical claim that a score of 13.66 on the pollution index means that “out of every 100 particles of air, only 13.66 are polluted.” Most air ‘particles’ are nitrogen and oxygen molecules. Air pollution is caused not by ‘polluting’ those molecules, but by adding other ‘particles’ to the air.
* Uswitch makes profits from commissions that result from it persuading people to switch their gas and electricity, heating cover, home phone, communications, insurance or personal finance providers.
* The article says that the report is at https://www.uswitch.com/energy/most-sustainable-cities/. That URL reports, “Page not found.”

Andrew Fyfe Andrew Fyfe 1:47 pm 24 May 21

Canberra has an incredibly high dependence on cars, incredibly large houses, more so than the average Australian; Australians are the biggest emittors per capita in the world, excepting some relatively small well-off countries. Aside from a reasonable uptake of renewable energy and other minimal sustainable advances, I wouldn’t be suprised if Canberra was among the least sustainable cities in the world given the population’s almost obscene and astronomic rate of per capita consumption overall.

mark boast mark boast 12:59 pm 24 May 21

Yes, we have so many good things but it is frustrating it is not all things. Separated and wider paths that are more direct for bikes, scooters and runners/walkers would be an achievable goal – after all, we’re already on track aren’t we?

Oh my God Oh my God 7:46 am 24 May 21

Civilised city ? yes I rather live in Canberra than Sydney or Melbourne.

rocca66 rocca66 9:25 pm 23 May 21

Very much depends on the definition given to sustainable!

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:16 pm 22 May 21

What a lot of twaddle.

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