Numerous cities around the world have developed plans to face the ongoing problem of climate change, but not all are created equal. When it comes to climate security, Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, has the best plan of action.
That’s according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, who recently published its 2021 Safe Cities Index. Since 2015, the biannual report from the magazine’s research division has evaluated 60 global cities according to their safety along different metrics, including personal security, health, and infrastructure. For the first time this year, environmental security was added as its own separate category, as researchers recognized climate adaptation as a critical part of urban safety.
“Environmental security isn’t just a measure of a city’s vulnerability [to climate change], but also the strategies that cities are undertaking in order to be greener,” says Pratima Singh, project director for the Safe Cities Index.
In most of the other categories, many of the same cities from advanced, high-income economies reappear at the top of the rankings. Copenhagen was named the safest city overall, and places like Singapore and Hong Kong rank high in health and infrastructure. The top list for environmental security, however, features more cities from middle-income countries; places like Bogotá (fourth), Rio de Janeiro (eighth), and Kuala Lumpur (10th). These are municipalities that made investments in sustainable energy use and waste management even without being global economic leaders.
To create the environmental security index, EIU researchers evaluated cities in two categories of data: inputs, like a place’s sustainability master plan, renewable energy incentives, and waste management systems, as well as outputs, such as air quality, urban forest cover, and water stress. The latter is a measure of how much local demand for water outweighs the supply.
Researchers evaluating the cities found that nearly all of the ones evaluated had some sort of environmental sustainability plan, which speaks to the importance that this holds in the eyes of city leaders. They also found, however, that environmental security had the largest gap between inputs and outputs for most cites. That is, lots of plans, but so far fewer concrete results to show for them. This was especially true of cities in wealthier nations with a higher human development index. Richer cities appear to have more ambitious plans, but aren’t as far along in accomplishing them.
The cities that ranked the highest on environmental security not only had solid plans for climate sustainability, but are already seeing positive outcomes in the local environment. Wellington, for example, has some of the best air quality and urban tree cover among the group. In all of the top ranked cities, baseline water stress was at or below 20%.
Crucially, the top cities also excelled in managing waste and resources sustainably. In nearly all of them, more than half of electricity is generated from renewable sources. This was especially true of cities in Latin America like Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo, where 80% of electricity is renewable. Several top cities also excelled at waste management and water usage. Each of them had developed a plan for sustainable waste management, and most generated less than 300 kg (661 lbs) of waste per capita annually, which the EIU researchers classified as positive.
Each of these cities has published detailed climate action plans, most involving a goal for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier. But Singh emphasizes the importance of turning policy into action. The places that have been the most successful in implementing their climate policies have done so with years of prior investment. As more cities continue working to make their climate plans reality, collaboration across public and private sectors, as well as citizens, will be essential, says Singh.
“We know that there are a lot of top-down mechanisms in place, but at the end of the day, you need to be able to make sure that the population of residents is involved for some of these policies to translate.”