While we’ve all known that climate change is having an impact on the planet for some time, the reminders are becoming more frequent and more serious, so pushing sustainability is increasingly important for cities and countries around the world.

Whether it’s the large-scale stuff such as investing in renewable energy sources, or down to making sure to recycle properly and buying used clothes rather than investing in fast fashion. So, which cities in the UK can claim to be the most sustainable, and how does the picture look
across the rest of Europe?

The UK’s most sustainable cities

1. Bristol – 6.79 out of 10

Renewable electricity sites – 928 per 100,000 people

Recycling rate – 47.1%

Average university sustainability rating – 55.9 out of 100

Charity shops – 31.6 per 100,000 people

Bristol takes the top spot as the greenest city in the UK, with a sustainability score of 6.79 out of 10. The city scored particularly well when it came to the eco-friendliness of its respected universities, with an average score of 55.9 out of 100.

The city has long been recognised as a leading sustainable city in the country, being named the most sustainable city way back in 2008 by Forum for the Future and was named European Green Capital in 2015.

In 2019, the city’s council moved to ban all privately owned diesel cars from the city centre although this has since been revised to install a ‘Clean Air Zone’.

2. Bournemouth – 6.04 out of 10

Renewable electricity sites – 1,634 per 100,000 people

Recycling rate – 53.9%

Average university sustainability rating – 44.4 out of 100

Charity shops – 6.9 per 100,000 people

The seaside town of Bournemouth comes in second place, with 6.04 out of 10. The town had one of the highest recycling rates, at 53.9%, as well as when it came to renewable energy sites (1,634 per 100,000 people).

Some of the initiatives that Bournemouth has introduced in recent years include the collection of food and garden waste and replacing the street lighting with more efficient alternatives.

3. Cardiff – 6.01 out of 10

Renewable electricity sites – 910 per 100,000 people

Recycling rate – 58.1%

Average university sustainability rating – 36.4 out of 100

Charity shops – 20.9 per 100,000 people

Cardiff holds the impressive title of having the highest recycling rate in the country, with 58.1% of household waste being recycled, and it also took third place in our ranking.

A couple of years ago the city announced a £2bn plan to tackle climate change, including introducing a congestion charge.

The UK’s most sustainable cities for each factor

Renewable electricity sites – Plymouth (2,403 per 100,000 people)

The city with the most places generating renewable energy per is Plymouth, with 6,317, which equates to 2,403 per 100,000 people.

Devon and Cornwall have been at the forefront of providing renewable energy in the last few decades and the region was home to the country’s first-ever wind farm.

Recycling rate – Cardiff (58.1%)

Cardiff is one of the country’s leading cities when it comes to recycling, with over 58% of its waste being reused or recycled, with an aim of reaching 70% by 2025.

Considering that the rate was as low as 4% at the turn of the century, that’s an impressive achievement!

University sustainability – Luton (65.3 out of 100)

While Luton is only home to one university (the University of Bedfordshire) is does happen to be one of the greenest in the country, with an average rating of 65.3 out of 100.

In particular, the uni got full marks for its Environmental Sustainability (Policy and Strategy), Environmental Auditing & Management Systems, Energy Sources, and Water Reduction.

Charity shops – Brighton & Hove (44.2 per 100,000 people)

Making sure to reuse things where possible and ensuring that they don’t just go to waste is an important part of sustainability, which is why we also looked at which places had the highest number of charity shops in the area. Brighton came out on top in this regard, with 44.2 per 100,000 people. Not only that, but it’s also home to one of the best in the UK, according to Vogue.

Europe’s most sustainable countries

1. Sweden – 9.2 out of 10

Sustainable development score – 85.61/100

Recycling rate – 47%

Average university sustainability rating – 93.8 out of 100

Air pollution – 5 µg/m³

The highest-ranking country in Europe was Sweden, with a score of 9.2 out of 10, scoring highly across the board.

Most notably, the country had the lowest air pollution of any that we looked at, with just 5 µg/m³ on average.

2. Denmark – 8.88 out of 10

Sustainable development score – 84.86/100

Recycling rate – 52%

Average university sustainability rating – 95 out of 100

Air pollution – 9.4 µg/m³

Sweden’s Nordic neighbour Denmark takes second place, and also had the highest average score when it came to the sustainability of its universities.

Denmark has successfully decreased its CO2 emissions by more than half since peaking in 1996 and have shifted towards almost half of their energy being produced from wind power.

3. Belgium – 8.26 out of 10

Sustainable development score – 82.19/100

Recycling rate – 55%

Average university sustainability rating – 81.3 out of 100

Air pollution – 8.9 µg/m³

Another nation that has made great strides towards being more sustainable is Belgium, with a score of 8.26 out of 10.

Belgium scored highly in all four factors that we looked at, with low emissions of 8.9 µg/m³ and a high recycling rate of 55%.

Europe’s most sustainable country for each factor

Sustainable developments – Finland (85.9 out of 100)

Finland was the highest-ranking country when it came to meeting sustainable development goals, with a score of 85.9 out of 100.

The country has already achieved or is close to achieving most of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals and has been a global leader in the switch from fossil fuels to greener alternatives.

Recycling rate – Germany (67%)

Germany has a very high recycling rate of just over two thirds, with initiatives in place such as allowing you to recycle bottles and receive some of your money back.

The country has been recycling its waste for 30 years now and has become a role model for other countries around the world.

University sustainability – Denmark (95 out of 100)

Danish universities have an exceptionally high average sustainability score of 95 out of 100, with the likes of the University of Copenhagen, Technical University of Denmark and Aarhus University amongst the highest scoring.

PM2.5 air pollution – Finland/Sweden (5µg/m³)

Neighbouring nations Finland and Sweden were tied when it came to air pollution, with both averaging just 5µg/m³. Scandinavian nations in general are known for their low emissions so its perhaps no surprise to see these two leading the way when it comes to air pollution.

Methodology

For both of our rankings, we looked at a range of factors, giving each place a normalised score out of ten for each, before taking a final average across these four scores.

UK

Renewable electricity sites – The number of renewable electricity sites per 100,000 people according to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s regional renewable statistics.

Recycling rate – The percentage of household waste that is sent for reuse, recycling or composting according to:

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ local authority collected waste: annual results tables in England.

SEPA’s household waste data in Scotland.

StatsWales’ annual reuse/recycling/composting rates by local authority for Wales.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ local authority collected municipal waste management statistics in Northern Ireland.

Average university sustainability rating – An average of the sustainability scores given to each university in the town or city according to People & Planet’s University League.

Charity shops – The number of charity shops per 100,000 people according to Yelp.

Europe

Recycling rate – The municipal waste recycling rate according to the European Environment Agency.

Sustainable development score – The country’s score out of 100 on the Sustainable Development Report, based on their progress toward meeting the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).

Average university sustainability rating – An average of the sustainability scores given to each of the country’s universities listed on the QS World University Rankings 2022.

The rankings give each university an award based on their sustainability, which we converted to scores as follows:

  • Gold = 100
  • Silver = 75
  • Bronze = 50
  • Candidate = 25

Air pollution – The level of PM2.5 air pollution in µg/m³ according to IQAir.