The world's population is now over 50% urban, and cities make an important contribution to national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Many cities are developing strategies to reduce their emissions. Here we ask how and why emissions differ between cities. Our study often global cities shows how a balance of geophysical factors (climate, access to resources, and gateway status) and technical factors (power generation, urban design, and waste processing) determine the GHGs attributable to cities. Within the overall trends, however, there are differences between cities with more or less public transit while personal income also impacts heating and industrial fuel use. By including upstream emissions from fuels, GHG emissions attributable to cities exceed those from direct end use by upto 25%. Our findings should help foster intercity learning on reducing GHG emissions.