World’s Smart Cities Show How They Do it Themselves

Toronto’s former mayor shines light on best practices in cities from San Francisco to Tokyo in his new book “Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis”. He argues that innovative transitions to low-emission cities are not just possible, or planned, but are already success stories.

smart cities

smart cities – License: Public Domain, Credit: © CHUTTERSNAP

Even if his new book’s title Solved rings too easy, David Miller, former mayor of Toronto and founding member of C40 Cities, underscores with it a critical thesis: the technologies, policies, and best practices to get cities to net-zero emissions by 2050, or earlier, are already there. What’s missing is the political willpower to implement them across the globe.

Miller’s slim but powerful book is an eloquent, evidence-based argument that the world’s leading cities have designed and launched into operation policies that meaningfully curb emissions – and that can be duplicated elsewhere. Cities can often play the role of trailblazer because they are not held in check, as national legislatures can be, to the lobbying of the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, “cities are nimbler and often inhabited by more progressive , younger, and more gregarious citizens,” he argues.

Miller comes back again and again to the power of the mayors. “Experience has shown,” he writes, that although “the economic case for dramatically improving the energy performance of buildings is strong, the work will not happen without leadership from government, most often from mayors and the city governments that they run.”

Miller demonstrates possible paths towards climate neutrality with plentiful examples from the C40 Cities project. The C40 Cities initiative networks 97 cities across the world (it had started with 40 in 2005) that are leading the way with bold climate action: in terms of transportation, buildings, and waste management – and renewable energy, too. The mayors of these cities, such as Los Angeles’s mayor Eric Garcetti, currently the C40 chairperson, have pledged to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement at a local level. And this commitment isn’t just lip service – they’re doing it.

Since the heating, cooling, and operational costs of buildings can account for as much as 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, cities serious about shrinking their footprint are focusing on energy efficiency gains. Just take New York City and its most iconic building, the Empire State Building, which undertook a prodigious energy retrofit in 2001 that dramatically sunk emissions – so much so that the investment paid off in energy costs saved in just three years.

The Empire State Building retrofit is just one small part of New York City’s Green New Deal, which requires its most wasteful buildings to reduce missions. Buildings that don’t reach the prescribed efficiency gains by 2030, will pay penalties.

Adding insulation and replacing windows is just the beginning. Cities like Los Angeles are in the midst of electrifying all buildings operations, in anticipation of a 100-percent clean power supply of the future, which it aims to have before 2045. Others are replacing old boilers and furnaces with low-carbon heating systems, such as heat pumps. Lights, computers, printers, fridges, washing machines, and other appliance must also be upgraded – and, he underscores, in contrast to Bill Gates – the way we use them. We will not continue to live the way we have, Miller argues, and sees this as positive.

New buildings are another story, where regulation can push change forward. In Vancouver, Canada, for example, net-zero-carbon buildings are becoming the rule, and not the exception. According to law, by 2030 all new buildings will be  zero emissions’ constructions. The city has set limits on emissions and energy use in new buildings that will gradually become lower. London is already ahread of Vancouver: since 2016, the city has required new homes to be zero carbon and today all new structures must be the same.

Public transportation is a no-brainer for cities, and not just subways. Cities such as Berlin, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Montreal, and Milan all have excellent rail, metro, tram, and bus networks – which are being expanded to serve more commuters. But Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, intends to one up these poster cities. It is in the process of building a light rail transit (LRT), namely rail-based electric transit systems that use their own right of way. Since Ethiopia’s electricity comes exclusively from hydropower, the system has zero operational emissions.

And then there’s waste management, a core remit of urban centers. In Europe, the creation of a circular economy is already well underway. San Francisco, however, is out in front, where waste accounted for 6 percent of emissions in 2017. The city’s first goal is waste prevention, then reducing and reusing waste. What remains is targets for recycling and composting.

City action can reduce greenhouse gas emission by two thirds or more, Miller claims. And he says these copious best practices can be scaled up in other cities very quickly. This, though, requires political courage. Many of the most successful steps were initially bitterly contested in those cities. But they became popular when they worked.

Cities can help solve the climate crisis, as David Miller proves in his exciting new book.



Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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