In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with David Miller, director of international diplomacy at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and former mayor of Toronto. Miller elaborates on his recent book, Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis, and describes why he thinks city governments are uniquely positioned to respond to climate challenges and transition to a clean energy future. Miller provides examples of innovations that have been spearheaded by cities around the world and that could be replicated elsewhere, such as Tokyo’s cap-and-trade program, Vancouver’s emissions standards for new buildings, and Shenzhen’s electric bus fleet.
Listen to the Podcast
- Structure of city government allows for ambitious climate commitments: “It’s a subtle but really important governance difference in many places in the world, between city governments and national and state governments: [cities] have the unique combination of being able to set policy, implement it, have a mayor who can drive action, and have the responsibilities for a whole range of things that touch on the environment—and particularly on greenhouse gas emissions.” (9:08)
- Extreme storms propel city policymakers to take action: “In many of the major cities … there have been catastrophic climate-related events, like major storms or wildfires, that have really reinforced to mayors the urgency to act on these issues. The residents demand action. [In cities,] you’ve got this really positive connection of a history of knowing how to plan, being able to use that history of skills to develop a climate plan, and knowing how to do that in partnership with the people who live in your community.” (12:35)
- Inefficient buildings contribute to climate change, but mayors can help: “If we want to achieve what science tells us we need to—which is halving emissions by 2030 on the way to net zero at or before 2050—let’s start where the problem is, which is in buildings … If you step back, there are some really interesting innovations to drive change quickly. Under two mayors, New York has done really interesting work … Mike Bloomberg decided that he would require commercial buildings over a certain size to post their energy consumption so that their tenants would know what it was … And what Mayor Bill de Blasio did was pass an ordinance that required buildings to dramatically lower their greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2030.” (17:06)
- Citywide carbon pricing in Tokyo prompted quick improvements: “Tokyo created its own cap-and-trade system on buildings. I think it’s fantastic, because it’s a brilliant example of what a city can do. Tokyo is a big city. The governor is an extremely important position in Japanese politics. … Their cap-and-trade system not only worked—it was fascinating because … there were very few trades, because everybody responded to the law by improving their buildings, so they didn’t have to trade.” (21:42)
Top of the Stack
- Solved: How the World’s Great Cities are Fixing the Climate Crisis by David Miller
- Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
- The Bicycling Big Book of Cycling for Beginners by Tori Bortman
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host Kristin Hayes. My guest today is David Miller, former mayor of the city of Toronto and author of the book Solved: How the World's Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis. The book came out in late 2020 and argues that cities are in many ways central to climate change action, and are, in fact, some of the best equipped jurisdictions to take on the challenge.
David draws from his own experience as a mayor in reflecting on these issues, but he also draws on lessons learned through his work with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The book includes anecdotes and lessons learned from a number of municipalities all across the globe. I have to say that, personally, it was tremendously refreshing to read about these very tangible actions when so much of the climate conversation can feel intractable. So, I'm really looking forward to hearing more from David about his motivation for putting the book together, and what he discovered along the way. Stay with us.
David, thank you so much for joining me on Resources Radio. It really is very nice to talk with you today.
David Miller: Kristin, I really appreciate being on the show. Good luck and continued success with the podcast.
Kristin Hayes: Thank you. Great. Well, before we really talk about the book, which is the real subject of our conversation today, but I would like to learn a little bit more about you personally. What path led you to the mayorship in Toronto? Maybe in parallel, what led you to your interest in climate change?
David Miller: Well, there's two paths to my interest in climate change: my path to politics, and the values I have deeply embedded in me as a result of my experiences as a young boy growing up in a small English village, where there were two real lessons. I didn't realize that at the time, of course, but they've stuck with me for the rest of my life. The first of them was about social justice. My mom was the teacher, and I was the only child of a single mom. My friends were the sons of a family who lived in council housing, or “public housing” by American standards. And even at the age of seven, you could see how different the opportunities were by class. England was a very class-based society, and that value of social justice has stuck with me my entire life.
It comes from that experience, and it's connected very much to climate action. I think the second thing, and again I didn't realize this at the time, but people lived a very environmentally sustainable lifetime then. We didn't throw anything away, for example. Now, that was because people had no money, but they actually fixed things and they didn't throw them away. If you couldn't fix it, a man called the rag-and-bone man would come around, and he would fix it and sell it to somebody else. We lived in a farming village. We lived in the school literally, and on one side of us was a dairy, and across the street was an egg farm. The other part across the street was a church. That was more or less the village. The farms use standards that today we would call organic, no pesticides, free range chickens and so forth.
Everybody had a garden. We had a vegetable garden. Actually, a lot of our food came from the vegetable garden. We had a compost heap. So, we created very little waste, and we lived very much in connection with nature. And I think those values stuck with me for life. When I got interested in municipal politics, which was partly because of my career as a lawyer, my clients had very significant disputes with the city and people said to me, "Why don't you stop complaining about it and do something?" I got involved in municipal politics as an advocate, and then as a city councillor, and then as mayor.
It was really about the expression of those two values in ways that directly affect people's lives, which is what is interesting about city politics. It's very direct, very tangible, and very real. I think it was those experiences as a young person that really led to the values that I tried to express through my political career.
Kristin Hayes: Great. I think that really does come across in the way that you talk about the power of cities to address climate change in the book. Before we talk about the substance of the book, I want to start by asking you about the title of the book. Just as a reminder for our listeners, it's called Solved: How the World's Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis. You can tell: I emphasized a few words there. It's a title that conveys a wonderful sense of optimism, but I wanted to just press you a little bit on that and ask why you chose the words “solved” and “fixing” in this context. I ask, because those feel like pretty definitive words for a problem that's so thorny, and I think many people would argue is far from being solved. Tell me more about that title.
David Miller: Well, I chose “solved,” and it was deliberately provocative, but for a really fundamental reason. The climate crisis is real. People, at least before the most recent American election, were really losing hope, and didn’t know the story of what's happening in cities. They just don't; that's why I wrote the book. If you look at the very big picture in about 2008 or 2009, that was when—for the very first time in human history—more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. From the dawn of human civilization until 10 years ago, more or less, we were a predominantly rural population. Now, we're predominantly urban, and that trend is only accelerating.
It's also where the emissions are, and where most of the world's economy is. I know, because of the work I've been privileged to be involved in both as mayor and since, that there are solutions happening in great cities somewhere on the key areas to make a difference. If we do them at scale and pace over the next decade, that will put the world on a path to fix the climate crisis. From that perspective, the solutions are there, and that's why I use the provocative way of putting it “solved” rather than saying something like “we have the solutions.”
Kristin Hayes: Right. Or “we're sort of in progress.”
David Miller: We're in the middle of the beginning. Because I know that if you take those solutions and innovations—not new inventions, but things that are already happening somewhere—and do them everywhere, we will be on a path to more or less halving global emissions by 2030, which is what science tells us we need to do. From that perspective, the world's great cities are indeed fixing the climate crisis.
Kristin Hayes: Well, and you're already hinting at one of the things that struck me in the book early on, because you note that you're often asked: Why cities? And you've made a strong case that certainly they have huge population centers. They now house a lot of humanity. Also, I think it's fair to say that addressing climate change will require action at every level. One thing that I was kind of struck by, and I'm paraphrasing here, was your sense that cities actually have some strong comparative advantages in moving on climate even compared to other jurisdictions? Can you talk me through some of those arguments?
David Miller: Yes. In addition to the fact that that's where the bulk of the problem is, cities institutionally are required to act. National governments and subnational jurisdictions like US states and provinces in Canada have responsibilities to legislate. Cities run things; they actually do things. The nature of their responsibilities are very aligned to addressing climate change. They're responsible for urban forests, for example. They're responsible for building standards and often for building codes. They're responsible for transportation networks, for public transport, for waste management. Many of them are responsible for electricity generation, and the ones that aren't are still responsible often for purchasing huge amounts of electricity. They're responsible for planning, so they can decide whether a city is going to grow in a way where it's easy to walk and cycle around or is going to grow in a way that requires a car.
So, you combine the nature of their responsibilities with the fact that there's an expectation from residents of cities that those cities take action. You've got a real crucible for using those responsibilities to act on climate change. There's one more thing, and that is that many cities in the world are governed by a directly elected mayor. That mayor has the ability to implement.
It's a subtle but really important governance difference in many, many places in the world between city governments, and national and state governments. You have that, almost unique combination of being able to set policy, implement it, have a mayor who can drive action, and have the responsibilities for a whole range of things that touch on the environment—and particularly on greenhouse gas emissions.
Kristin Hayes: Interesting. Thanks for laying that groundwork. The book is full of success stories about reducing carbon emissions in cities in four major sectors, if I can call them that. The first is energy and electricity, the second is buildings, and then transportation and waste. I'd certainly welcome the chance to talk about any of those. But even before we dive in there, I wanted to ask you about the chapter that frames them all, which as you just referenced a little bit is about the importance of planning. I have not myself experienced too much of the city planning process, but you really make a case in the book that it's a very important part of laying the foundation for what comes.
So, can I ask you to just give a quick overview of what your experience has been with the city planning processes, how that might differ across cities? In particular, how the incorporation of climate into those planning processes has really come to life in recent years?
David Miller: Kristin, it's a good thing you read the book so thoroughly, because in my answer to your last question, I missed a really important point, and it's the one you're making now. Pretty much all major cities have responsibility for planning from the perspective of where the buildings go and how large they should be. Do you allow for sprawl, like Houston for example, or in a very dense fashion like New York?
What are the transportation systems that are going to connect buildings? Where is industry? Where do people live? Where do you put bike lanes? How wide should the sidewalks be? It's very rare for cities not to do that. Houston's one of the few cities I know where the city doesn't have zoning authority.
Kristin Hayes: Right. Sort of notorious for it.
David Miller: Well, and you can see over the past six or seven years, three floods that should have happened once every 500 years. You can see how unwise it was to not have some planning there. The importance of this is not just that cities have the responsibility for planning, but planning is something that has to be done in partnership with neighborhoods and with citizens. Legally, cities are usually mandated to really engage with their residents to build urban plans. It was very natural for cities to think about 10, 20, 30, 50, or 100 years out and do so in partnership with their residents. People have a say, the development industry and building owners also have a say, but residents have a key say. Because cities think that way, the necessity to plan for climate is natural.
There's another thing about this, which is that in many of the major cities—we certainly see Hurricane Sandy in New York, for example, and then in New Orleans, Houston and others—there have been catastrophic climate related events, like major storms or wildfires, that have really reinforced to mayors the urgency to act on these issues. The residents demand action. All, the polls show this; people really want action. You've got this really positive connection of a history of knowing how to plan, being able to use that history of skills to develop a climate plan, and knowing how to do that in partnership with the people who live in your community, because that's what you do all the time. Even if it's over somebody wanting to subdivide their house into two new houses, for example, it's done all the time. Cities have taken that knowledge and they have done greenhouse gas emission inventories, determined where their inventories are, and then analyzed what they need to do in concert with science to address the problems.
Because they work with people, they have also endeavored to do that in a way that meets the needs of their communities as well. That becomes a very robust kind of planning framework. Los Angeles and New York, for example, both called their climate plans a “Green New Deal.” Not only do they have a plan to meet emissions targets, and we can talk a bit more about how you get there, if that's of interest. The plan also thinks about, how does that impact on communities—particularly equity-seeking neighborhoods or groups—and how are they going to benefit from the reduction in emissions? Are the greenhouse gas emitters the same things that are causing air quality problems? Will people benefit from the new jobs that are going to come? Let's say we install solar panels to clean the energy system. Will those jobs go to people in low-income communities or not? Cities are developing plans that answer all those questions. That's partly why they're able to be successful on these climate issues, because they're meeting multiple needs that people have expressed to city council and the mayor.
Kristin Hayes: That's fascinating. The longer that I work in proximity to climate change issues, the more I'm aware of what you've just mentioned, how much those issues are interconnected. It's just interesting to hear your take on how cities are actually set up to look at those intersections in ways that are perhaps more effective. So, thank you for that commentary. I definitely want to get to some of the examples that you provide, because they really are rich and wonderful and pretty inspiring. Let me go by sectors here, and maybe I can start with buildings.
There are two chapters of the book that focus on buildings. Certainly, buildings can represent a significant portion of a city's overall emissions footprint. I imagine that many of our listeners will be familiar with strategies like improving installation and installing more energy efficient windows. I also imagine that there are a number of outside-the-box ideas that you've come across. So, can you share some of the ways that cities have been approaching, reducing building emissions that have really stuck with you?
David Miller: Sure. I'll go to three, but I should preface it by saying C40, which we're affiliated with now, did a study a few years ago with Arab engineers and followed up with a study at McKinsey. When you take the two together, it shows that about 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to cities. And they're predominantly in four areas: how you generate electricity, how you heat and cool buildings, transportation, and waste. One of the reasons I like to talk about buildings is it's not where people immediately go. If I give a public address on this, for example, we'll talk about solar panels, or electric cars, or public transport. All of those things matter, but in the really built up cities like New York and Toronto, far and away the biggest source of greenhouse gases is what we use to heat and cool the buildings, which is typically, but not always, natural gas.
If we want to achieve what science tells us we need to—which is halving emissions by 2030 on the way to net zero at or before 2050—you want to start where the problem is, which is in buildings. As you say, there's lots of interesting parts to this energy retrofit, such as high efficiency windows, or sometimes district heating and cooling can help lower energy consumption. If you step back, there are some really interesting innovations to drive change quickly. And New York's my first example, because under two mayors, they've done really interesting work under Mike Bloomberg. It comes out of the free market. He decided that rather than use regulations, he would require commercial buildings over a certain size—because that's where most of the emissions are, in the big buildings—to post their energy consumption so that their tenants would know what it was.
The reason for that is that typically in a commercial building, the tenants are responsible for paying for the energy consumption, but the building owner is responsible for the cost of installing energy efficient boilers, for example. There's what's called a split incentive, and the results of that posting were quite extraordinary. The Empire State Building alone spent way over a hundred million US dollars on an energy retrofit of the entire building, the most iconic building in the world arguably. And then did another one. The owner of it said, "I know this helps save energy for climate change, but it's also making me a lot of money because my tenants are prepared to pay more for better space that costs less to operate." It was very effective in buildings like the Empire State Building. In more ordinary buildings—I think they call them Class B in New York—there was less interest because the tenants tended to stay there less time, and the owners sell the buildings a lot.
So, that work didn't happen in those kinds of buildings. What Mayor de Blasio did was pass an ordinance that required buildings to dramatically lower their greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2030. It's a mandate. To me, that's world-leading because most of the buildings that are going to exist in 2030, and a good proportion of the ones that are going to exist in 2050, already exist. So, if you mandate that they have to become energy efficient with requirements about emissions, the buildings can choose how they do it, and the city has set up processes to help building owners know and learn the best available techniques. The mandate really forces action. The city estimated that it helps create tens of thousands of jobs because it uses a lot of labor.—often good union jobs to work on these kinds of retrofits.
That's one real approach in New York. The state-of-the-art approach on new buildings is in Vancouver, Canada. The fact is new buildings can be built to net zero—even net positive now—economically, but very, very few places require that. Vancouver has something called a Step Code, which between 2018 and 2030 would force all new buildings by 2030 to be net zero quite rapidly, on a rapid increase over the 10 years. It's all technically feasible. What Vancouver has done is they use their economic development commission to work with the suppliers, for example, to help them change in the hopes that, because they're ahead of everybody else, suppliers that are in Vancouver and British Columbia will be able to supply these highly advanced building materials all over North America and Asia. There is literally no technical reason today why any city in the world can't do what New York and Vancouver are doing: require new buildings to reach net zero and require old buildings to dramatically improve their energy efficiency.
I think those are the state-of-the-art strategies. The most interesting though might be Tokyo, which in Canada, we've had a big debate about whether we should have a cap and trade, or whether it should be a price on carbon, or how nationally you address things. Tokyo created its own cap-and-trade system on buildings. I think it's fantastic because it's a brilliant example of what a city can do. Tokyo is a big city. The governor is an extremely important position in Japanese politics. Governor Koike, the current governor, is a real live wire, I'm a great admirer of her. Their cap-and-trade system not only worked—it was fascinating because apparently in Japan’s cap-and-trade system,, there were very few trades because everybody responded to the law by improving their buildings, so they didn't have to trade.
Kristin Hayes: Oh, that's wonderful. It makes me love Japan even more than I already do.
David Miller: Doesn't it give you hope?
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, it does.
David Miller: I'm sitting here with a big smile on my face
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, me too.
David Miller: You commented on the optimistic tone of my book, and it's because of these kinds of things.
Kristin Hayes: I really want to encourage people to delve into the wealth of these bits and pieces. I hate to call them stories, because there's so much more than that, but these kinds of reflections that are in the book. Let's talk about a different sector for just a second, and one that you briefly mentioned before, but I want to call out transportation. I want to ask you about this intersection of transportation and economics and, also, current events. You're clearly a strong advocate for public transportation, and you definitely point to its value in cities worldwide. I know there are often really massive costs associated with building public transportation systems from scratch, and the viability of even the systems that exist now has really been stressed to the limit by the pandemic.
Given all of these factors, the costs, the issues that are sort of staring them in the face, and yet the importance of them, where are the growth opportunities for public transportation that you see, whether that's geographically or technologically?
David Miller: You start with buses. I think buses are a bit like buildings, they're a bit unloved. But, you start with them because they're relatively cheap, they're easy and they're flexible. From a climate perspective, there's a huge opportunity to change our diesel bus fleets to electric, which will have significant health benefits for people who live near busy bus routes, from the reduction in NOx and other things that come out of diesel fuel. It will help create jobs for manufacturers who are creating this industry. Of course, it will dramatically lower emissions. I mean, for me, great cities don't work without a great transit system. You can't have a city with the densities of London, or Berlin, or Shanghai, or Beijing, or even Toronto, and certainly New York, without a great electric base transit system with a lot of rail to it. It just won't work.
David Miller: Of course, there are challenges right now coming out of COVID. But, if you go on any of those transit systems, I just mentioned, there are a lot of people still taking it because that's their transportation. When my mom and I immigrated to Canada, we actually came to Ottawa and lived in my uncle's basement, like a typical immigrant story. She didn't want to drive in Canada because of snow, and I can't blame her.
We took the bus everywhere. Ottawa has a very good bus system. It has bus rapid transit. In places the size of Ottawa—like cities below, let's say, 500,000—bus rapid transit is an excellent alternative to create rapid transit in a really economical way. In a bigger city like Toronto, or New York or the others I mentioned, you do need rail-based transit, preferably run by clean electricity. You can rapidly turn a public transport system from a good thing to a great thing through electrifying all elements of it.
The good news is that this is eminently possible. In Shenzhen, China, its entire bus fleet is electric now, all of it. We're a little bit more timid in North America. Toronto is doing a pilot with 60 buses. New York's doing a pilot, I think Boston's doing a pilot, but we'll get there. A few years ago when cities started working on this issue, manufacturers said to them, "We're at least a decade out." And, cities and mayors said to them, "You make electric buses, we're going to buy them, and we're going to start putting in the procurement rules." We've now ended up with multiple electric bus manufacturers. There are 66,000 electric buses on the streets of C40 cities alone, when a few years ago there were literally none. And in China, it's used as an economic development strategy, because they're the world's biggest electric bus manufacturer.
It's when those things come together, and when mayors are able to think about meeting the needs of people, jobs, and doing the right thing to climate, that you really have a solution. I live across the street from the subway, and I take it all the time. I very much believe in light rail and streetcars. They have a place, but at the same time, we need to move to low-hanging fruit, particularly moving out of COVID and making all new bus purchases electric. That will make a really rapid difference as we take the time to build out the harder infrastructure like new subway lines and new light rail.
Kristin Hayes: I feel like we should call this episode “Hug a Bus,” because somehow I'm feeling very inspired to get back on my own bus lines, which were my regular commuting method here in Washington. I will note just a reflection on the experience here in DC is that sometimes what's held buses back from even more adoption is that people got frustrated that they still weren't moving any faster than the pace of traffic. Just really quickly, I'd be curious if you have reflections on whether bus lanes have been an important part of the conversation too, so that they really provide an advantage over just being in a car.
David Miller: Yes, absolutely. You make a really good point and you're such a gracious host, I should have made this point. Thank you for pointing out subtly that I hadn't. The challenge for public transport, particularly by bus—but can apply to street cars and trams as well, depending on how they're set up—is that if you run in mixed traffic, one person in one car wanting to turn left can hold up a bus or a streetcar with 60 or 120 people on it. It's just not efficient from a transportation perspective. If you think about transportation as moving people, as opposed to moving inanimate objects, it doesn't make sense from a transportation perspective. Of course, it makes the bus and street car service far less viable. So bus lanes that are independent and physically separated are highly effective. The state-of-the-art example for this is not really from North America, although there's a couple of good examples like Ottawa, Canada.
It was Curitiba, Brazil that really pioneered separate busways. They created new kinds of stops at the time where you would pay at the stop, and then just climb on the bus. That's more routine now, but at the time Mayor Jaime Lerner did this, it was considered revolutionary. People on those buses move much faster than traffic, even though they have to stop regularly. To me, that's part of the solution. Electric buses make transport clean, the buses feel good, they're quiet, they smell nice. But, if you add to that busways in particular, or at least bus lanes that are properly enforced, so the buses move faster than rush hour traffic, it then becomes really attractive for people and they will actually prefer public transport.
Anywhere that has really good public transport that runs in its own right of way, you can see from the studies that people who live relatively near it or only have to take one bus to connect to it will prefer the public transport, as long as it has that kind of ability not to get stuck in rush hour like cars do.
Kristin Hayes: That certainly resonates with my experience very much so. David, there are so many more questions that I feel like I both could and potentially should ask you, but I know we're nearing the end of the substantive part of our conversation. So, I will move us into our closing feature. I just want to thank you again for talking with us on Resources Radio today. Again, the book is Solved: How the World's Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis. Let me close with “Top of the Stack,” and ask you if you might want to recommend to our listeners some more good content that they might want to explore either on this topic, or potentially on another topic of interest. So, David, what's on the top of your stack?
David Miller: Well, Thomas Piketty, who's a bit slow to read, but I think makes extremely important points about the way the modern economic systems have really failed people. It's inextricably linked with climate change from my perspective, because of how the economic system matters enormously. So, I have Piketty at the top of my stack, about half open. The other book I'm reading... Oh, this is embarrassing, the book I'm reading is The Beginner's Guide to Bicycle Riding.
Kristin Hayes: Fantastic. Just in time for spring to come around again.
David Miller: I'm blushing, just because I have to be clear, I'm not a beginner at bike riding. I am a mature adult. I did learn when I was a child, in fact, in England before we came to Canada. What's interesting about it for me, I bought a bike just after the pandemic shutdown, March 21st, last year. I've ridden it every day and riding it through the fall and winter, you discover that you need maintenance. So, I'm learning how to properly take care of my bike, so I can stay fit and stay mentally vigorous in the middle of the pandemic.
Kristin Hayes: That is fantastic. I realized it would be off topic for Resources Radio, but I would love to have you back on to teach the beginner maintenance people among us. I also bought a bike just as everything was getting started, so good tip. Good tip. Fantastic. Well, David, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure, and hopefully we will find another chance to connect soon.
David Miller: Kristin, you got a great podcast. Great show. Really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much for having me on.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support resources for the future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from resources for the future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.
Kristin Hayes: The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.