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Solved: How the World's Great Cities are Fixing the Climate Crisis

David Miller

  • Review by Richard Van Dine, June 2021

  • 208 pages

  • University of Toronto Press

  • October 2020

I confess, I am aware of the irony. I read the chapter on Personal Transportation in David Miller’s book, Solved, while waiting in the customer lounge for scheduled maintenance on my gasoline-powered car. Granted, it’s a relatively efficient, compact car. But, these days, that’s about as virtuous as saying to a fellow church-goer, “I saw you – your eyes were open during prayers.”

I expect I am among those toward whom Solved is aimed – people who like to think we’re on the right page regarding climate change but who could do a lot better.

 For eight years, Miller was the mayor of Canada’s largest city and, for two years, he also was the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. (Currently, he is its North American director). So, it’s no surprise that he sees cities as the agents of change.

But he’s got a point. Where we work and live, how we get around, how we dispose of the waste we create, what sources of energy we use – these everyday aspects of our lives are all the purview of city government. With their planning mandates and direct engagement with citizens, cities are uniquely positioned to influence how we shrink our collective carbon footprint.

Oh, and by the way, Miller notes, cities have no choice: they produce about 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite that daunting number, Solved is full of optimism – its title hints at Miller’s belief that cities already have the blueprint to fix the climate crisis. But it’s not just wishful thinking. Solved presents dozens of real-life examples that cities around the world have already taken to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions locally.

It’s a varied and impressive list: incorporating a “carbon budget” into the city’s overall budget (Oslo); using lake water (Toronto), sea water (Hong Kong) and waste water (Vancouver) to produce “district“ heating and cooling; regulating new-building construction to encourage the use of CO2-sequestering concrete (Honolulu); incentivizing energy retrofits in existing buildings (New York); anticipating environmental stresses on a rapidly growing urban area and, at the same time, addressing economic and social inequities, by establishing a Light Rail Transit network that doesn’t overlook the economic mobility needs of traditionally underserved populations (Addis Ababa); converting entire bus fleets to electric (Shenzhen, China; Santiago, Chile); making walking, cycling and public transit a contract priority in road-building tenders (Bengaluru, India).

Reflecting his own progressive politics, Miller insists that climate action must go hand-in-hand with social justice and economic equity: “The majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have been caused in support of the lives of the most well-off, but its impact tends to be felt by the world’s least well-off.” Fortunately, there are several international examples (environmental justice - Barcelona; the aforementioned LRT - Addis Ababa; participatory budgeting - Paris), where such considerations have been integral to local governments’ environmental planning.

Miller isn’t shy about touting Toronto’s successes. Indeed, the book belies a refreshing Canadian perspective. How many environmental treatises would pose the question of how a city’s recreation department might approach the construction of a curling club?

The book has a choppy feel to it – sidebars and other formatting distractions – and a few too many graphs and charts (no doubt the pride and joy of a seasoned Powerpoint presenter).

But the essence of Solved is its stories, and the message is uplifting. If you ever feel the problem is too big to solve, read this book … and then, come help me shop for an electric car.