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Cities can solve their economic woes by solving their environmental problems, former Toronto mayor David Miller says. Plus, more on resilience and climate change.

PHILADELPHIA -- If a city, state or nation wants to solve its economic woes, it can do so by solving its environmental problems, according to former Toronto mayor David Miller.

"Al Gore did a great job in English-speaking countries telling people that climate change is real. That was an inconvenient truth," he said. "We need the convenient truth now: that environment and jobs not only can coexist, but we can't handle our economic challenges without handling our environmental ones."

Speaking at the United Nations Environmental Programme's Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative Symposium at the University of Pennsylvania, the former C40 chair explained how climate change was wreaking havoc on cities and their budgets.

One problem: "very unusual storms" that are tearing through major metropolises around the globe. Toronto has experienced several storms of a magnitude that should only occur once in 50 years, Miller said.

"The cost to our infrastructure is very significant," he said. "Just to deal with these storms we're investing a billion dollars in infrastructure every year" -- and that doesn't include the massive expenses for private landowners.

"As climate change continues, we will see more and more environmental problems that have a direct impact on cities and how they're built," he said.

Which is why cities and their mayors are leading the charge, most notably through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group initiative, which counts 40 partner cities -- from Addis Ababa to Warsaw --  and another 18 affiliates, from Amsterdam to Yokohoma. The organization's strength is in encouraging developed cities to help their developing counterparts on resilience issues, Miller said.

"Mayors feel compelled to act and are taking a number of important initiatives," he said, adding that direct investment in cities is a key way to meet national climate initiatives. "What we're trying to do as mayors is find a way to grow and succeed and lower our climate impact."

Miller outlined several highlights in cities around the world.

Among them:

  • Sao Paulo is using energy from its massive landfill -- the largest in South America --  by capturing methane from it. "I picture it the size of downtown Philadelphia and as high as some of the tall buildings," he said. Toronto took similar approach in London, Ontario by piping methane to a farm outside the city where waste heat is used in industrial scale greenhouses to grow food. "Those who say that you can't find sustainable energy sources are just not looking hard enough," he said.
  • In Los Angeles, 140,000 street lights were retrofitted with LED bulbs, saving $10 million annually and paying for themselves within seven years.
  • Calgary invested in wind energy so heavily that all of its municipal power -- including the public transit system -- will be powered by the clean source by 2012. Similarly, Copenhagen supplies energy for 150,000 homes through 80 offshore wind turbines. "Copenhagen today doesn't just have an environmental strategy -- its environmental strategy is its economic strategy," Miller said. "They're completely linked."
  • Toronto used to ship garbage -- 140 trucks of waste per day -- to Michigan for deposit in landfills. But the city began charging for pickup and pricing it depending on volume. As a result, the city managed 70 percent diversion in single-family homes, Miller said. (Multi-family residential buildings remain elusive -- it's hard to recycle when these buildings only have a single garbage chute, he said.)

Toronto took its first step with a climate change action plan in 2007, then the next with an economic development strategy in 2008 and a sustainable energy strategy in 2009, Miller said.

In a typical North American or European city, between 60 and 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are from buildings; the rest is from energy and transportation, Miller said.

"Our strategy was to conserve energy first of all -- and that's through buildings -- and secondly, create a smart grid," he said. "From the City of Toronto's perspective, we can't reach our greenhouse gases goals or our economic goals without succeeding in significantly lowering the energy consumption of buildings."

Which means stringent new building regulations.

"Our commercial buildings in downtown Toronto now are generally built to LEED Gold or Platinum status," he said. "New buildings matter."

So do older ones, where there are many opportunities, Miller said. Take the material concrete: it's strong, but it has no insulating power.

"These buildings will be there for essentially another 100 years and be huge energy wasters," he said, citing the statistic that a one-bedroom apartment in a large concrete building uses same energy amount as bungalow.

But if you insulate those concrete buildings with external cladding, and scale that to the 1,000 such buildings in Toronto, you could lower energy consumption in the region by five or six percent, Miller said. But it comes down to financing: the return on investment for the private sector needs to be less than seven years, he said.

"It's not really a source of capital issue," Miller said. "It's really about return on investment."

Which quickly translates to jobs and economic growth. This kind of retrofitting work requires training -- a single building could require 30 people; at 1,000 such buildings in Toronto, that could be as many as 30,000 jobs, Miller said.

"Our job is to ensure that a city is prosperous, livable, and ensure that it's a city of opportunity for everybody," Miller said, "Not just some."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure