July 26, 2012 12:00 am

Action is eloquence

Yet another global summit has come and gone – the United Nations Rio+20 conference – and the world seems little closer to tackling the huge challenges of climate change and economic prosperity. Sadly, there has not been much progress.

Some countries, such as Canada, have governments that openly deny the science, and have pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Others fret that doing the right thing for the environment will cost too much. People see this inaction of national governments and lose hope. But cities hold solutions and activist city governments, led by strong mayors and supported by private sector innovation, are not waiting.

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IN Urban Ingenuity

Today, more people live in urban areas than do not. This trend will continue as flows of climate migrants in the developing world cause those cities to grow. China seems to build new cities weekly. Even in the developed world, studies show that younger people prefer dense urban environments to suburbs.

Pollution and jobs are found in the cities too. One study commissioned for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group found that while 75 per cent of economic activity takes place in cities, up to 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions can be allocated to city-based consumption.

The good news? Measures that reduce greenhouse gases create jobs. The even better news is that three sectors – energy generation, heating and cooling of buildings, and transportation – are responsible for most of the emissions. Get those sectors, and waste management, right and the world’s dual goals are achievable.

The best news is that cities are acting. Consider buildings, typically the greatest source of emissions. Many cities are adopting building standards that require “green” construction of buildings. The private sector has responded, and has discovered that green buildings can be more profitable (because they are more in demand by tenants) and have lower operating costs.

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, has directed commercial buildings over a certain square footage to post energy consumption statistics. Meanwhile, Melbourne and Toronto have focused heavily on energy retrofits. In fact, Toronto’s Tower Renewal programme will reduce greenhouse gases by 6 per cent – the first Kyoto target – and will create 30,000 full-time jobs.

Shrewd investments in technology can save money, create jobs and add capital value to buildings. New technologies, such as Canada’s International Wastewater Heat Exchange Systems, are capable of rapid adoption and can dramatically reduce the need for fossil fuels to heat and cool buildings.

Many cities have recognised that traffic planning for the automobile does not meet their transportation, development or environmental goals. They have built walkable cities, with rapid transit networks that encourage cycling. Copenhagen is the best example of this.

On energy, smart-grid-enabled cities of the future will look to conservation and demand management first, and energy generated on a distributed model from renewable sources second. The energy grid is moving away from energy generation based on extraction toward one based on technology. German cities do this today.

The state of Victoria in Australia has passed regulations that help to overcome financing hurdles in energy retrofits, which will lead to significant private investment. This model should be copied globally, as issues of security and time for payback hinder private financing.

Most of all, we need people to know that the answers are there. Only then can the desire of millions to do the right thing be translated by their governments into a clean environment and good, sustainable jobs.

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David Miller is a World Bank special adviser on urban issues and former mayor of Toronto

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