The more you know: Turning environmental insights into action
Relying on huge carbon data sets as a measuring stick, cities as diverse as New York, Berlin, Oslo, and Rio de Janeiro have committed to reducing their carbon footprint by 80% within the next 30 years. But many small and midsize cities lack the resources to gather data such as building emissions, making it hard to set firm carbon commitments of their own.
The Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), a new online tool created by Google in collaboration with the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM), is designed to help level the playing field for smaller cities, amplify the emissions insights of big cities, and ultimately accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.
Developed by the Google Earth Outreach team, EIE analyzes Google Maps data to provide rich insights into our surroundings. EIE pairs this information with third-party data and standard greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions factors, deriving carbon estimates and reduction potential for cities around the world. With EIE, data sets that once required on-site measurements can now be assessed virtually, reducing the barriers that prevent cities from taking action.
“Some cities—big, major cities—have easy access to emissions data to develop inventories,” says Amanda Eichel, the executive director for the global secretariat at GCoM, an international alliance of nearly 10,000 cities and local governments committed to fighting climate change. “But the vast majority don’t or aren’t in the position to finance a process that will take time and might be cost prohibitive, like the small to medium cities and developing areas of the world. And that’s where most of the action will take place in relation to the Paris Agreement on climate change. That’s why the information in the Environmental Insights Explorer is a huge opportunity.”
Current city inventories illustrate the point. To date, 9,500 cities have committed to complying with the Paris Agreement, which presents a formal plan and timeline to phase out reliance on fossil fuels. But only 65% of those cities have inventories that include information such as building and transportation emissions. Far fewer have complete inventories. EIE will supply much of this missing data, starting with building and transportation emissions—essential to helping cities establish baselines—and branching out from there.
Data packaged to prompt action
For the past decade, we’ve been making Google satellite mapping tools and data analysis available to researchers and governments that are tackling issues like climate change, resource conservation, and air quality. With this science-backed data, decision-makers are empowered to take informed action.
With EIE, we’re applying these same principles to understanding regional emissions impacts.
EIE is designed to simplify data gathering, helping cities supplement their current data inventories with a few clicks. With more complete inventories, cities have more accurate baselines from which to build policy and measure progress. Even cities with advanced data inventories will find EIE data valuable in augmenting or confirming their latest carbon footprint analyses.
To start, we’re surfacing data across four areas: building emissions, transportation emissions, solar energy potential, and 20-year climate projections. Clicking on “Building emissions,” for example, brings up colorful maps visualizing the emissions impact for both homes and non-residential buildings.
Statistics from the general to the specific are available, including the percentage of various emissions types, the time period from which the data was culled, and key assumptions. The site also links to other critical information, such as ways to reduce emissions. Users can modify or customize emissions factors to play out specific scenarios.
Potential uses are vast. In addition to giving policymakers, planners, and researchers insights to inform city-wide emissions policies, the data can influence specific projects. A city with a new transportation line, for example, can access information to estimate the line’s impact on the city’s emissions profile before deciding whether to move forward and scale the project or shift gears entirely.
EIE, which launched in September 2018, EIE is starting with a handful of cities as a beta. These initial cities include Melbourne, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Victoria, Canada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Mountain View, California, site of Google’s global headquarters. By starting small, we have the opportunity to analyze and gather feedback from cities on how our data can best serve them. In time, Google plans to make this environmental information available to thousands of towns, cities, and regions around the world.
Filling an information gap, collaboratively
EIE arose from Google’s other climate-related projects, including Project Air View and Project Sunroof. Collectively, the projects produced a massive cache of high-quality data relating to cities’ carbon impact—information that we realized could play a critical role in encouraging collective action by policymakers, city officials, and others. But to do so effectively, we needed to distill the information into action-oriented packages of raw data that could be absorbed easily.
Because we couldn’t do this alone, we started by finding the right partner. Founded by global city networks and with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the European Commission, GCoM has been gathering the same comprehensive data we wanted to surface but through other sources and methodologies. GCoM also has detailed knowledge of the intricacies of environmental policy and the political hurdles hindering change and action.
Internally, the Earth Outreach team worked across Google to gather carbon accounting experts, pipeline software engineers, storytellers, and data visualization gurus to build the platform. We brought Google’s rich data inventories to the table, along with deep expertise in data analytics and user experience.
“GCoM identified where the data gaps were,” says Rebecca Moore, leader of the Earth Outreach team. “We met with their staff for hours and hours, and they helped connect us to different cities so we could deep dive face-to-face with those cities. GCoM helped us pull out the precise nuggets of information cities need.”
As with other Google information tools, the methodology used to source, aggregate, and distill the EIE data sets can be reviewed on the site. We also initiated a rigorous quality-assurance process months before launch.
One challenge we’ve faced is coordinating our data with the inventories of large cities, whose data is often inconsistently sourced and relies on varying methodologies. This is changing with the launch of the GCoM standard reporting framework. Through this standard, cities will be reporting the same information and in a standardized format. The goal of the EIE is to create a universal source aligned with this methodology so that all cities are working with the same level of information. This will be particularly useful for cities that lack the resources to effectively begin the assessment process.
At Google, we know this is the start of a very long narrative to provide thousands of cities with comprehensive, action-oriented data sets, and but one chapter in a longer climate-mitigation storyline. There is no end to the journey—just a goal to inspire action.
“Imagine what we could accomplish if every city in the world were engaged in the fight against climate change,” says Moore. “What would the world look like?”