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How a lack of data is stymying climate action in cities

Without the right support and information, cities will not be able to reduce emissions in line with national climate ambitions.

By Alis Daniela Torres, Jamie Cudden and Anna Williams

City dwelling can be the most sustainable way for us to live on this planet – or the least. Today, cities contribute 70 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. At the same time, in recent years their environmental and climate challenges have been exacerbated. Cities must now figure out how to reduce energy consumption and air pollution, address the effects of heatwaves and flooding, and accelerate sustainable transport alternatives. The list goes on, but many cities lack the relevant data insights, resources and citizen support needed to make progress on their climate commitments.

There is a big disconnect between the ambitious pledges put forward by national governments and the actions happening locally. All climate action has to be implemented right where people live and work, influencing daily routines and decisions. In theory, most people support schemes such as low traffic neighbourhoods, low emission zones or reducing private cars. But when it comes to adopting these changes in practice, there can be quite a bit of resistance, due to the perception that these changes will be inconvenient. Showing ambition is important, but to bring people along we equally need to be able to demonstrate the benefits locally – be it better air quality, less noise or improved quality of life. 

The mission of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability – is to support cities and sub-national governments on this journey. While most cities are working towards the same goals, their local contexts and specific situations differ. This is why sharing knowledge between cities and learning about how others approached their challenges can help.

Big infrastructure investments are happening in many cities – from public transit upgrades and new cycling infrastructure to retrofitting buildings. But it can be hard to demonstrate the long-term benefits of these investments, especially when they are not very popular – such as taking cars off the road and encouraging people to cycle more. One way of showing the practical advantages of climate action is through citizen science initiatives and learning programmes. The city of Dublin piloted an Academy of the Near Future with transition-year youngsters aged 16 to 17. The programme teaches them about technology and data related to their local communities. The project engaging with over 1,000 youngsters in 2022 has created ripple effects beyond those specific individuals, going out towards their families, schools and communities.

One of the biggest obstacles in cities concerns data and tools that allow them to leverage environmental insights, and visualise them in a way that resonates with people. ICLEI supports cities by providing access to methodologies, tools and information about new data sources that could help them make better decisions along their climate action journey. This includes data about a city’s environmental quality such as that on air pollution, water, noise pollution or data to plan renewable energy or efficiency interventions at the city, district or building level. Other examples include transport data such as that on active mobility, greenhouse gas emissions, or information about the impact of measures that have been taken. All of this is needed to understand the current situation, then set targets, and lastly to keep track of whether the climate or environmental actions taken are working. 

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Traditionally, cities would generate their own data, or work with national or regional sources. But effective city climate action is becoming increasingly complex. It involves multiple stages, and the data that cities need is often resource- and time-intensive to collect or interpret. This can be a barrier to cities making progress on their climate commitments. Many cities are turning to other actors to generate and use this data: universities, research organisations, civil society organisations and the private sector. ICLEI works with Google to bring new data sources to cities – like Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer, which provides a consistent database for over 40,000 cities globally, for free. Here, cities can see their estimated emissions data for transportation and buildings, as well as solar potential. And Google is piloting new data sources that include air quality data and tree canopy data. 

This data helps support cities to introduce all aspects of climate action process from measuring baseline emissions, identifying the most impactful reduction opportunities, and tracking the effectiveness of their policies and programmes to determine whether they’re achieving their goals. The data comes from Google’s aggregated and anonymised geographical data – think Google Maps – which is then scaled to the city population, using privacy filters, aggregation and anonymisation techniques and inference models. It provides cities with annual transportation data broken down by mode, including carbon-emitting modes such as cars and buses, and non-carbon-emitting modes like cycling and walking. With this level of granularity, cities can use the data to set targets for transport policies and programmes for example if a city has a goal of increasing bike trips through improved cycling infrastructure, or reducing car trips by introducing low or zero emission zones. Incorporating local contexts and nuances is crucial to ensure this data is representative of and useful to all regions. This is why Google’s priority is to work with external partners to help validate their data against ground truth data, apply it to local contexts for increased usability and value, and find ways to use it alongside other data sources. 

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One of the ways in which this collaboration is encouraged is through financial and technical support. ICLEI, with funding from Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, has set up an Action Fund that awards up to €1m per organisation to implement data-driven action to help cities reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change. The cities already participating in this fund are Barcelona in Spain; Malmö and Stockholm in Sweden; Rome in Italy; Glasgow in the UK; Rotterdam in the Netherlands; and Berlin, Dortmund and Hamburg in Germany. We will be accepting applications until 30 September 2022.

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