Australian councils and communities look to data for solving climate change challenges
By Michael Tavendale, Partner Activation Lead, Environmental Insights Explorer
Like many local governments, Australia’s councils have been working hard to quantify which activities, such as cars and public transport, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, or GHGs. To help accelerate GHG reduction efforts, Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), an online platform that empowers cities with actionable data to reduce the world’s emissions, has teamed up with Snapshot, Australia’s community climate tool, to make EIE data easily accessible within the tool. The good news follows our recent announcement about the expansion of EIE data to thousands of cities worldwide, including 100+ Australian councils.
We asked Imogen Jubb, the Zero Carbon Communities National Manager at Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), and Alexi Lynch, Business Manager for Ironbark Sustainability, to share how this partnership will continue to help Australian communities make progress on their climate goals — now that better data is available to councils and communities.
Tell us about Ironbark and BZE.
Imogen: Beyond Zero Emissions supports over 100 communities across Australia to realize their zero emissions ambitions. We provide resources and expertise, like Snapshot and our Million Job Plan, to help network communities to achieve their goals more rapidly and at greater scale.
Alexi: At Ironbark, we’ve been working with local governments around Australia on climate change and sustainability projects since 2004. My role involves a lot of talking to councils, city networks, and sector partners to understand the challenges, and work with our team to find solutions.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for cities due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Imogen: There are so many! Loss of life and security, loss of connection to family and friends, loss of work and financial stability. Everyone is impacted in many ways. Australia’s cities are at a critical point in our COVID and economic recovery, as well as rebuilding from the horrific bushfire season last summer.
Our work at BZE shows we can build back better: retrofitting homes to improve comfort and lower power bills, supercharging our renewable energy capacity, and establishing new industries and infrastructure that will create millions of jobs in a more sustainable manner. This is a pivotal time to set up a zero emissions society.
Alexi: There are parallels between COVID and climate impacts. Resilient cities that have the ability to prepare, absorb, and recover from shocks will be better positioned. COVID-19 is a dry run, because the economic, natural, and social impacts and costs of climate change will dwarf what we’ve seen in 2020. We still have a chance to significantly limit future impacts while ensuring we are prepared for the ones we know are coming.
Before the availability of EIE data, what challenges did cities face when developing climate action plans?
Alexi: While councils have developed climate action plans long before Snapshot and EIE, there were questions as to whether action and resources were being targeted at the right areas. If we’re in a climate emergency — and we are — then we don’t have time to put resources and effort into the wrong areas.
Councils have traditionally focused more on residential programs. This made sense, because councils are closer to households and residents, and energy efficiency education campaigns or solar power rebates are perhaps low-hanging fruit. But on reflection, and with the data now available for all to see, councils can better focus their resources on areas that will have the greatest impact — this might be commercial or industrial buildings, or even policies around land-use change.
What’s the long-term impact of using EIE and Snapshot to meet these challenges?
Alexi: There are 537 local governments in Australia, and now all 537 have access to Snapshot! Having EIE data in Snapshot is a game-changer. The ability to source accurate, granular transport emissions data has always been a major challenge. This is the first time councils in Australia can say, “This is real activity data — not modeled.”
Imogen: Snapshot helps every council and community in Australia. It’s like having data experts in the room to get over the hurdle of measurement. Now, we can all do the work to plan, implement, and invest in actions, like broadscale retrofits or renewable energy industrial precincts. We can work together and avoid duplication. The data for specific communities is getting embedded into council and community plans as well as consultation processes.
How are councils using Snapshot today?
Alexi: They’re communicating the scale of the challenge to the community and using the data to target climate action areas. A great example is a bunch of councils southeast of Melbourne that are focusing on a “collaborative action planning” approach to climate action by working with large emitters in the region. Snapshot helps a council understand where the emissions are from, and then liaise with the right stakeholders, such as economic development teams within a council and external leaders to work together to reduce emissions.
What are the first impressions of EIE?
Alexi: We held a webinar in mid-September to launch EIE integration into Snapshot, and we maxed-out at 100 attendees — the feedback was mostly along the lines of, “interesting, inspiring, and innovative.”
We were lucky enough to chat to a dozen or so councils around the time of the launch and gave them a sneak peak. The team at Darebin, the first council in the world to declare a climate emergency, brought along sustainability staff and the transport team to look at ways to incorporate the data into future transport program design, as well as monitoring and evaluation of climate action.
Down the road, they’re hoping the tool will provide them with a real baseline for transport emissions and activity, the ability to track changes over time, and the outcomes of interventions on mobility patterns down to an incredibly granular level.
How can EIE best assist cities with comprehensive climate policy development and program implementation?
Imogen: Better information will save time and money and lead to better decisions, better projects, and better investments. Quantifying this change over time is a challenge, but there will be opportunities to track and improve monitoring and evaluation processes.
Alexi: Councils and communities don’t have the time or often the expertise to be undertaking this work. Through EIE and Snapshot, the data is now available to all councils and communities. That means stakeholders can be armed with the best information to attack the real task at hand — reducing emissions fast.
Are there other ways you feel EIE will transform or improve government operations?
Alexi: We’ve facilitated nearly a dozen meetings between Google’s EIE team and Australian councils over the last month, and the cool thing has been sustainability and environment staff bringing along internal council stakeholders — like transport, economic development, and those involved in public lighting. There’s a real potential to bring together different teams and re-think existing decision pathways and the scale of prospective solutions.
Can you walk us through how councils will be able to access and use EIE data in Snapshot?
Alexi: Just jump onto Snapshot and find your council! At the moment, we have public data for 100 councils, but that will expand to nearly 200 in the next few months, representing about 90% of the Australian population.
What EIE features and datasets are most useful?
Alexi: I love playing around and manipulating the transport data, like trip data and emissions factors, to see what difference it makes to overall emissions. Also, for those councils where the solar rooftop potential is available, we’re getting a sense for how powerful this is going to be.
Any advice for someone getting started with using EIE data?
Imogen: Share it with your community and council. Use the information to start important conversations about what you want your community to look like, how to get there, and how to do it together. Take a look at our Zero Carbon Community resources for more information.
Alexi: Play around! Learn! Be open to letting the data and evidence change your direction and focus for climate action. You might find you’ve been knocking on the wrong areas to reduce emissions — and that’s OK. We’ve all had to pivot at times. Don’t get caught up in the minutiae, and reach out if you want a hand. And don’t try and be a data analytics guru overnight — instead use the tools to then move onto the important task of planning and delivering on climate action in the right areas.