U.S. cities put the power of emissions data behind climate plans

Google Earth
Oct 11, 2019 · 5 min read

By Nicole Lombardo, Partnerships, Google Environmental Insights Explorer & Project Sunroof

Addressing climate change on a global scale requires urgent action from countries, local communities and individuals. Fortunately, for the good of the planet, a growing number of cities in the United States are taking steps to combat climate change by taking stock of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in their cities. Creating these GHG inventories is a necessary but complicated first step in setting goals and policies that will improve the quality of life on this planet for the next 100 years.

At Google, we’re working to meet these same challenges posed by climate change by helping cities to use innovative new approaches to create a more sustainable world. The Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE) is an online and freely accessible tool based on proprietary Google data that supports civic initiatives to measure GHG emissions, set reduction goals and take informed action

This week, we’re excited to be expanding EIE access in [15] more cities across the United States, including [South Portland, ME, Portland, ME, Boulder, CO, Richmond, CA, Hartford, CT, Cleveland, OH, Denver, CO, Detroit, MI, Houston, TX, Roanoke, VA, Oklahoma City, San Diego, CA, Sunnyvale, CA, Lancaster, CA, San Francisco, CA, Santa Monica, CA], arming city teams with readily accessible information to make smart decisions on climate plans and policies.

Accelerating city action

Understanding the sources of emissions in a city is important for defining the right goals and action plans, but it is also complex and time consuming. As a result, cities that are motivated to take action often spend significant time and taxpayer resources on the process.

“We believe the Environmental Insights Explorer can serve as a critical first step for city sustainability teams to better assess their current situation and more efficiently track and monitor their progress in meeting their climate protection goals.”

— Amanda Eichel, Executive Director of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, the largest global alliance for city climate leadership, including C40, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, and CDP and others.

Cities like Hartford, Connecticut are working to remove the barriers to completing their own GHG inventory. Recently, volunteers working with Mayor Luke Bronin’s Office of Sustainability completed a painstaking GHG analysis that took many months. Google’s EIE tool was a valuable complement to that effort.

By using EIE to measure transportation greenhouse gas emissions, the City of Hartford, CT as able to complete their GHG assessment much quicker — and much more accurately.

“The City of Hartford used Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer tool to supplement and cross-check our 2017 GHG emissions inventory,” says Shubhada Kambli, Sustainability Coordinator of Hartford’s Office of Sustainability. “By easily sourcing estimates to measure transportation greenhouse gas emissions, we were able to complete our assessment much quicker — and much more accurately. The EIE tool will be valuable for us as we implement projects related to our city’s Climate Action Plan.”

Google has been partnering with cities like Hartford around the world to understand how they collect data, develop inventories, plan reduction projects, and track the results of their efforts. Working closely with these cities has built a better understanding and trust in EIE’s data, work which has included comparing EIE estimates to road sensor counts and comparisons to other data sources typically used by cities.

“Once a city has decided to commit to taking action on climate, the first step is always to measure their community’s GHG emissions. Typically, that requires a city to send off data requests to various utilities, transportation planners, and other third parties. Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer can provide inputs into building and transportation sector emissions in one place. Most importantly, it is applicable to any city, whether newly engaged in compiling a GHG Inventory, or for seasoned cities that wish to complement existing data with additional insights like modal choice and congestion impacts.”

ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability USA

In a recent study to validate EIE data with city transportation surveys, we completed assessments over five intersections in Mountain View, California, and four in Boulder, Colorado. In addition, the estimated total vehicle counts were accurate within 6–17 percent of the results measured in the field. This result is highly encouraging, and shows the EIE data can be an alternative to road sensors. Cities can save on the cost and time involved in installing roads sensors, with the added EIE benefits of trip distance/duration data and the ability to compare data on a global scale.

“While the City of Boulder has collected robust vehicle count data for many years, we are excited by the possibilities offered by EIE to supplement our existing data sources and make the data collection process more streamlined and efficient. Additionally, the EIE tool provides the ability for cities to continuously collect data and recognize trends over time. Such offerings should allow cities around the world to more easily track VMT emissions and set new strategies to move to lower emission modes of transportation.”

— Kathleen Bracke, for the City of Boulder, Colorado, Transportation Division.

In the case of Lancaster, California, city emission sources are not just due to how you move about town, but by the energy used to power buildings. Long known as an early adopter with a variety of projects and programs for utility-scale and roof-mounted solar alike, EIE brought extensive new insights to Lancaster’s aggressive renewable energy program. Based on the rooftop solar potential data in EIE, the city decided that an investment in innovative new roof-mounted solar programs through its community choice aggregator, Lancaster Choice Energy, is an effective way to reduce the community’s building emissions. As one of the nation’s leading cities for total solar installations per capita, today, Lancaster continues to rely on EIE data to develop new initiatives in its transition to renewables and reduce the cost of power for its residents.

“Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer has proven an invaluable tool in our ongoing quest to protect the environment for future generations,” said Mayor R. Rex Parris. “This information is assisting our efforts not only to benchmark GHG emissions and track our progress, but also to identify new opportunities to adopt renewable energy and lessen our impact on the planet. With tools like this in our arsenal, local government truly does have the power to save the world.”

Work in progress

To learn more about EIE in your city, see more information on EIE website and submit request form on insights.sustainability.google.

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