Post COP26, the race is on to get countries across the world to net zero. The countdown to the 2023 Global Stocktake (GST) of the Paris Agreement is fast approaching, and pressure is mounting on both public and private bodies to prove their commitment to climate action plans.
In 2018, Google piloted its Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE) with the aim of facilitating the process of setting an emissions baseline and identifying opportunities to reduce environmental impact. Now, data for over cities is publicly available and with 20,000 cities projected to be accessible to city employees by the end of the year.
This project by Google is already informing city projects to reduce their climate impact, and will provide consultants and NGOs with clear data to demonstrate the necessity for action.
This exciting development and application of AI, and machine learning has got us excited at Symanto. So we’re taking this opportunity to explore what it is, how the data was sourced, and its implications for both the public and private sector.
What is Google Environmental Insights Explorer?
EIE makes use of Google’s incredible data collecting capabilities as well as other local city data and combines this with machine learning to create estimates of:
- Building emissions: How many metric tons of CO2 per year are generated by buildings
- Transport emissions: How many metric tons of CO2 per year are generated both from fossil fuel combustion and indirectly by electric vehicles.
- Rooftop solar potential: How many metric tons of CO2 per year could be saved if all viable solar rooftop installations were implemented.
Google is working on two further metrics which are available in BETA in select cities:
- Air quality: Which maps street-level air pollution with mobile air sensors. This data is currently available in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and London
- Tree canopy: Which uses aerial imagery to estimate tree canopy coverage in cities. Currently piloting in selected US cities.
Google has explore and customise options to allow you to navigate data and find specific information such as what percentage of traffic is inbound, out bound of in-boundary, or what percentage of residential emissions is from electricity, gas and oil.
How is the data sourced?
EIE uses data primarily based on the same sources they use for Google Maps such as aggregated location history data and building outlines. This data is combined and aggregated with other sources to increase the accuracy of their environmental insights.
Google references the CURB tool (which stands for Climate Action for Urban Sustainability) for its transport and building emissions estimates. CURB uses a combination of inventory data from the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC) as well as “an extensive built-in international dataset of building, energy, transportation and waste system data.” That’s according to a website of one of its developers, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Users also contribute their own data, wherever available, to strengthen the dataset.
Which cities are involved?
So far, Google has made data from 230 cities publicly available, with thousands of cities’ (9616 at time of writing) data available upon request. By the end of the year (2021) Google plans to make transport emissions data available for 20,000 cities and regional governments.
Who has access to it?
City government employees, consultants and NGOs working with a city government can sign up to access restricted data. Some of this data is incomplete or a work in progress, so Google has created a “Insights Workspace” to allow authorised people to explore the data available and provide feedback. City officials can also make EIE data publicly available from the Insights Workspace.
How can it be used?
The purpose of Google Environmental Insights Explorer is to optimise and accelerate climate action planning. By providing city officials with measurable data, they can make informed decisions about where public spending can make the most difference.
The city of Los Angeles was the first to pilot Google EIE’s Tree Canopy Insights, which they are now using as part of a plan to increase tree canopy coverage by 50% by 2028. Using Google’s Tree Canopy Insights along with their own inventory system, the city plans to prioritise areas of the city which are most in need of shade. And as the years progress, so too will the data, giving measurable proof of the effectiveness of their project.
NGOs and consultants can also use the Environmental Insights Explorer to clearly demonstrate the need and potential for action to stakeholders. As EIE data becomes publicly available, it will also be interesting to see how the private sector utilises this information to inform ESG reporting and enable better decision making with regards to research and investment.
Consumers, governments and investors are all mounting pressure on businesses to not only promise, but clearly demonstrate effective efforts to reduce their environmental impact. So transparent, publicly available data will be welcomed by companies committed to climate action.
Increased Focus on Sustainability at Google
As companies across the board make sustainability claims, there’s a growing focus on substantiating these claims with data to weed out the greenwashers. Google has also recently introduced new features to enable consumers to make more sustainable choices. In a recent update, Google now alerts customers to businesses certified as environmentally friendly by independent organisations recognised by Google, as well as enabling consumers to compare flights for information on their CO2 emissions.
Given Google’s data capturing capabilities, its increasing focus on sustainability, and its ability to influence consumer decisions, it’s only prudent for companies to think of ways that they can prove their commitments with measurable data.
Sustainability analysis with Symanto NLP
As consumers continue to drive demand for sustainability, we expect ESG topics to frequently emerge in customer reviews, news reports and online comments.
Clients will have their own opinions as to how committed companies are to their purported sustainability claims, and it’s already producing interesting results in our B2B sentiment analysis reports. Symanto uses natural language processing (NLP) to parse written content online for key topics and measure their associated sentiment.