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How the Data Revolution Will Help the World Fight Climate Change

Cities are the proving ground for potent new tools to address the crisis.

By , a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and , a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a founding partner of Carlo Ratti Associati.
A situation room monitors traffic camera data
A situation room monitors traffic camera data in Moscow on May 24, 2017. Sergei FadeichevTASS via Getty Images

Cities are the front line of climate change as perpetrators, victims, and problem-solvers. Urban construction, traffic, and energy use alone account for around 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, millions of urban residents die of pollution each year due to the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, gasoline, and diesel, according to a recent study in Environmental Research. Yet cities are also hubs of innovation and key players when it comes to developing solutions to mitigate and adapt to the world’s fast-changing climate. A growing number of them are already fighting our era’s greatest challenge by leveraging one of its most potent new assets: Big Data.

It is not entirely surprising that cities are mobilizing to take on climate change. After all, they have the most to lose. But while a handful of upper- and middle-income cities are busily planning and preparing for climate shocks and stresses, most have yet to get started. Wealthy cities like Amsterdam; Helsinki; Melbourne, Australia; Oslo, Norway; Paris, Singapore, and New York are actively exploring how to climate-proof their infrastructure, ramp up nature-based solutions, and accelerate a green transition. Yet fewer than half of the world’s cities have inventoried their exposure, much less crafted a climate-proofing strategy. There are green shoots of hope: The C40 coalition of climate-oriented cities has promised to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, with some cities moving even faster. Meanwhile, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a coalition of more than 10,000 cities, is agitating for investment in a green and just economic recovery.

However, these goals—along with similar targets set by nation states and corporations via the Paris Agreement—are still opaque. Critics are skeptical of “net-zero” goals that are decades away and put the onus on future generations to do most of the innovating and adapting. This kind of procrastination diminishes awareness about which political, technological, or other strategies are working and will work down the road. But the world does not have the time for drawn-out trial and error processes, and national and city governments, companies, and citizens cannot afford complacency. They need to act rapidly and adapt nimbly, especially when they realize a given policy is working better or worse than expected.

Cities are the front line of climate change as perpetrators, victims, and problem-solvers. Urban construction, traffic, and energy use alone account for around 40 percent of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, millions of urban residents die of pollution each year due to the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, gasoline, and diesel, according to a recent study in Environmental Research. Yet cities are also hubs of innovation and key players when it comes to developing solutions to mitigate and adapt to the world’s fast-changing climate. A growing number of them are already fighting our era’s greatest challenge by leveraging one of its most potent new assets: Big Data.

It is not entirely surprising that cities are mobilizing to take on climate change. After all, they have the most to lose. But while a handful of upper- and middle-income cities are busily planning and preparing for climate shocks and stresses, most have yet to get started. Wealthy cities like Amsterdam; Helsinki; Melbourne, Australia; Oslo, Norway; Paris, Singapore, and New York are actively exploring how to climate-proof their infrastructure, ramp up nature-based solutions, and accelerate a green transition. Yet fewer than half of the world’s cities have inventoried their exposure, much less crafted a climate-proofing strategy. There are green shoots of hope: The C40 coalition of climate-oriented cities has promised to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, with some cities moving even faster. Meanwhile, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, a coalition of more than 10,000 cities, is agitating for investment in a green and just economic recovery.

However, these goals—along with similar targets set by nation states and corporations via the Paris Agreement—are still opaque. Critics are skeptical of “net-zero” goals that are decades away and put the onus on future generations to do most of the innovating and adapting. This kind of procrastination diminishes awareness about which political, technological, or other strategies are working and will work down the road. But the world does not have the time for drawn-out trial and error processes, and national and city governments, companies, and citizens cannot afford complacency. They need to act rapidly and adapt nimbly, especially when they realize a given policy is working better or worse than expected.

The rapidly increasing volume and variety of Big Data collected in cities—whose potential has barely been tapped—can help solve the pressing need for actionable insight. For one, it can be used to track the climate crisis as it happens. Collected in real-time and in high resolution, data can serve as an interface between aspirational goals and daily implementation. Take the case of mobility, a key contributor to carbon, nitrogen, and particulate emissions. A wealth of data from fixed sensors, outdoor video footage, navigation devices, and mobile phones could be processed in real time to classify all modes of city transportation. This can be used to generate granular knowledge of which vehicles—from gas-guzzling SUVs to electric bikes—are contributing to traffic and emissions in a given hour, day, week, or month. This kind of just-in-time analytics can inform agile policy adjustments: Data showing too many miles driven by used diesel vehicles might indicate the need for more targeted car buyback programs while better data about bike use can bolster arguments for dedicated lanes and priority at stoplights.

As storytelling animals, we can use Big Data to understand and communicate the planetary crisis while simultaneously measuring progress.

Data-driven analytics are already improving energy use efficiency in buildings, where heating, cooling, and electricity use are among the chief culprits of greenhouse gas emissions. It is now possible to track spatial and temporal electricity consumption patterns inside commercial and residential properties with smart meters. City authorities can use them to monitor which buildings are using the most power and when. This kind of data can then be used to set incentives to reduce consumption and optimize energy distribution over a 24-hour period. Utilities can charge higher prices during peak usage hours that put the most carbon-intensive strain on the grid. Although peak pricing strategies have existed for decades, data abundance and advanced computing could now help utilities make use of their full potential. Likewise, thermal cameras in streets can identify buildings with energy leaks, especially during colder periods. Tenants can use this data to replace windows or add insulation, substantially reducing their utility bills while also contributing to local climate action.

The data revolution is being harnessed by some cities to hasten the energy transition. A good example of this is the Helsinki Hot Heart proposal that recently won a city-wide energy challenge (and which one of our firms—Carlo Ratti Associati—is involved in). Helsinki currently relies on a district heating system powered by coal power plants that are expected to be phased out by 2030. A key question is whether it is possible to power the city using intermittent renewable energy sources. The project proposes giant water basins, floating off the shore in the Baltic Sea, that act as insulated thermal batteries to accumulate heat during peak renewable production, releasing it through the district heating system. This is only possible through a fine-tuned collection of sensors, algorithms, and actuators. Relying on the flow of water and bytes, Helsinki Hot Hearth would offer a path to digital physical systems that could take cities like Helsinki to a sustainable, data-driven future.

The good news is advanced cloud computing and machine-learning power is increasingly available to cities, businesses, universities, and citizens. The dramatic increase in satellite and remote-sensing platforms as well as the lowered cost of data analytics means there are fewer entry barriers. There is also a rapid increase in openly accessible application programming interface availability, with information on everything from pollution and mobility to water and waste. And as more and more institutional investors and other shareholders demand climate commitments, we can expect the use of data technologies for emission reduction to keep growing.

A crucial way to make data work for cities and their inhabitants is to proactively share it with citizens, many of whom can drive decentralized climate action feedback loops. The faster awareness about opportunities to optimize climate action and reduce energy spread, the faster waste can trigger grassroot pressure for systemic change. Citizens can and do learn if they are properly informed—a big “if” in our present misinformation and disinformation media landscape where politicians and corporations are succeeding and failing at keeping their promises. Open data portals can also assist residents’ efforts to be more climate-conscious; the environmental impact of consumer decisions needs no longer be invisible.

Of course, the data revolution faces limitations in every domain, and climate action is no exception. A concern for many cities is ensuring data-related policies account for variations in climate impacts across neighborhoods and population groups. Data privacy must be carefully managed. The issue of equity, or climate justice, is even more critical. Although cities like Copenhagen or Seattle may be doing well on headline environmental indicators—reducing overall pollution and expanding green space—these dividends can fail to reach the neighborhoods of poor or marginalized groups who are the least resilient. Data analysis is never immune to the human factor: Without conscious effort, it reproduces our implicit biases. Groups like Data-Driven EnviroLab are exploring these critical issues; numbers alone cannot deliver truth, much less justice.

Still, the data revolution is one of the most potent tools in our arsenal to address the climate crisis, a problem so wicked it takes billions of eyes, digital and organic, to see around its shadow. As storytelling animals, we can use Big Data to understand and communicate the planetary crisis’s scale and scope while simultaneously measuring progress toward carbon neutrality (or negativity). From city to city, the language of data visualization—modified in different languages and cultures—can also offer a worldwide sense of the narrative we are all embedded in, illuminating our failures and triumphs. Data really is, as many media have written, the “new oil.” When it is collected, processed, and treated, it can power innovation. The only difference is this new energy source can guide a sustainable outcome.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

Carlo Ratti is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a founding partner of Carlo Ratti Associati.

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