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Carbon-neutral cities are data driven

Achieving a carbon neutral city is possible. This blog series discusses how data can be used to reach the goals set for decreasing emissions— the topic is pressing now more than ever.

Fredrik Jansson / October 20, 2020

Cities generate a significant proportion of emissions. According to a UN report*, cities worldwide are responsible for up to 70% of harmful greenhouse gas emissions even though they only take up 2% of the land area.

In the urban setting, the primary mission of decision makers and public servants is to ensure the best possible environment for the cities’ residents and well as for the businesses, and for others visiting or working in the city. Therefore it is logical that combating the effects of climate change is highly prioritized by the decision makers as well as other stakeholders.

Many municipalities have already taken up initiatives. For example, a network of carbon-neutral municipalities (Carbon Neutral Municipalities, HINKU) has been launched, and municipalities such as Helsinki, Espoo, Tampere, and Turku among others have set their own carbon-neutral goals.

Cities both in Finland and across the globe have set ambitious goals to combat the effects of climate change. The need for change is explicit in every agenda. While the corona situation of spring 2020 has had some positive effects on emissions, experts remind us that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has still not decreased even though the world came to a halt.

Read also: Innovations for the climate  

Difficult, but not impossible — good data management supports cities in climate work

Climate goals are easier to achieve when action taken is based on the cities’ measurable data. This can be further accelerated by bringing together experts of different emission groups, technological experts, engineers, and other stakeholders to define the most effective measures.

As many cities still lack their CO2 balance data, they have no overall view on their emissions in general. Thus, a broader picture of the current situation is required in order to take the right steps to make an impact — and to measure them against data.

Practical measures should be focused on those that are particularly effective. Climate initiatives often become biased to the ones that are easy to measure whereas more complex or difficult issues might not be set any measures at all. It also might be the case that the focus is put on the wrong things, based on feelings or emotions related to the issue. The city budgeting is also likely to be built based on the previous fiscal year. National programs in Finland and the cities themselves are setting strict goals to combat climate change, but have difficulties to grasp the bigger picture. What could help in this situation?

According to an interim report from the ICT working group for climate and environment, data will be a key factor in the cities of the future. A real-time status of the city’s performance may be obtained by using data collected by devices connected to cities’ digital infrastructure and sensors using IoT. This helps to direct the city to operate in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way that better serves the needs of the citizens.

In order to control and reduce emissions, it is necessary to understand how they are generated. However, the related data on emissions is scattered to different sources and formats. In some areas such as the energy sector, the data is more uniform, but in other sectors it might be more arbitrary and difficult to measure. This is the case, for example, in the field of traffic. In addition to the technical data, understanding of human behavior and the feasibility of measures beneficial to the climate is required.

In an experiment conducted in the Vaasa region in the spring, data on traffic and energy consumption were collected. Forecast models related to consumer behavior in traffic and energy consumption were also added.

The collection of data alone doesn’t of course prompt action for change. Local organizations and the best experts with a deep understanding of the area are needed to assess the findings and to conclude the best practical solutions for carbon-neutral activities. Together with the Vaasa region expertise and expert partners we will promote the implementation of the lessons learned from the experiment.

Read also: Vaasa city goes carbon neutral using data

A comprehensive view of the city’s carbon footprint as well as the ongoing and planned measures is required for managing urban carbon neutrality. This forms a basis for leading and managing changes needed. In order to make the most out of activities to combat climate change, we need to know which individual action is most efficient in terms of implementation as well as positive impact — and this is to be demonstrated in a measurable way. The cities share a common challenge of how to best maximize the positive effects of urbanization, and to use digitization and data to minimize the environmental impact of humans.

What should cities consider on the road to carbon neutrality? The next part of the blog series provides tips for using data in an urban environment. Let’s connect on LinkedIn so the next post won’t slip past you!

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Fredrik Jansson
Head of New Business, Energy & Utilities

Fredrik is a leading expert on data-driven business-transformation, with a passion for finding new business opportunities from ecosystem-based co-innovation and co-creation. He is participating in significant national and international programs and ecosystems innovating and bringing the data economy to the next level.

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