Google’s New Tool to Fight Climate Change

By Robinson Meyer | The Atlantic | Sept. 25, 2018

“In the next decade or so, more than 6,000 cities, states, and provinces around the world will try to do something that has eluded humanity for 25 years: reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere and cause climate change.

The city-level leaders overseeing this task won’t have the same tools available to their national peers. Most of them won’t have an Environmental Protection Agency (or its equivalent), a meteorological bureau, a team of military engineers, or nasa. So where will they start? Never mind how to reduce their city’s greenhouse-gas emissions; how will they know what’s spewing carbon dioxide in the first place?

Maybe Google will do it for them. Or, at least, do it with them.

Google has started estimating greenhouse-gas emissions for individual cities, part of what it recently described as an ambitious new plan to deploy its hoard of geographic information on the side of climate-concerned local leaders.

‘The first step toward taking climate action is creating an emissions inventory,” says Saleem Van Groenou, a program manager at Google Earth. “Understanding your current situation at the city scale, and understanding what you can do to it—that’s an information problem, and that’s a good place for Google to sit.’

So far, the company has only released estimates for five cities, including Pittsburgh, Buenos Aires, and Mountain View, California. It plans to expand the program gradually to cover municipalities worldwide, but has declined to provide more specific plans. ‘What we envision is an open search bar for users to search for their own city in the future,’ Van Groenou told me.As part of this initiative, Google says it will also release its proprietary estimates of a city’s annual driving, biking, and transit ridership, generated from information collected by its popular mapping apps, Google Maps and Waze. The company has never released this kind of aggregate transportation data to the public before, and it says it may share even more specific types of data with individual local governments.

‘This information has historically been really hard to get a hold of,’ Van Groenou said. ‘But this is precise data, like looking at the ‘red-yellow-green’ traffic in Google Maps and aggregating it up for an entire year.’

Google made the announcement earlier this month as part of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The summit, organized in part by California Governor Jerry Brown, was meant to encourage states and cities that have advanced climate policy since President Donald Trump took office. These local programs do much, but they have not replaced climate policies revoked by Trump: A recent report from Yale and a number of European think tanks found that these ‘subnational’ programs could make up about half of the United States’ pledged carbon cuts under the Paris Agreement.

Google has framed the new project, called the Environmental Insights Explorer, as a way for leaders to focus and improve local climate programs.

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