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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

How richer data could unlock greener cities

We love seeing cities work together on modeling smarter communities, share data and address the issues surrounding a growing population and possible fall out from climate change.

EU-backed Re-Green initiative concludes the success of green city programs rests on the quality of the environmental data that is available

How do you go about de-carbonising something as complex as a city? That is one of the many questions the EU-backed Re-Green initiative has been wrestling with for past three years, as it seeks to understand the characteristics that define the best regional policies for delivering greener buildings. The answer, or at least one of the answers, is that cities need to get much better at collecting and analysing the environmental data needed to assess whether green initiatives are working or not.

By James Murray

The research project, which officially ends next month, has for the past three years worked with seven cities across Europe to analyse which green building policies work and how different cities can learn from each other. Sheffield in the UK, Dublin in Ireland, Mizil in Romania and Potsdam in Germany were among the cities to contribute to a research project that quickly began to extend beyond its initial focus on green buildings.
Re-Green may have started focusing on buildings, recalls Dr Lisa Clark, trustee of Building for the Future Ltd, the not for profit company that managed the Re-Green project, but the team soon realized the environmental performance of buildings was determined by the systems they operated within - the green space, the public transport, and behavior of the city's population, for example. As such, a broad range of issues were addressed earlier this month at the FutureBuild conference in Sheffield, which brought together policymakers and green building companies to discuss the findings of the Re-Green program.
The initiative began by establishing baseline measurements for the environmental performance of a host of buildings and culminated in the development of regional implementation plans that each of the cities is now considering. Sheffield has already committed to delivering on its new strategy, which sets out eight green building objectives for the city, including ensuring "Sheffield becomes the UK's first decentralized energy city", embedding "low carbon into all decision-making processes at a city/region level", and promoting the use of renewables and energy efficiency.
Clark reveals that the plan will also focus on harnessing the many environmentally-focused community groups in Sheffield. "One of the things the research uncovered was that Sheffield had a high proportion of community groups already working on making the city greener, but they tended to be quite disparate," she says. "So, we're looking at some kind of match-making approach that ensures these different groups are aware of each other and can work together."
However, while welcoming the new implementation plans as an important step towards promoting green building policy best practices, Clark warns there is one challenge all seven of the cities taking part in the Re-Green initiative faces. "The biggest thing that came out of the project was that the data did not exist," she says. "The data may exist in pockets, but getting hold of the data you need to determine whether buildings are doing well or not is very difficult. There is no cohesion to the data."
For example, a city authority can typically tell you how many houses have had energy efficiency upgrades, but they can rarely tell you how much energy they are using. 
Similarly, they are often forced to compare data for environmental metrics that does not cover the same area or region - for Sheffield the Re-Green team sometimes drew on data for the city and sometimes had to rely on regional data. 
Securing accurate data for the carbon intensity of the energy used in a region is also challenging, when most calculations are based on national emissions information. "You can get averages, but there is often no granular data," observes Clark, warning that this absence of detailed information on building energy use, emissions, and carbon footprints makes it difficult to assess whether policies are working and, if they are, where they should be targeted. "There has to be better data collection across the board," she concludes.

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