Why city-level data will be the key to unlocking impactful climate action

Data. It permeates every aspect of our lives, there’s more of it now than ever, and it might just be the key to us reaching our climate goals. Together with cutting-edge modelling systems, it’s helped us understand the gravity of the climate crisis. And together with innovative technologies, it is helping us build our capacity to act. 

As urban leaders look to level up their on-the-ground response to climate change, they’re calling for research institutions to support them in accessing city-level data. Research and innovation can provide decision-makers with robust knowledge, strengthening their ability to target specific problem areas in their regions. 

What robust data can do for cities

Data can be put to use towards urban sustainability and climate action in many ways. For example, new software is being deployed in Los Angeles to simulate the effect of micro-climates in order to determine the useability of public spaces, explains Timur Dogan, Assistant Professor at the Center for Cities, Cornell University, US. 

The software uses temperature data to create maps of thermal comfort. Streets with no cover from direct sunlight, or trees to mitigate heat, are identified as areas at risk of becoming unbearably hot, in turn reducing the amount of public space that can be used comfortably. “This tells us a lot about how citizens experience their city…how it affects daily life”, notes Dogan. 

Having such city-specific information means urban leaders can make the timely decision to reach climate commitments.  Dogan warns, however, that “models are only as good as the data that goes in, which makes this challenging for smaller cities where we often lack good data”. 

Cities wanting to boost the data informing their local climate action should start with areas where they already have a strong foothold, says Jorn Verbeeck, Head of Research and Innovation at the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM). Urban planning and design, energy, transportation, waste, water or food often offer easy entry points for urban leaders. 

What is needed to move towards a net-zero future?

Verbeeck notes that the heterogeneity of cities adds complexity to the task of delivering a net-zero future. “It’s easy to talk about cities as a homogenous group, but we know they have different needs,” he says. 

Interdisciplinary research collaborations could address this complexity by taking a more holistic view of a city’s urban ecosystem and its feedback loops. For instance, how does building out urban housing to accommodate a growing population impact on thermal comfort by reducing shade? Or how does it increase urban flood vulnerability due to the effects of soil sealing? Tackling these questions demands coordinated innovation and collaborative research. 

In order to enable the research and data collection that will support them as they work towards a net-zero future, Verbeeck says there are a few key tasks: leverage partnerships to co-produce city-level research, get the data you need, and enable finance for solutions.

1. Leverage partnerships

Bridging the gap between global and local governance levels will be crucial in meeting the National Determined Contributions (NDCs). Multilevel, multi-actor partnerships avoid duplicating research and enable exchange. There’s no lack of ambition, reports Verbeeck, “What we hear from cities is ‘we’re already doing a lot, but we’re not getting where we need to be fast enough.’” Vertical integration of cities’ implementation priorities into national research agendas will provide the support local governments are demanding for delivering on their climate plans. 

Research institutions and universities have to be brought on board too, since these actors are not only responsible for influencing the direction of technical innovations, but are also integral to shaping how change-makers of the future will think. Fostering systems-thinking perspectives in the younger generation as well as working more closely with decision-makers now will facilitate the co-production of actionable knowledge to steer climate responses at the city-level.

2. Get the data you need

Obtaining more climate-related city data is a great start, obtaining data that can be translated into actionable knowledge is even better. “We worked with practitioners from all fields to see what they thought the building blocks of our research and innovation agenda should be. Then we asked ourselves, how that can be conveyed to a policymaker,” explains Verbeeck.

Risk and vulnerability assessments, greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories, air quality monitoring are just a few of the ways that climate-related data can support municipalities’ adaptation and mitigation efforts with actionable knowledge. Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer gives cities a taste of what local-level research could look like. 

The platform uses freely available data sources and modelling capabilities to measure emission sources, run analysis, and identify strategies; from the energy efficiency of buildings, through estimates of fuel and electricity usage, ­to solar potential, using figures for sunshine exposure, roof orientation and weather patterns. What it lacks, however, is data on the social side of climate impacts. How will this alter people’s life quality, will some parts of society be at more risk than others? 

Inclusion of social aspects is paramount. “What cities need is a holistic and inclusive approach, at the right scale, taking in all imperfections into account,” Verbeeck said. This involves moving away from a fragmented research landscape of many initiatives toward a unified approach that is capable of delivering systemic change. Making use of the range of policy and finance tools at hand will ensure cities achieve this.

3. Finance solutions

Lack of technical capacity, control over resource allocation and functioning finance models are some of the headwinds cities face when moving forward with climate research and action. The global health crisis has created additional strains on finance as spending flows towards dealing with the repercussions of COVID-19. 

Here again is where partnerships come in. Public-private partnerships can provide technical assistance and expert knowledge, while convening the capacity of different levels of government can increase the amount of money mobilized for urban climate investment. Using the political tools at hand, like declaring a climate emergency, openly publishing commitments and progress will also elevate the profile of a city’s climate action and raise interest in collaborations  and investments from relevant actors. 

What’s next?

If you’re interested in following the conversation on how research and innovation is enabling ambitious local climate action and the latest from science and policy on post-pandemic recovery, climate justice and green strategies in cities, you can hear about these and more after Daring Cities on 11-15 October at the Innovate4Cities I4C conference. Launched in 2018, Innovate4Cities has put together a global agenda for city-level research and innovation.

With the aim of accelerating urban climate action, Innovate4Cities highlights the need for city-focused data in order for local urban leaders to set and meet ambitious climate commitments.

Co-hosted by UN-Habitat and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCoM), it will be the leading gathering on urban solutions and implementation pathways by and for cities, researchers, policy makers, businesses, innovators and students in 2021.

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