Four technological innovations that can help reduce urban carbon emissions

A 2009 climate change protest in Washington DC. Image: Getty.

It is estimated that the majority of people around the world now live in urban areas – and the global urban population is expected to grow approximately 1.84 per cent every year in the near future.Such growth is a key driver behind the move to “smart cities”, that aim to improve quality of life and efficiency of transport, energy provision and healthcare through technology.

But as urban areas grow, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to grow along with them.  With last year’s talks in Paris agreeing stringent new emissions goals, there is a great need to ensure that, as our cities become smarter, they also become greener.

Advances in renewable energy, electric vehicles and hybrid technology have led to significant reductions in emissions and waste already; and further improvements are already being made in biofuels, organic photovoltaics and hydrogen cars. The recent “Decarbonathon” competition, run by the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders initiative, alongside ENGIE and the National Physical Laboratory, set out to find the most promising new ideas that could reduce CO2 emissions in cities, and selected the five technologies that it thinks holds the most promise.

Mobiliteam is one such innovator. It has developed an air booster that reduces the energy consumption of electric vehicles by improving the efficiency of air conditioning systems, whilst having no effect on the passenger’s comfort. Even in cool climates, air conditioning accounts for 5-10 per cent of a vehicle’s fuel consumption, meaning that there are economic as well as environmental incentives for manufacturers to fit the technology.

Another, Bynd, is working to develop a car-pooling app that, unlike existing car-pooling services, is aimed at the regular commuter. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, 91 per cent of car commutes are single passenger journeys. Bynd aims to work with companies to develop an app that allows staff within the same business (or another nearby) to combine journeys and reduce the number of car journeys taken in cities.

TEBS – the “Traffic Energy Bar System” – takes a different approach. Instead of attempting to make cars more efficient, or reduce road traffic, it makes use of busy roads to generate energy for use elsewhere.

TEBS is a system installed across areas where a high volume of traffic is slowing down, in which bars are pressed down by the wheels of each car as it moves over them, creating an up and down motion that generates electricity. It uses the waste energy from the cars slowing down, and harnesses it to power other systems in the city that require electricity.

The last innovation recognised as having big potential, Mutum, aims to reduce industrial and residential emissions. An idea borne out of the sharing economy, it aims to reduce overconsumption by making it easier to share things with others.

A typical electrical drill is only used for12 minutes during its lifetime: Mutum aims to show how such objects can be borrowed rather than bought. Overconsumption creates wasteful industrial processes through over-manufacturing, so reducing these emissions will help lower urban energy demand and subsequent GHG emissions.

These are just a few examples of the technology already out there to reduce emissions. But there is no silver bullet: if we are to reach the ambitious pledges set through the COP21 talks, more must be done, and new green technologies and continued innovation needs to be encouraged.


The problem is that emerging green technologies like these can often struggle to secure investment, severely hampering their development and market uptake. Current VC investment in clean technology stands at $4.8bn globally, far below the peak in 2008 of $12.3bn .

On top of that, subsidies in the energy sector often create unfair market conditions by favouring established technologies, many of which are contributing to climate change rather than helping to address it. The International Energy Agency assessed the total amount of subsidies to both fossil fuel and clean energy industries in 2013 and it found that the former received four times more than the latter.

Building confidence in new technologies is crucial to securing investment and market uptake. The National Physical Laboratory , the UK’s National Measurement Institute, verifies new technologies, helping them to prove that they do what they say they do. Having independent third-party validation is vital, helping emerging technologies bridge the gap until standards evolve and secure the confidence required to accelerate their commercialisation.  NPL is helping the winners of the Decarbonathon through such practical support.

The Paris talks went some way towards tackling these barriers to innovation, too. Mission Innovation saw 20 countries, including the UK, pledging to double cleantech R&D over the next five years. Around the same time the Breakthrough Energy Coalition was also launched, seeing the world’s leading tech giants joining forces to invest in high risk, early stage clean tech companies.

With new technologies such as those above being developed, we now have the best opportunity to make smart, green cities. By coupling these increases in funding for low-carbon technologies with practical support for the entrepreneurs and companies developing them, new technologies can become part of our cities, reducing our emissions and paving the way for smarter, greener, urban life.  

Jane Burston is head of climate and environment at the National Physical Laboratory.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor. 

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.