“Sheer determination and technological optimism” won’t be enough for a low carbon industrial revolution

Offices in the City of London. Image: Getty.

Launching the countdown to the COP26 climate talks last week, the prime minister was right to say climate action presents a huge industrial opportunity, one that can drive “our national agenda of uniting and levelling up our country”. The UK’s success in renewable energy is a clear example of what real policy ambition can achieve.

So why are we not taking even the most basic steps in other areas? One obvious target is the shocking level of energy UK offices and commercial buildings still waste, where there has been little improvement since the early 2000s.

In the financial district of the City of London, Green Alliance estimates that, every year, offices are wasting the equivalent energy used to power over 65,000 homes. That’s a similar number to the entire housing stock of the London Borough of Kingston upon Thames. This waste is costing City businesses £35m a year and generating the same annual carbon emissions as 46,000 cars every year. 

This seems hard to explain, particularly when cheap and readily available digital technologies can help businesses track and modulate their energy use. AI optimisation systems have been shown to cut energy use by as much as 14 per cent in commercial buildings and pay for themselves in just a few months.

Yet companies often find it hard to identify the inefficiencies in their operations, and don’t have the strategic foresight to feel comfortable with longer payback periods. 

What’s needed to change this?      


Saving money across the country

With over 65 per cent of local authorities now having declared climate emergencies, there is a strong political mandate for innovative local solutions. 

The local industrial strategies mayors and others are publishing could provide targeted support for business energy efficiency measures. Cities like Bristol, which are already pioneering adoption of smart energy systems, should take the lead on this. Green Alliance estimates that Bristol’s offices could save nearly £2m on energy bills within a year by using energy optimising AI systems. A similar programme in cities with bigger business districts could save more, with estimates of £3.3m in Manchester and £2.6m in Leeds.

Some councils already have powers to raise funding for this through a supplement to larger companies’ business rates. The Greater London Authority used this approach to fund Crossrail and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is considering it to fund the retrofit of commercial buildings. This could help to channel funding into local clean growth, stimulating the market for energy efficiency and enabling local supply chains for smart energy and sustainable construction to expand.

But success will be limited if there isn’t support at national level too. In its 2017 Clean Growth Strategy, the government committed to improving business energy efficiency by at least 20 per cent by 2030 but it has yet to set any policy to deliver on that.

A key failing of the system at the national level is that building efficiency is estimated rather than measured, with actual carbon emission up to ten times higher than usually assumed.   

A successful scheme in Australia has proved it is possible to spark radical change. The National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) has cut the energy use of office buildings across Australia by nearly 40 per cent over 13 years, using a rating systems based on their actual performance in use and by promoting digital solutions to save energy. The better understanding this has led to has also improved the design of new buildings. Newly built prime offices in Melbourne use less than half the energy per square metre of similar new offices in London. Before the scheme, they were comparable. 

Rather than trusting in “sheer determination and technological optimism” to do the magic, as the PM was implying last week, the government should be doubling down on this agenda. Boosting business energy efficiency would help UK businesses save £6bn a year by 2030 – a welcome shot in the arm and a route to “levelling up our country” by raising resource productivity in parts of the UK where the economy is lagging behind. 

It would also be one of the most basic steps to cut our climate impact and, alongside action on transport, agriculture and housing, a vital measure to get the UK on track towards net zero. If the prime minister wants the rest of the world to come with us and ensure the UK is seen as a credible host of the COP26, we should really be getting our house in order, starting from the basics.

Caterina Brandmayr is senior policy analyst at Green Alliance.

 
 
 
 

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.