A New Google Tool Will Help People Everywhere Calculate Their City's Carbon Footprint

The tool will allow cities to determine the carbon footprint of their buildings and transportation at almost no cost.

A new tool from Google can estimate the carbon footprint of all of the buildings and transportation in a certain city by using data collected from Google Maps. Known as The Environmental Insights Explorer, the online tool is meant to help cities take that initial step towards reducing their emissions: learning what their carbon footprint currently is.

As noted by The Atlantic, Google partnered with Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy to create the tool, which launched in beta on Sept. 10 and is still undergoing development. It analyzes the carbon footprints of buildings by inferring whether specific structures are residences or business. It then uses the approximate size of each building and data about the regional grid to estimate how much energy each building uses and the emission that energy results in.

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The tool can also estimate the carbon footprint of city transportation, including all car, bus, and subway rides. Again using location data from Google Maps, The Environmental Insights Explorer can pinpoint specific modes of travel and then estimate the emissions from the transportation based on traffic and other factors.

The goal is to help cities around the world calculate the bulk of their carbon emissions at almost no cost. While thousands of cities have made a commitment to cutting their emissions under the Paris Agreement, many haven't actually taken stock of what their current emissions actually are. Smaller cities in particular have found it challenging to undertake the lengthy process, which requires significant resources and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Environmental Insights Explorer would make it easier for cities to calculate their emissions without spending money on data collection or analysis. "This tool helps to do some of that and reduce some of the complexities and the cost in that process, so you have more people spending less time data gathering and data crunching and more on the action planning," Nicole Lombardo, the leader of partnerships for Google's environmental insights team, told FastCompany.

Pittsburgh Environmental Insights Explorer
A screenshot of The Environmental Insights Explorer in action over Pittsburgh

The tool also has capabilities beyond calculating current carbon emissions. Users can also adjust the data to calculate how their footprint would grow in the future, if a new transportation line was added or more housing structures were built. It can also help cities explore the possibility of solar power by analyzing satellite images to determine which roofs are best suited for solar panels.

While only a handful of cities are available for analysis in the tool's beta phase, Google is now working to refine the design of the tool so that it can expand its reach. It ultimately hopes to be able offer the tool to any city with available data.

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