Office of Sustainability Offers Guidance for Civic Climate Data

Last week, representatives of the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability took time out of their schedules to meet with me, and with David Edmonson of Austin Tech Alliance, about the climate data priority in Open Austin’s and Austin Tech Alliance’s joint 2018 advocacy agenda.

Austin has a goal of net zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The city has the most control over its own emissions from sources like its vehicle fleet, but emissions from city government amount to only about 0.5 percent of the community’s total emissions. The city’s influence over the rest of the community’s emissions is much less direct. In general, the City Council sets an emissions target, and the Office of Sustainability does data collection and analysis to understand current emissions trends. From there, the city’s tools to affect overall emissions include setting the policy for the city-owned Austin Energy, making changes to the building code, and setting transportation policy.

Open Austin asked the city to “release the data underlying the Community Climate Plan Progress Updates and the City’s calculated progress on its goal of net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” The purposes of that request were to give residents enough information to evaluate the city’s estimates of the amount of emissions avoided by various categories of efficiency programs, to help evaluate the city’s projections of future emissions, and to identify emissions policy priorities for the future. The calculations used to create the city’s emissions projections haven’t been released yet, but the Office of Sustainability is preparing to release more information about the specific format and protocol of the community emissions inventory. Also, they tried to help identify datasets that Open Austin members could analyze or publicize to help the city reach its emissions goals.

Austin Energy’s reports of emissions from large point sources are reliable and available through the EPA, but this covers only about 20 sites in the Austin area. The city data portal also has several ECAD (Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure) datasets, which include energy audits for large commercial buildings. Austin’s community greenhouse gas inventory previously has been done every three years, but they hope to do it each year from now on. It’s based on the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC).

The city analysts said they thought transportation emissions would be the most interesting category for an Open Austin project. Of course, the city’s beliefs about transportations emissions in the city are mostly based on modeling rather than direct measurements. The best model is probably the Transportation Demand Model that the Capital Area Council of Governments has developed for the region. Texas A&M did the last run of that model. The Austin Transportation Department should also have relevant data.

The city analysts explained that the city’s emissions analysis is based on a combination of high-level models and specific project-level studies. So when they estimate a certain project will result in emissions reductions, they have to simply subtract those savings from the high-level model’s estimate of the city’s emissions. That means they don’t usually have a way to test whether the assumptions in the the project-level studies would interact with other factors in the citywide model.

The city’s transportation emissions model doesn’t currently incorporate any data from traffic monitoring systems such as Waze or Google Maps, but the Office of Sustainability would like to incorporate that kind of data if they could. They’d also be interested in researching the emissions effect of shared riding in autonomous electric vehicles, since one study indicated that a shift to electric vehicles would increase the load on Austin Energy by only 28 percent. Other future work from the city might include a model of the number of people that live in transit corridors, in connection with CodeNext. In short, there are still many gaps in the city’s knowledge about community emissions that could be filled with more data and more research. If a project team develops around emissions data in Open Austin or through ATX Hack for Change, they should feel free to contact the Office of Sustainability for an insider’s understanding of the data.

Continue the Conversation

Open Austin’s advocacy agenda is intended to help get access to data resources based on community members’ demonstrated interest in finding creative ways to use them for the public benefit. Now that the city has given helpful guidance about greenhouse emissions data, it’s a good time to build a project around that data at an Open Austin event like a Community Action Night or Civic Hack Saturday.

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