Is Google’s Project to Gather Granular Air-Quality Data in Dublin “Greenwashing” or Great?

A Google Street View car has been roaming Dublin’s streets since May, recording air quality across the city to map it, street by street.

The Air View project, a collaboration with Dublin City Council, is part of the tech giant’s Environmental Insight Explorer (EIE) platform.

EIE is a free online tool that “uses data to help fight climate change”, said a spokesperson for Smart Dublin. It allows policy makers access to Google’s global mapping data to gauge and reduce emissions and to make better, data-driven decisions, says the website.

The information collected from the Air View project is used “to inform smart transit programs with the goal of reducing emissions and increasing the use of cleaner modes of travel”, says a council press release.

The insights should be useful to all kinds of people, from commuting cyclists, parents shepherding kids to local parks, and urban planners designing new communities, says a spokesperson for Smart Dublin.

They “can make choices regarding which routes to take, what time of the day and which mode of commute would be best”, said the spokesperson.

The Air View project isn’t costing the council anything, said the spokesperson.

The council doesn’t own the data collected but the aim is for it to be made public in around 12 to 18 months, they said – subject to data quality assurance and scientific validation.

While Smart Dublin highlights the benefits of the collaboration, others say there are contradictions between the vision of reducing emissions through the Air View project, and the climate impact of Google’s other activities. In particular, its data centres.

Google didn’t respond to queries.

Using the Data

First, Smart Dublin will have to validate the data and present it, said a spokesperson for Smart Dublin. “After that we can look [at] how that information can be integrated into other initiatives.”

In Copenhagen, Google did a similar air-monitoring project, and the data was used to make a hyper-local, block-by-block map of air quality.

The info is being used by urban planners to create “thrive zones”, putting areas with schools and playgrounds away from high-pollution spots, says the Utrecht University’s website. The university was a project partner.

Copenhagen city planners also aim to use the data to encourage more sustainable transportation and create healthier bicycle and walking routes, says the website.

In Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) already monitors air quality, including in Dublin. According to a 2019 report, the main causes of poor air quality are transport emissions and people burning solid fuels at home.

Patrick Bresnihan, a lecturer in geography at Maynooth University, said he wasn’t sure how the Air View project advanced air-quality monitoring and responses to pollution in Dublin. “I’m not convinced it’s a massive advance on what is already there.”

EPA data is from fixed monitoring stations, said the Smart Dublin spokesperson. “The Air View car collects data from multiple locations.”

“Street-level air-quality information will help to pinpoint areas with good/poor air quality,” they said.

The methodology involves multiple drives of the city at different times and dates. It also aligns “with other data and meteorological readings joined with machine learning and AI and a lot of smart processing”, they said.

The Wider Industry

Bresnihan, the lecturer at Maynooth, says there’s a contradiction between the environmental image that Google promotes through such initiatives and their industrial practices elsewhere.

“On the face of it, they [Google] are making some kind of action to improving [sic] air quality,” he says.

“But at the same time their data storage requirements are releasing huge amounts of emissions into the atmosphere,” says Bresnihan, whose work looks at the energy demands of large data centres.

The environmental impact report for Google’s data centre at Grange Castle Business Park in Clondalkin says that the only air emissions released at centre will be from emergency generator use.

However, a 2019 report by the Irish Academy of Engineering estimates that the data-centre sector as a whole is due to add 1.5 million tonnes to Ireland’s carbon emissions by 2030.

Eirgrid estimates that by 2028, data centres will use 29 percent of Ireland’s electricity demand, with a knock-on effect of unstable electricity supplies.

There is a belief that data in itself is clean and does not have an environmental impact, says Bresnihan, but “data has its own ecology and its own footprint”.

The more that urban and non-urban environments are networked into the internet of things to make, supposedly, these environments more efficient, the more data and energy will be needed to process and store this data, he says.

“Data centres just want huge amounts of secure energy,” says Bresnihan. They don’t care about the source of that energy, whether it’s renewable or powered by fossil fuels once it’s secure, he says.

Bríd Smith, People Before Profit TD for Dublin South-Central, introduced a bill in June seeking – among other things – to limit the number of data centres in Ireland.

She questions Google’s motive for the Air View project. “Even if they’re doing this free I’d always ask myself what’s the payola for doing that,” she says. “It could be just good PR as they want to grow and develop their headquarters here.”

She describes Google’s environmental collaborations with the council as “greenwashing”. “They’re not into collecting information other than for the expansion of their own business interests,” she says.

Smith points to the fact that Google recently joined with Apple, Amazon and other data-centre operators under an umbrella group called Cloud Infrastructure Ireland to lobby against the bill going through the Dáil, as evidence of Google putting their own business interests above climate change.

Cloud Infrastructure Ireland have not responded to questions on the energy demands of data centers at the time of going to print.

Bresnihan says Google’s collaboration with Smart Dublin is part of a wider trend of tech companies engaging in environmental projects in collaboration with the state.

On one hand, Intel is consuming vast amounts of water in its Leixlip campus, he says, while elsewhere it’s involved in funding the re-wetting of bogs in Wicklow to increase water storage levels in the Liffey’s headwaters.

“You’ve got these tech companies positioning themselves as solutions to problems that they’re more often than not very much involved in causing,” he says.

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Author:

Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

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