What can data do for climate change?

UNEA leaders will set global environmental priorities. Photo: UN Environment

Today, policymakers, civil society, academics, and business converge in Nairobi, Kenya, for the opening of the Fourth United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA 4), the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. Held every two years, UNEA allows countries to set priorities for global environmental policies and to develop international environmental law.

Over the next five days, this group will focus on the theme of “Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production,” with the goal of making our social, political, and economic systems more sustainable.

Time is running out. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report, we only have 12 years to take drastic action to address climate change. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report shows that climate change and biodiversity loss are tied to the top global risks to society, including water crises, large scale involuntary migration, natural disasters and extreme weather.

No nation can address these alone. UNEA 4 asks policymakers to collectively focus on three areas as entry points to change ‘business as usual’: (1) environmental challenges related to poverty and natural resources management; (2) life-cycle approaches to resource efficiency, energy, chemicals and waste management; and (3) sustainable business development in a time of rapid technological change.

Spatial data can play an important role in combating deforestation. Photo: UN Environment

A remarkable resource

At UNDP and UN Environment, we see a critical role for big data to transform the way we approach these issues. Over 90 percent of the world’s data has been generated in the past two years, offering a remarkable resource as we look to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals as well as key multilateral environmental agreements including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Spatial data — which maps geographical locations of biodiversity, key watersheds, protected areas, human pressures, and more — can play a critical role.

Through our work with nearly 140 countries around the UN Biodiversity Lab, we’ve seen how spatial data can help policymakers make better decisions, conserve nature, and enhance livelihoods. In South Africa, spatial data have informed how official Marine Protected Areas are selected by the government. In Costa Rica, an innovative monitoring programme enables government to identify the pineapple producers behind illegal deforestation. In Ecuador, the government has used spatial data to combat deforestation and designate a protected area that reflects key biodiversity and ecosystem fragility.

Data on the health of our planet should be available to all. Instead, data are often fragmented across sectors, hidden behind paywalls of commercial owners, or generally inaccessible to the public and policymakers. Given the urgency of the issue, we cannot afford this any longer.

It is time to recognize environmental data as a global public good. To cultivate it, we need to create a digital ecosystem for the environment, a topic explored in depth in the recently released discussion paper by the Science-Policy-Business Forum. This should include the data, infrastructure, and algorithms that can build public awareness, influence consumer behaviour, inform markets, and guide government decision-making. This ecosystem must encourage open data exchange between the public and private sectors, offer protection for data privacy and security, and include quality safeguards.

This is an ambitious task. However, it is one that we suggest UNEA is well positioned to tackle. To begin building an open data ecosystem, we must address key questions including:

· How do we finance the costs of maintaining a global public good, including data acquisition, processing, storage and analysis?

· How can the infrastructure be globally distributed?

· How can we ensure that data is used for action by government, civil society, and the private sector?

· Who should be the primary custodian of these data and how can the ecosystem be governed?

As the world gathers in Nairobi, these questions should be at the centre of efforts to define an international environmental framework that addresses challenges and promotes sustainable consumption and production. UNDP and UN Environment stand ready to support this effort, using our convening power to develop a common vision and financing options for an open ecosystem of environmental data.

Jamison Ervin is UNDP Manager, Global Programme on Nature for Development. David Jensen is Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding and Co-Director of MapX, UN Environment.