Opinion: Data-informed policies are indispensable in mitigating climate risks

Half the world is vulnerable to climate disasters. Where are the populations most at risk located? What interventions could protect them? Are these interventions effective? These are critical questions that data-driven policies could answer

Although most countries are already integrating data into their policymaking process, it remains an under-utilized resource.

Governments' struggle with data

In preparation for Stockholm+50, the United Nations Development Programme supported national consultation processes in 55 countries, where governments voiced their data challenges.

Some data, like community-level or disaggregated socio-economic data, are not readily available. Meanwhile, other data sources need to be digitized or collected more systematically, such as historical weather data.

As for new data sources, like satellite imagery and big data from social media and citizen science, many countries are unable to use this data efficiently due to a lack of proven methodology, technology, or capacity.

Not to mention that many governments, including some high-income countries, do not co-align their national statistics offices or data offices in ministries, who produce the data, and the policymakers, who use the data. This is attributed to the lack of adequate institutional data structures that can ensure the efficient flow of information.

Despite these challenges, governments' demand for better data to inform their policymaking is well established. Many countries during the consultations specifically made a case for ramping up data capacity, digital infrastructure, and access to data.

The data consumers have been overlooked

To begin to address the difficulties in using data for policymaking, the UNDP and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) are working together to support countries in better collecting and analysing data, and translating insights into coherent evidence for climate decision-making.

There are many great existing initiatives that focus on data producers. To complement them, we are proposing to shift the attention to the data consumers, who are the policymakers.

Taking a 'user-centric' approach will ensure developing data structures and information flows are tailored to the needs of the decision-makers. This can also dismantle data silos: An extensive overview incorporating all potentially available data is a common leadership requirement and a strong argument in favour of exchanging data between organisations.

Germany's Data4Policy Initiative does precisely that. Established in December 2021 to meet the urgent data gaps of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Data4Policy initiative supports policymakers in concrete use cases. Through cooperation with private and civil society, data and information gaps are closed, data skills are taught, and successful methods are scaled across sectors.

More investment in new data sources is needed

While methodologies are not always well-established, committing time and investment now in integrating new data sources could be an opportunity to significantly improve the public’s understanding and engagement with government response to climate risks. Several pilot projects that we have worked on recently illustrate the potential of new data sources.

In India, for example, UNDP collaborated with Telangana State Government to develop Data in Climate Resilient Agriculture (DiCRA), a digital public good that can be used to identify the most vulnerable farmlands based on satellite imagery and input of citizen scientists. DiCRA enables the government to assess the impact of its farmland climate mitigation policies.

A way forward

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052, meaning that the preferred target of the Paris Agreement will be missed.

The world at 1.5°C, risks more climate-induced extreme weather disasters that reap thousands of lives and cause billion-dollar-worth damages. Those most severely impacted are projected to be in low- & middle-income countries, especially already vulnerable groups like women, rural farmers, people living in poverty, and those living in densely populated cities.

While many countries levelled up their climate ambition, notably through the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), challenges remain to implement these plans, learn, and continuously adapt to change. COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh world leaders will discuss climate adaptation, mitigation, financing, and collaboration. Data is at the heart of these conversations.

Data-informed policies can help governments account for the most vulnerable and enable them to evaluate programs and learn from mistakes. It will make countries more agile and will better prepare them for crises. Government actions will also be more transparent, which can improve public trust in its institutions - especially in cases of missteps - and make it easier to secure additional funding to fill any gaps.

The ability to decide on data and explain the process can be seen as an important new skill for policymaking. We believe that the world’s preparedness for climate risks will leapfrog if a critical mass of policymakers from across sectors creatively use data to its full potential.

Achieving this goal can be within reach if a critical mass of senior-level civil servants, who are interested in data-informed policymaking, come together in a global community that shares experiences and collaborates in solving global challenges.

In collaboration with GIZ, UNDP will set up this community to build momentum. It will also be coupled with a playbook for using new data sources for policymaking. This playbook will be developed based on the needs and input of policymakers in this network.

In time these efforts could become a nucleus for future intergovernmental data-sharing across sectors. Coming together is necessary because climate change doesn’t stop at borders and evidence-based collective action is our best chance to tackle it.

About the Authors:

Robert Opp is currently the Chief Digital Officer of UNDP, the United Nations' global sustainable development organization working across 170 countries globally with more than 17,000 staff. He leads the agency's digital transformation, an organization-wide effort, to harness the power of new technology to improve the lives of those furthest behind.

Prior to this role, Robert served as Director of the Innovation and Change Management Division within the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) where he established an in-house 'Zero Hunger' innovation accelerator and created an award-winning crowdfunding smartphone app, ShareTheMeal.

Iliya Nickelt is the Chief Data Scientist of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). He is committed to develop infrastructure and tools for modern, data-driven policymaking, together with a dynamic team of data scientists at the BMZ data lab.

Prior to that he was the deputy head of IT operation at BMZ. Iliya Nickelt received his PhD in astrophysics and then conducted research on automated management of coupled data centers and standards for federated astronomical databases.

Reina Otsuka is UNDP’s Digital Innovation Lead for Nature, Climate Energy, and serves as technical lead for the emerging digital portfolio across the climate change and environment practice. Prior to joining UNDP HQ, she served in the Rwanda Country Office as Environmental Specialist and acting Innovation Advisor for Africa region, designing and managing projects including digital technology applications for climate change adaptation and biodiversity finance policies.

She comes with over 10 years experience as an award winning social entrepreneur on sustainable consumption and production, running a digital platform to support MSMEs on green business development.