While many countries leveled up their climate ambitions through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), challenges remain to implement these plans, learn, and continuously adapt to change. During the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (27th Conference of the Parties, COP27) in Egypt, world leaders discussed climate adaptation, mitigation, financing, and collaboration. Data is at the heart of these conversations. Although most countries are already integrating data into their policymaking process, it remains an under-utilized resource despite the fact that half the world is vulnerable to climate disasters.

Governments’ struggle with data

In preparation for the international environmental meeting Stockholm+50 in June 2022, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 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 of those in high-income countries, do not co-align their national statistics offices or data offices in ministries, which produce the data, and their policymakers, who use it. 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 analyzing 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.

  1. 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 favor of exchanging data between organizations. 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 the private sector and civil society, data and information gaps are closed, data skills are taught, and successful methods are scaled across sectors.
  2. 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 the 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 from 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 cost thousands of lives and cause billions of dollars in damage. Those most severely impacted are projected to be in low- and middle-income countries, especially already vulnerable groups like women, rural farmers, people living in poverty, and those in densely populated cities.

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 enough senior-level civil servants, who are interested in data-informed policymaking, come together in a global community that shares experiences and collaborates in solving international challenges.

In collaboration with the German Agency for International Cooperation (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.


Robert Opp is the Chief Digital Officer of the UNDP.

Dr. Iliya Nickelt is the Chief Data Scientist and Head of the Data Laboratory of the BMZ.

Reina Otsuka is the Digital Innovation Lead on Nature, Climate, and Energy at the UNDP. 

The authors are guest contributors and not MEI-affiliated experts.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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