At the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Global South countries are pushing richer countries for more money to cope with the effects of climate change.

Rich nations are shirking their responsibilities as the highest carbon emitters. A big focus of COP26 in Glasgow is on pressuring them to make good on their earlier promise to provide $100 billion per year for poorer nations to reduce emissions and adapt to the ravages of the climate crisis. This money is urgently needed to combat the growing climate crisis—highlighted in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report—with UN Secretary General António Guterres calling it a ‘code red for humanity.’ 

If (and that’s a big if) the most polluting countries commit to closing the climate finance gap, investing in data is a way to make that money go further for low- and middle-income countries. Good, timely data is essential for countries to identify priority challenges and effective solutions. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (the Global Partnership) and our partners are already helping countries leverage data to protect their citizens from flooding, drought, and food insecurity exacerbated by climate change. 

Investing even a tiny proportion of climate finance into climate data would supercharge countries’ efforts, allowing them to:

Prepare for the worst

Data is a tool for change. It is temperature data that shows beyond doubt the undeniable reality of a warming world, and mortality data that shows the terrible price being paid. Reliable forecasting depends on a good data collection system in every country, but across Africa only one quarter of observation stations are reporting data that meets international standards. Even where the data exists, inertia can mean it is not used, risking lives as warnings are ignored. Good data systems are a key tool in helping countries to protect their populations from the changing climate.

We know that forests are being destroyed, sea levels are rising, people and animals are being poisoned through what they eat, drink, and breathe. More robust data can quantify improvements or deterioration in a way that offers insights into how tailored approaches can be developed. Citizen-generated data—data captured by civil society groups that connect with the world’s most vulnerable people—can illuminate people’s lived experiences, their perspectives, and the way that climate harms play out in different countries and communities. 

Plan and protect people now

Data to understand problems is also how we develop solutions. In Senegal, data means the government can track and tackle deforestation, can get accurate information to farmers suffering the effects of a changing climate, and can manage increasingly scarce water resources. In Paraguay, we are helping the government with strategies to monitor and respond to flood risk along the Paraguay River and Rio De La Plata Basin. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have found that arming statistics offices with greater capabilities to use geospatial and other nontraditional data analysis can have powerful applications for climate-related crises: from responding to tropical Cyclone Gati in Puntland to tackling food insecurity in Kenya

Change the future

Data is the roadmap to the future. If that future is to include big changes, like the transition to renewable energy to power human progress, countries need data to understand where the opportunity lies to reshape their economies and societies. It’s a sad irony that some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, the small island states of the Caribbean and the Pacific, are also themselves highly dependent on fossil fuels for their energy needs. Data can help them to understand the opportunities for transition and can inform investors of the opportunities to finance the changes needed. 

 So, where should the money go? Three key changes are needed: 

  • Develop climate tech talent in low- and middle-income countries. People can only do the things they know how to do. Many institutions suffer skills gaps, as investments in education lag behind the developments in technology. Once gained, skills are not mobilized in ways that can bring the combination of technical and human insights to bear on creating data systems that are accessible and useful to those who can use them to solve problems. We need more education and training programs that increase technical and non-technical data skills at the same time and encourage people to see all sides of the data challenge.  The Global Partnership is working with partners from governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector to strengthen skills, building communities of professionals to ensure the best data is used to solve the worst problems around the world
  • Leadership for data sharing and use. Institutions both inside and outside of government hoard data because they think that it gives them power. We need to shift the culture from data hoarding to data collaboration to bring the full power of data for climate action. This means leadership from the top, creating incentives to manage data in ways that make it shareable and easily combined and incentives to use the data that is available to inform decisions, even if it isn’t what the leadership wants to hear. The Global Partnership engages with governments at every level, supporting changemakers who want to move their institutions towards innovation, evidence, and partnerships for timely data. 
  • Strengthening solidarity and cooperation. Data is a global business and  thus requires global cooperation. This means agreeing to the rules of the game to enable international collaboration in a way that protects rights and democratizes information. Very practically, it also means countries with sophisticated data systems (often those with the largest economies and emissions) need to provide more bilateral guidance and support in sharing their approaches and methodologies with low capacity governments hit hardest by climate change. The Global Partnership brings our diverse and global network together to share knowledge and develop solutions to rewrite the rules of the game and drive data systems that support equity and sustainability for all.

To use an overquoted phrase, the future is already here—it's just not evenly distributed. That cuts both waysthe human and economic toll of overlapping climate crises is already being experienced in small island states and arid lands. Meanwhile, numerous innovative energy and climate solutions have been developed, but not adapted in those countries that could most benefit from them. The data for development community can and must support that distribution, given the opportunity to do so.