These are not great times for the battle against climate change. With America officially withdrawing from Paris Agreement, the global alliance lost one of its major champions. While this year’s World Environment Day (celebrated each year on 5 June) was rather muted, the determination to continue with the momentum remains steadfast. What’s important is that governments, academia, and industry need to work together to make a difference. It is naïve to believe that only industry and enterprises contribute to climate change. There is a great need for scientists to harness those elements of technology that have the potential to hasten our understanding not just of the drivers of climate change but also help illustrate relevant solutions so that requisite action can be taken
The Data Revolution
It’s well known that while big data has had a transformative effect on academic research as well as business applications, its application in climate change has till now remained nascent. The good news is that a global data revolution is unfolding and accelerating decision-making around climate change. Using big data and analytics solutions, scientists are now analysing a wider framework of data including, for the first time, privacy-protected digital data — such as mobile data or credit/debit card transactions, for example — to get important insights into human consumption patterns that in turn can be correlated to climate risk. The resultant data streams are, therefore, providing an unprecedented opportunity to scientists, academia, and private enterprise to catalyse climate innovation and influence decision-making for the public good.
Public-Private Partnerships and Data Philanthropy
A promising initiative related to this is the United Nations Global Pulse programme called ‘Data for Climate Change’. The UN Global Pulse is an agency that partners with data-rich organizations along with other UN agencies, governments and “problem owners” to grapple with challenges that could benefit from new insights that help discover, build, and test high-potential applications of this big data. The focus is on sectors such as food security, agriculture, employment, infectious disease, urbanization, and disaster response and others. Climate change is a new addition to this list. The ‘Data for Climate Action’ initiative launched in March this year is an ‘open innovation challenge’ to scientists and researchers from across the world to harness data science and big data from the private sector to fight climate change. The challenge aims to leverage private big data to identify revolutionary new approaches to ‘climate mitigation and adaptation’.
This initiative stands apart due to two reasons. First is that the global challenge has attracted companies from across industries and countries to participate through acts of data philanthropy. Secondly, the data being generated is not as much around climate data as it is about human behaviour and its effect on climate change. The challenge offers researchers an opportunity to gain unprecedented access to national, regional, and global datasets — anonymized and aggregated to protect privacy — and robust tools to support their research. The results of this is expected to be made public later this year.
Addressing Global Warming Cheaply and Effectively
The issue from a policy and implementation perspective is to reduce the effects of global warming in a manner that is both cost- and means-effective. Scientists and administrators do not have the time or the resources to try out different approaches and then decide the best one. Big data, advanced analytic techniques, and algorithms are playing an important role in enabling this. For example, specific to a country or region, data can show where flooding is most likely to occur or the areas that are most prone to drought or other natural calamities and the timeliness of this information is a critical factor. This can enable the local government to make accurate resource allocation, thereby minimising wastage and over-spills. Agriculture is another area that has a significant cause-and-effect relationship with global warming. It stands to reason that everything we do directly correlates to furthering environmental impact with catastrophic social and economic effects. An analysis of global social media data on the issue of global warming and climate change is also proving very effective in terms of highlighting the various elements that country populations are sensitive to — whether it’s energy, climate, the state of the oceans, agriculture, forests and natural resources, etc. This provides an important public perspective to policymakers and academicians.
While traditional sources of climate data help describe how and to what extent the climate is changing, they do not always illustrate the solutions that are likely to be most effective in reducing emissions and helping build community resilience. New sources of big data from different industries and geographies, can be applied to construct a more complete picture, thereby significantly enhancing the understanding of the deeply interrelated relationships between human action and climate change. Combine this with increasing amounts of computing resources available at a much lower cost than ever before plus the ability to process them on distributed platforms in the cloud and the potential to exploit data and analytics in an important area like climate change is more real than ever before. With these new adaptative or mitigation interventions, innovations can be developed and will lead to, it is hoped, the beginning of a new and enabling ecosystem.
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