The United Nations Science-Policy-Business Forum held in Canberra, Australia. Photo by UNSPBF.

As a co-author of the Emissions Gap Report 2018, the Data-Driven EnviroLab was invited by the United Nations Science-Policy-Business Forum (UN-SPBF) to present its research on the role of non-state actors in climate change mitigation at the Second Scoping Meeting of its Governing Consortium and also participate in its Working Group on Big Data and Digital Ecosystem for the Planet. These meetings were held in Canberra, Australia, during 4-8 November, in parallel with the GEO Week Ministerial Summit 2019.

The UN-SPBF was established at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in 2017 to serve as a platform for communication between academia, government, and industry to accelerate progress towards achieving the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With over 2000 member institutions representing science, policy, and business, the Forum aims to promote the diffusion of green technologies by harnessing science and technology, sustainable financing, and innovative policies. To do so, it facilitates thematic discussions between these communities and citizen science groups, showcases transformative solutions for sustainability, and acts as a link between its members and other UN bodies, such as the UNEA and the UN High Level Political Forum.

Our briefing to the Governing Consortium delved into the emissions gap and the role that businesses and sub-national entities can play in bridging it. The latest Emissions Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has shown that global greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily. To limit global warming to 1.5-degree Celsius, we need to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The existing commitments pledged by countries are grossly inadequate and will take us only about one-sixth of the way. This gulf between where we need to be in order to contain temperature rise to 1.5-degree Celsius and where we are likely to be is known as the emissions gap. Research has indicated that voluntarily climate action by businesses, cities, and regions can play a significant role not only in directly reducing greenhouse gas but also in catalyzing experimentation and learning about climate change mitigation.

The other briefings focused on two more global environmental challenges: biodiversity loss and local air pollution. Together, the scientific briefings set the context for the deliberations of the Governing Consortium. Diverse participants grappled with possibilities for addressing these challenges and achieving the environmental dimension of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and narrowed down on resource efficiency, nature-based solutions, and circular economy. The discussions highlighted the importance of technological innovation, specifically artificial intelligence, big data, and the Internet of Things; business innovation, especially in financing and procurement; and citizen science in aligning science, policy, and business to further increase resource efficiency, implement nature-based solutions, and realize a circular economy. Finally, the meeting also emphasized the need for engaging citizens, businesses, and governments in tracking performance and evaluating impact.

The Working Group on Big data and Digital Ecosystem for the Planet – co-chaired by Gilberto Camara, Director, Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and Edan Dionne, Vice-President of Environmental Management at IBM – delved specifically into the role big data can play in delivering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The panels and presentations at the working group discussed the imperative and challenge of disruptive technological innovation, highlighted advances in digital technologies for data collection, including live streaming and 5G, and showcased numerous platforms for organizing and visualizing big data. Some participants also demonstrated analytical capabilities of their solutions and use cases for the environment. The group also deliberated on and debated key issues surrounding big data, such as: addressing data gaps, formulating common data standards and global data policies, engaging citizen science communities and ensuring openness and transparency, and enabling access to state-of-the-art technologies for countries with uneven capacities.

The Working Group witnessed a ‘disruption’ on the second day, when participants expressed the desire to show more urgency in its deliberations and showed willingness in formulating and owing an action plan for the working group. Shereen Zorba, Head of the Secretariat, UN SPBF, welcomed the intervention and re-organized the agenda to include an impromptu brainstorming session on the role of the working group in contributing more meaningfully to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through the UN SPBF. With the help of the Secretariat, volunteers burnt the midnight oil to synthesize ideas from various sub-groups and share an initial action plan before the end of the meeting. The plan identified four areas of focus with a two-year timeframe: connecting existing platforms for a digital planet, developing prototypes and executing pilots to showcase the value of big data analytics for challenges such as climate change, identifying opportunities to translate science into decision-making, and raising the necessary funds and resources for implementing the action plan.

Based on our research, we think the UNSPBF and the Working Group would benefit from consideration of two key issues while articulating its role, formulating its strategy, and implementing its action plan. First, the role of ‘science’ was relatively thin in the meetings and limited largely to setting the context for the deliberations of the Governing Consortium. The social sciences and humanities are also relevant for addressing climate change and shedding light on individual, social, corporate, or political behavior. Specifically, the potential of the social sciences and humanities should be tapped for understanding and explaining why some businesses, cities, regions, or countries are more proactive in making climate commitment, what the barriers are at each level – whether individual, business, city, region, or country – and under which conditions climate action is likely to be successful in bridging the emissions gap.

Second, the use of the term ‘big data’ was occasionally synonymous with earth observations or remote sensing. Although some participants highlighted the importance of supplementing earth observations with contextual information – for example, through citizen science communities – and thinking about relationality – i.e., the ability of big data to absorb small data – a more encompassing conception of big data is necessary for realizing its potential. Big data is not just about volume, but also about velocity, variety, exhaustiveness, and scalability. Nonconventional data sources and types, such as text data, social media data, digital traces, and even academic literature should all be utilized more creatively and productively for advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Third, the discussion around data centered largely around its collection, analysis, and visualization at the national level. This is understandable as the UN is an international and inter-governmental organization. However, as our research has highlighted, sub-national and non-state action will play a key role in bridging the emissions gap and making progress towards the environmental dimension of the SDGs. Yet, data at the local level is scarce, difficult to find, and challenging to aggregate. The UNSPBF can play a key role in harnessing big data for addressing data gaps at this level and catalyzing bottom-up action for sustainable development.