This blog was written by Chester Ling — a DDL Student Research Assistant and undergraduate student in Environmental Earth Systems Science at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.


I am now 5 months into my research internship at the Data-Driven EnviroLab (DDL) with a few weeks left of my stay at Chapel Hill. Amidst the global momentum in taking stock of our shared progress towards a climate-neutral future, I thought it was a fitting opportunity to reflect on both what I have achieved as part of the DDL team and what I have learned from the experience of working alongside with a global and interdisciplinary team of researchers.


The role of non-state actors

2023 is a crucial milestone in our concerted effort to combat global warming; it marks the halfway point of a 15-year journey to the United Nations’ goal of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by half. The Global Stocktake, a collective 2-year review process that assesses global progress towards achieving the intended outcomes of the Paris Agreement, is officially in stage 3: consideration of outputs (check out my visual explainer here). As mentioned in ‘Key Finding #2’ from the Global Stocktake Synthesis Report released in early September, the role of non-party stakeholders in driving systemic change cannot be neglected if we wish to achieve our climate goals.

Non-state actors play an indispensable role in providing on-the-ground perspectives and practical insights on how to implement viable measures towards fulfilling climate targets. This is also reflected by an increase in public engagements and consultation sessions held by standard-setters, non-profits, and government authorities, many of whom have made their data publicly available.

Having attended the Duke Energy Data Analytics Symposium on accelerating sustainability with digital tools and data analytics in October, I was introduced firsthand to the wider community of researchers, corporations, and nonprofits. It was fascinating to hear about the plethora of work involved in decarbonizing the energy sector using practices like ethical data management, real-time optimization for energy production and dispatch, and community-verified implementation strategies.

Despite the Symposium’s jam-packed schedule of panel discussions and networking sessions, there was still a key component missing from the event — how do we establish a lasting and equitable impact on the ground?


The case for community-based and contextualized data

Tangible impacts require data to make evidence-driven decisions, particularly on a community level. This is because the challenges we face on a global scale disaggregate on a local level. As Einstein once said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” A global climate catastrophe requires context-specific and nuanced, neighborhood-level evidence gathering to ensure a comprehensive and holistic solution. Hence, our decarbonization solutions require community-scale data to ensure equity and impact in the long term.

As a data-driven research organization, DDL focuses predominantly on open-source data to conduct its analyses. Through my research, I have explored a variety of disaggregated data sets from open data platforms like the CDP Open Data Portal, Global Covenant of Mayors, Humanitarian Data Exchange by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and many more. 

Each dataset is contextualized with a different set of characteristics and collection methodologies, which present a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Take the Urban Environment & Social Inclusion Index (UESI) as an example. In working with the UESI dataset on this project, I encountered numerous real-world obstacles, particularly with data revisions and updates. Some of these challenges were associated with data sourcing and wrangling including inconsistent methodology, missing or inaccurate information, and unintended or improper formatting. By addressing these challenges, stakeholders can strive towards data and evidence-based solutions on a local level.


How data enables credibility, accountability, and transparency

Three key factors need to be addressed to ensure that we are on track to meet our climate goals: credibility, accountability, and transparency, all of which are intertwined with the quality of information and data-centric derivatives such as benchmarks and policies. For example, the lack of quality and robust ESG data has raised concerns about reporting by publicly listed companies, sustainability-focused fund managers, and even policymakers in developing regions.

With the bulk of the discourse and momentum shifting away from top-down Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and towards sub-national and community-based implementation, non-state actors are facing increasing pressure to address stakeholder credibility and transparency. The latest UN report ‘Strengthening Transparency of Non-State Actors’ highlights the challenges and opportunities associated with this diverse community of stakeholders, which include bridging the climate data gap with digital tools and robust data collection methods, as well as introducing standardized frameworks for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). I was pleased to see DDL contributed as a co-author on this report, specifically on the existing landscape of non-state actor integration with national-level actions such as NDCs.

A high-quality dataset enables transparency through consistent and coordinated efforts to ensure that sufficient information is collected at every stage of the process. Comprehensive temporal and spatial coverage will also provide necessary details to make quality decisions beyond academic research, such as sustainability reporting and disclosures, supply chain management, and strategic business decision-making. Without purposeful and robust data and information-gathering processes, we would not have high-quality data to help achieve our climate goals.


Data solutions at DDL

Thankfully, DDL’s projects all share a common purpose in addressing the most pressing data challenges within the climate space, enabling more robust, ambitious, and effective policymaking decisions at all levels.

Even though I was initially tasked by the CN Yang Scholars Programme in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to pursue a final-year capstone project focused on the UESI, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a range of other data-led initiatives such as ChatNetZero, Net Zero Tracker (NZT), and ClimActor, to name a few.

It has also been a treat to work with other teams through my involvement in side projects, including an updated site for the Net Zero Tracker with new consolidated information, as well as a revamped methodology for DDL’s work at the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Future of Clean Air. From designing infographics to data scraping, I am proud to say that my full engagement paid off, contributing to both the sustainability cause and my professional growth.

As I head into my final weeks working with DDL, I can confidently share that my experience here has been filled with nothing but dynamism, passion, and delight. While the forefront of climate and sustainability space is rapidly evolving, it is only about to get more exciting and rewarding with more hands on deck.

With more challenges come greater opportunities to create impactful solutions, and I look forward to contributing to these solutions at DDL and beyond.