Open Data—The Key to Unlocking Cities’ Potential on Climate

Cities are responsible for 80 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, while occupying only two percent of global land area. Considering that cities will be home to two-thirds of the human population by 2050, enlisting them in the fight against climate change is crucial to curb global warming and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Thankfully, an ever-growing number of cities and towns are welcoming this challenge and voicing their commitment to lead on climate change. Since 2014, more than 2,500 cities have submitted mitigation plans to the United Nations. And more than 9,000 towns and cities around the world have signaled their commitment to reduce emissions through the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy (GCOM).

However, as an increasing number of cities embark on the journey to a low-carbon future, they are running into the same, pervasive problem: missing data. More specifically, cities are missing the activity data—data on the magnitude of human activity resulting in GHG emissions or removals—that they need to estimate their own GHG inventories. This severely frustrates cities’ efforts because it means that they cannot target high emitting sectors, make informed policies and investments, use sound evidence to engage with stakeholders, or transparently monitor progress over time.

According to C40, accessing, analyzing, and managing data about climate change is one of the major barriers to city-level climate action. ICLEI has also called attention to the need for open and interconnected data to feed research and link policy across levels of government. It is very telling that of the 9,120 cities that are members of GCOM, only 118 have successfully completed a GHG inventory and 105 subsequently made climate targets. Open government can help change this.

An Open Government Solution

This is, in many cases, a data access issue. Indeed, many national governments are already collecting and compiling emissions-related data—but it is neither available nor scaled to fit cities’ needs. Disclosing this data would enable civil society organizations and city networks to downscale the data and derive city-level estimates that cities can use baseline their own emissions. This in turn could have several potential benefits, including:

  • Complementary national and local climate plans – Responsible for 80 percent of GHG emissions globally, cities can make or break national climate goals. Providing cities the data they need to make well-informed climate plans helps them implement more effective and ambitious actions that are easily measured against national climate targets.

  • Better, more transparent monitoring – Improved access to information about city-level emissions will allow municipal officials, civil society, and residents to better monitor city plans and track progress over time.

  • More informed and engaged citizenry – Citizens that are better informed about GHG emissions in their cities will be better prepared to advocate for policies that make their cities more livable and green. Better access to relevant information will likewise enable both city officials and residents to engage in informed and substantive conversations about the value and benefits of climate actions.

City-level climate data in action: Fredensborg, Denmark

The municipality of Fredensborg, in Denmark, has produced a GHG inventory since 2008, using data delivered directly by the national government in the Danish Carbon Emission Inventory Portal. Johan Vedel, Head of Climate & Energy Planning in Fredensborg, points out that having an inventory has enabled the municipal government to set realistic and achievable goals, take action wherever it makes the most sense within the municipality, and measure the effect of those actions. Since 2008, Fredensborg has registered a 38 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

Mr. Vedel sees two additional benefits in using national data to calculate municipal inventories. First, it ensures common standards and reliability in the data used by different cities in the country, enabling comparability across the city inventories. Second, using data available on the Carbon Emission Inventory Portal has allowed the city administration to save time and money when producing the inventory, enabling the municipality to spend those resources on actions to cut emissions.

A Call to Action for OGP Members

While political momentum behind city-level climate action is growing both on the international stage and within cities, tackling cities’ data needs remains a pervasive challenge—one that the OGP community is uniquely placed to address.

OGP members’ expertise on open data and access to information, OGP’s growing community of practice on climate change, and its strong civil society networks offer an unparalleled wealth of knowledge and partnerships that can sustain successful commitments to disclose activity data. Meanwhile, as OGP’s Local Program continues to grow, bridging cities’ data gaps presents a concrete area of cooperation between the national and local programs.

Such initiatives are not entirely new to OGP. For example, in 2017, Argentina deepened its commitment to open data by pledging to create a platform of climate risk maps and publish its GHG inventory in an open database. Similarly, Costa Rica committed to work with civil society to standardize a method to disclose data on climate change and climate finance and promote its access, reuse, and redistribution.

We call on OGP countries to take advantage of their Action Plans to commit to disclose activity data and empower cities to implement more evidence-based and transparent action on climate change and sustainable urban development. If successfully implemented, these commitments could play a significant role in catalyzing city-level action on climate change and sustainable development.