BLOG: The Importance of Data Accessibility in the Push towards Sustainability

As part of Groundwork’s Local Action, Global Impact campaign, Kickstart Trainee Harry Grosvenor reflects on how Big Data can help us make more sustainable choices.

As a young person I have borne witness to the ever-increasing accessibility of data. Data-driven approaches have been adopted across every facet of modern society, from recruitment to choosing a venue for date night, data is everywhere. Society’s increasing reliance on data is often criticised, those bemoaning experiences being boiled down to star ratings or attaching financial values to entire ecosystems clearly have a point. However, in the push for net zero, I believe that data is one of our greatest tools.

The benefits of data accessibility are seen throughout the quest for environmental sustainability. Data is key for scientists researching the issues, key for governments needing to know what actions to take and when, key for businesses and households seeking to understand their impact on the world and is also key for the current and future push to net zero by 2050 (2030 here in Suffolk).

Academic Accessibility

The most obvious need for data is evident in the scientific community researching climate change on the front lines. True, both in the researching of processes causing climate change and the struggle for solutions.

Before joining Groundwork, my background was in oceanography where a Masters degree allowed me to research topics that wouldn’t have been possible as recently as a decade ago and this is all down to the increased availability and accessibility of data that we see today.

My dissertation and following research utilised a slew of resources I was able to access for free from the comfort of my own home. Searching through so called ‘Big Data Archives’ I was able to research Arctic sea-ice melt, its impacts on the thermodynamic structure of the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic’s current systems, despite working from a student-house desk mid-pandemic.

This increasing pool of resources is echoed throughout climate science with innumerable research papers published without the main author needing to collect their own primary data. This is clearly a huge success story for equality in science, more equal and accessible science means better and further-reaching science and is largely down to the increasing accessibility of data.

Government Accessibility

This has led to the issue being too big for governments to ignore. Too many reports detailing the devastating impacts of climate change are being published to do nothing, and too many people then have access to these reports as well as to what governments’ intended actions are. With protests like the School Strike for Climate an example response to government inaction.

Thankfully for governments, data availability makes it easier to react to these reports and incentivise green practices. Grants and subsidies become easier to setup, advertise and award as the impacts of carbon-saving technologies become well defined and known. Schemes like the Business Energy Efficiency (BEE) Anglia, Suffolk Climate Change Partnership (SCCP) and the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) have all had recent positive impact, due in part to data accessibility.

Business and Household Accessibility

With the government finding it easier to incentivise environmental action it becomes easier for business and households to take advantage of these incentives. The SEG in particular is heavily reliant on the availability of data with the amount of electricity generated by onsite renewable generators (solar PV etc.) and exported back to the grid being monitored and determining financial return.

It also becomes easier for businesses and households to know their own individual environmental impacts, vital knowledge when trying to reduce them. Groundwork sees this too with one of the key steps in becoming accredited by the Carbon Charter being the carbon footprinting process. Following this, data can be used in the reduction process by setting, tracking and achieving Science Based Targets.

The availability of data has not just made it easier to cut emissions but also easier to cut costs. Energy efficiency is one of the first and most cost-effective methods of reducing both environmental impacts and electricity/heating bills. With data now not just helping to save the planet but also community wallets!

Future Accessibility?

What does the future of data accessibility look like? How will a continued ramp up of the availability of sustainability data manifest? Possible eventualities may include things like:

  • More widely seen carbon footprint information on goods/services.
  • Even more data available for scientists as new techniques are developed (new algorithms developed for freely available satellite imagery, etc.).
  • Better and more interactive free software to encourage public interaction with sustainability (like the En-ROADS climate simulator).

One thing is for sure though, it is absolutely a good da(y)-ta (sorry!) collect more data.

Blog by:  Harry Grosvenor – Carbon Charter Assistant, Groundwork East.

A picture of the author, Harry Grosvenor