Why the world needs a common infrastructure for reporting climate targets

In this piece for the WEF, the authors argue that climate-focused digital public infrastructure can enable better measurement, reporting, and verification of climate targets at scale and across countries.
Catherine Diam-Valla, Keyzom Ngodup Massally, Reina Otsuka, Varad Pande | 7 November 2022

The world is facing extreme weather events, and with the likelihood that the average global temperature will exceed 1.5°C, the time to act is now. Climate change is the single greatest challenge facing humanity today. As we prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the world needs demonstrated progress to help build trust and momentum for ambitious climate action. And interoperable, open-source technologies in the form of digital public goods – many of which have been championed in countries such as India, Uganda and Kenya – can be harnessed to achieve this aim.

What are NDCs – Nationally Determined Contributions – and what’s needed for climate progress?

Signed in 2015, the Paris Agreement was a momentous breakthrough towards this collective action: 193 parties (192 countries, plus the European Union) came together and made actionable commitments. Countries sought to outline their own national actions to address climate change, and were intent on expanding their ambition every five years.

These commitments are known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, and cover a vast array of pledges, ranging from mitigation (i.e. reducing emissions), adaptation (i.e. adjusting to the changes we are already locked into), to supporting actions such as finance and technology transfer.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through its Climate Promise, has been supporting more than 120 countries to strengthen these commitments and turn them into concrete action. These efforts cut across a range of sectors, from energy and agriculture to waste and water. Measuring progress however is costly, labour-intensive and error-prone.

The UNFCCC provides guidance on the Enhanced Transparency Framework, which is a broad prescription for reporting on NDCs. Yet across countries, NDCs vary extensively in their scope, units of measurement, time frame and reporting approach. This makes it challenging to assess progress across the board and to get a global snapshot of how our collective action is faring.

What’s needed for more transparent NDC measurement, reporting and verification

As countries prepare to report on their NDCs, it is evident that a lack of integrated data-management systems, in addition to the varying measuring methodologies, will pose challenges related to accurately measuring progress. At the national level for example, existing data-sharing infrastructure for climate change tends to be inadequate – when, for example, the data reported is typically shared manually, in bespoke formats, or the data flows across a complex web of stakeholders, with varying control and visibility.

This reality calls for another type of collective action – the need to foster a climate-focused digital public infrastructure (DPI) that is interoperable and open source to enable transparent measurement, reporting, verification (MRV) and aggregation of NDCs at scale across countries. Climate-reporting truth lies in unified data connectivity, which provides universal visibility, communication and actionability while ensuring alignment with evolving UNFCCC guidance.

An MRV-DPI that is built responsibly could potentially:

● Enable collection and aggregation of high-quality data on NDCs within each country, providing an accurate and timely handle on our collective progress across sectors and regions.

● Help scale fledgling carbon markets, as high-quality and real-time reporting and verification of emissions is key to a cross-country carbon market that is trusted by buyers and sellers.

● Integrate emerging and innovative data capture efforts, such as the Land & Carbon Lab initiative, which uses geo-spatial technology to track land-related carbon stocks and flows around the world. While the methodologies are still being developed, creating a ground for easy comparison can encourage exploration by academic, non-profit and private sector players.

recent impact study by the Digital Public Goods Alliance and UNDP estimates that such a MRV-DPI system – particularly one that creates a replicable digital NDC monitoring system and enables interoperability between reporting mechanisms and various climate finance platforms across countries – could lead to reduced carbon emissions by 2030 (in amounts that are at minimum 3-4% of low and middle-income countries’ targets).

DPI’s added value

Given the plethora of data analytics and monitoring systems that have emerged in recent years, a reasonable question is: How is a DPI approach different from any tech platform that collects emissions and other NDC data? Most importantly, what would make a system built with a DPI approach truly useful and effective at a global scale?

First, the core underlying tech platform for such an MRV-DPI system would be open source, with the code for building country-level platforms available freely to every country. This would enable standardization and rapid, cost-effective adoption by countries. Countries could avoid getting locked into disparate proprietary tech systems of different tech vendors. This approach is similar to DHIS2, the world’s largest Health Information Management System platform, in use by ministries of health in 73 low and middle-income countries. DHIS2 is an example of a DPI that has seen massive uptake and sharing among countries. Built into this approach would be common standards and schemas for data collection and data exchange, to tackle data connectivity and interoperability towards ensuring consistency on what is measured across countries, while respecting the national contexts.

Second, such a MRV-DPI system would have open application programming interfaces, often referred to as APIs in tech-speak, which basically means it will be easy for other tech systems to plug in to it. This could enable smooth aggregation of data across countries, and the integration of other project-level MRV tools and platforms into the system (such as the Land & Carbon Lab data example referenced above). It could potentially spur more innovations on top, such as tools that would enable advanced analytics.

Third, while openness is at the heart of a DPI approach, equally critical is ensuring there are adequate safeguards, such as the incorporation of Privacy-by-Design principles, so that household and firm-level data is not put at risk of being compromised, misused or double-counted.

In addition to these core features, other desirable features would include: agility, so additional modules and features can be added easily as more becomes known on what needs to be measured and how; intelligence, so rapid analytics can be conducted and reports can be generated automatically at various levels of the chain, flagging errors, outliers, etc.; and future readiness, so that emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning, blockchain, internet of things, etc. can smoothly be deployed to speed up and improve the quality of data collection, processing and verification, as well as analytics to better prioritize actions.

The ‘collective action problem’

Some economists describe climate change as a collective action problem. Indeed, it is one that requires everyone to act in unison at a speed and scale never done before in human history. The good news is that, we sit at a moment in history when an MRV-DPI approach is not illusory but eminently doable. We are seeing DPI success stories across spaces such as legal digital identity, digital payments including government to people (G2P) payments, education and vaccination. These systems are emerging as the highway and railroad systems for the digital world across domains. Building on UNDP’s experience in supporting digital MRV systems development for countries such as Kenya, Uganda and the Gambia, the core architecture is proven and ready to be brought to scale.

Given how critical an MRV-DPI approach can be in serving as a global, interoperable climate data exchange, we need bold leadership and deep collaboration to champion it. The Future of Digital Cooperation: Building Resilience through Safe, Trusted, and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure event at the recent 77th Session of the UN General Assembly marked the first significant gathering of countries to advance the development and use of DPI to achieve the Global Goals. This included leading countries such as India, some of whose most successful programmes are driven by world-class DPI. India’s upcoming G20 presidency provides a unique opportunity to shepherd such an initiative across a group that covers more than 80% of global emissions and has both political and financial leadership to come together.

Organizations such as UNDP, which are at the forefront of working with countries to frame and implement their NDCs, are working in collaboration with other multilaterals and climate leaders such as the UNFCCC, the World Bank, governments and other key stakeholders to propel the next moment of collective action. A climate-focused MRV-DPI is not merely an idea, it is within our reach and requires only focus and collaboration to be realized.

Catherine Diam-Valla: Climate Change Technical Specialist, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Keyzom Ngodup Massally: Head of Digital Programmes, Chief Digital Office, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Reina Otsuka: Lead, Digital Innovation, Nature, Climate and Energy, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Varad Pande: Partner, Omidyar Network India Advisors