How data without borders supports climate action

Expedition 49 crew members capture a nighttime view of the Strait of Gibraltar with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and Progress spacecraft in the foreground. (Photo: NASA)

As the US officially pulled out of the Paris agreement on Wednesday, government officials, academics, private businesses and international organisations tuned in to GEO Week 2020 to assert their commitment to tackling climate change through data sharing.

Climate action, sustainable development and disaster management were among the issues raised at several online events this week organised by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), a Geneva-based intergovernmental partnership composed of 112 State members as well as 133 participating organisations. The aim was to coordinate international efforts to share data gathered from earth monitoring.

“Data, whether it’s from Earth observation or in situ data, is really important for governments and decision makers to make quality decisions,” stressed Karine Siegwart, vice director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) on Thursday during an online event where countries, including Vietnam, Ukraine and Costa Rica, shared how they are using earth observations for their national strategies.

Karin Siegwart went on to present Switzerland’s digital strategy adopted in 2019 and its Open Data Swiss portal, which aims to “use data visualisation to communicate insights and contribute factual data driven arguments to political topics and to tell stories with the data”. The platform features graphics and mappings, for example, of different biotopes and flora.

Dr Vu Anh Tuan from the Vietnam National Space Center also presented one of the projects it is developing with the assistance of Australia, called the Vietnam Open Data Cube. It will help to monitor rice, forest and water, in a country regularly struck by natural disasters. “Every year, we have around ten typhoons as well as floods and landslides,” Vu Anh Tuan said. “In forecasting we are doing quite well now, but we need more information for risk assessment, evacuation and rescue.”

Why this week matters. Despite keeping a low profile, for the past 15 years, GEO has been coordinating efforts to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). If GEOSS sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. Its purpose is to interlink thousands of observation systems from around the world, from NASA to the EU’s Earth observation programme Copernicus, into one single approach called GEOSS Platform. It aims to increase the understanding of Earth processes and improve predictive capabilities. For these systems to work together, GEOSS is creating common technical standards so that the information gathered through different instruments can be combined into coherent data sets.

How open data can contribute to climate action. Steven Ramage, head of external relations at GEO, is convinced that monitoring the environment is essential for tackling climate impact. “Earth observations support insights and evidence for policy development and decision-making and hopefully that helps with action on the ground,” he explained to Geneva Solutions.

“We wouldn't know about climate change if it weren't for data and observations. We have been able to identify the ozone layer as well as greenhouse gases. We're even looking at plastic in the oceans from space,” he added.

But gathering data is just the first step. Convincing governments and IOs to share their data sets is the real challenge: “We have been pushing data sharing for some time and we have had some success. We have had countries that have opened up their data, for example China and Japan last year.”

Roadblocks ahead. Even when enormous amounts of data and scientific evidence is collected and made available, governments don’t always act accordingly.

“Governments have different priorities. While regions like Africa, Asia and parts South America, who have been devastated by extreme weather events, will be more focused on disaster risk reduction, governments in the Northern hemisphere will prioritise economic growth. We have to adjust and work around that,” Steven Ramage said.