Integrated data is key to understanding climate change 

With Cop27 underway, deputy national statistician Alison Pritchard explains how getting the foundations right on data will help the world stand its best chance of securing its future
Photo: REUTERS/Sayed Sheasha

By Alison Pritchard

09 Nov 2022

In the build-up to last year’s Cop26 conference we released the prototype for the cross-government UK Climate Change Statistics Portal, pulling together relevant and timely statistics all into one place for the first time. This helped UK policymakers and the public to be informed about this very important global issue.   

 With a new version of the Portal being launched ahead of Cop27, I find myself reflecting on how it has evolved over the past 12 months. Its origins are a tool to inform government analysts and experts, but the prototype reached a far wider audience, with people from beyond government and members of the public sharing their feedback with us. We have had a really positive response.  

We’ve listened to its users and with our latest updates we have not only made the Portal more intuitive for people to use, but through chart enhancements on the purpose-built dashboards, and more streamlined layouts, we have also given users improved functionality, helping them visualise key climate change statistics.  

To echo Sir Patrick Vallance’s praise for the Portal at a House of Lords select committee hearing, it’s a fantastic platform and I urge people to take a look and make the most of it.  

The amount of interest we have already seen in the Portal just goes to underline the importance of the issue to people and, indeed, recent Office for National Statistics data shows that three quarters of adults in Britain say they are worried about climate change, with more than a quarter of businesses also concerned about its economic impact.  

Of course, climate change is a highly complex topic and not a problem that can be tackled with isolated disconnected data. The ‘three Ls’ - linked, local and longitudinal, is a helpful framing to support the effective use of data in policy making. Linked data means bringing together already published statistics and data from multiple diverse sources to provide a rich, granular view of what people and businesses are doing and the impact of those actions. Local data provides an accurate and granular picture of the differences existing between localities and geographic patterns. Finally, longitudinal data supports the testing of policy before and after implementation, ensuring better decision making and impact analysis.  

That’s exactly what the Integrated Data Service, which powers the Portal, offers. It marks a step-change in data-sharing; how the government collaborates with researchers; and how this work is disseminated to the public.  

By enabling the pulling in of data assets from across the public, private and third sectors - rather than waiting for a policy question to emerge and then rushing to try and gather the data to answer it – the IDS means we already have the data we need to answer such questions, even if those questions haven’t been asked yet.  

The power of integrated data to look at efforts to achieve net zero and adapt to climate change is growing exponentially larger, providing unique opportunities for institutions here in the UK to collaborate.  

But we mustn’t forget that climate change is a global problem that ultimately requires global data and like many, if not all, of the greatest challenges facing us, it is best tackled collaboratively. There are a number of initiatives already underway to bring climate change statistics together internationally by the likes of the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to name but a few. We share that ambition and we will continue to work alongside those and other organisations around the world for the public good.  

Often the countries most affected by climate change are those without the resources needed to plan for and monitor its impacts effectively. That’s why the Office for National Statistics is working with the Wellcome Trust on a climate and health project to bridge data and statistical capacity gaps that exist in some low to middle income countries, in a bid to advance global research. The project will involve many organisations and researchers around the world and set new standards for monitoring the consequences of climate change on people’s health at national, local and global levels.  

The issue of climate change is something that already affects us – we only have to look at the summer heatwaves in the UK to realise that. But it’s in the longer term - what we need to achieve in maybe 10, 20 or 30 years’ time – that we need to realistically set our sights on. And the challenges of integrating data at a global level are no different.    

So what I say to people is let’s focus on the foundations of what we want to build, both in the UK and globally. Let’s get the data architecture, the risk management of data assets and the technical architecture right. Let’s work to get useable international data standards and statistical methods so that we can hope to integrate global data into our climate change analyses one day. If we do these things today we will see the benefits further downstream, and the world will stand its best chance of securing its future.  

Alison Pritchard is deputy national statistician

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