Home PublicationsCommentary Opening IEA Data is a Critical Step for Climate Research

Opening IEA Data is a Critical Step for Climate Research

by Gillian Diebold
Wind farm

The International Energy Agency (IEA)—a global energy forum that operates under the umbrella of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and focuses on monitoring global energy trends and promoting sound energy policy—will convene on March 23 its biennial ministerial meeting to discuss strategic priorities for global energy policy. On this year’s agenda is an IEA proposal to remove the paywall that currently restricts access to its comprehensive energy datasets. As the world works to transition away from fossil fuels, having open access to high-quality energy data is critical to measuring progress and promoting climate tech innovation. IEA member countries should approve the proposal to remove the paywall and fully commit to open data going forward. 

Opening IEA data will provide immense value to the global research community and will not cost member states much to do so. To access most IEA datasets, researchers must pay a subscription fee that can cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on the specific plan. For example, an individual looking to access a single dataset on energy prices would need to pay $1,600 per year. It costs $110,000 per year to access the largest package of IEA’s data. These prices can be extremely prohibitive for researchers, particularly those from lower-income countries, which could lead some to not use IEA data altogether. Moreover, the revenue derived from data sales only equates to roughly $6 million annually, which is one-fifth of the IEA’s budget. That means IEA’s 31 member countries would only need to contribute an additional $200,000 each year to cover the cost of open access to IEA data.

The proposal to make the IEA’s data freely available comes after years of concern over steep prices to access. In December 2021, a group of thirty academics published a letter to the IEA calling for it to drop its paywalls, stating that a “lack of data availability will lead to net-zero transition pathways that are both more costly and less effective than they should have been.” In other words, it will likely cost IEA’s member countries more money in the long run by not making this data available. Likewise, other climate researchers and open data watchdogs have urged the agency to end its subscription model. Most IEA member states already support open data within their borders and should promote it on the international stage as well, especially among organizations they fund.

Releasing IEA datasets as open data will maximize the value of the information it collects by allowing more researchers and other users to benefit from it. The IEA holds some of the most important data when it comes to crafting effective climate solutions. For example, IEA has final energy consumption data, which is data on end use of energy by households and industry. Detailed country-level data on final end-use energy is critical to developing energy models and policy for the climate transition. Energy policy debates should revolve around this important data and IEA members should make sure everyone has access to it, including non-IEA member states. 

Open IEA data will also help energy research become more efficient and rigorous. Prohibitive costs and restrictions on data sharing mean researchers often try to piece together energy data from other sources.  For example, the Global Energy Innovation Index uses some of IEA’s limited open data to provide insights into how countries contribute to the global energy innovation system, but if IEA were to open its entire data catalog, tools like this could provide an even more comprehensive picture. In addition, publicly available data from other sources is often missing or incomplete. With the IEA global energy dataset behind a paywall, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy has become the default alternative. Among other drawbacks such as a focus on primary energy consumption, this dataset focuses on commercially traded fuels, leaving out lower-income countries almost entirely. Moreover, due to IEA’s data sharing restrictions, researchers cannot share analyses built on IEA data, and are unable to verify or check IEA data against their own or other datasets and models. This goes against scientific research principles of transparency and reproducibility. 

Even if the IEA removes the paywall, which it should, IEA should still maintain its high caliber of data, dataset management, and unbiased analysis. Opening energy data will provide policymakers with the information necessary to make informed decisions about energy policy for years to come. IEA member states would be wise to approve the proposal.

Image credit: Flickr user Geoff Livingston

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