This summer has proven to be one of the hottest for the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK). Last month, the UK faced its hottest days on record while EU member states like France, Portugal, and Greece continue to struggle with wildfires. These are concrete examples of weather emergencies and natural disasters Europe will continue to face as it tackles climate change. And these climate disasters are precisely why access to sustainability data—including geospatial, earth observation, and mobility data—is more critical for Europe than ever before. To improve access to this data, the EU should create supranational open data legislation that can promote and power sustainable innovation that tackles climate change.
In the past, the EU has created directives like the Public Sector Information Directive—which compelled member states to make publicly-held data available for both commercial and non-commercial reuse—and the INSPIRE directive—which established technical specifications to open up and harmonize spatial data across the EU—to inform public sector data use and infrastructure. Now, the EU has proposed legislation that will make public sector data with high environmental impact much more accessible and reusable, especially for AI applications, by harmonizing the technical, legal, and granular specifications of member states’ geospatial, earth observation and environment, meteorological, statistics, companies and company ownership, and mobility data sets. These policies are key stepping stones to creating open data that can support the climate action policymakers and the public desire, especially as Europe braces itself for more summers like the current one.
Researchers and innovators have already found ways to harness sustainability data to tackle the climate emergency. Sustainability data can provide critical information the public and private sectors need to prevent heat emergencies in the future and provide innovative solutions that help humanity best deal with climate change’s effects.
Data from satellites and airborne imagery can provide critical environmental data to monitor and plan heat remediation efforts that counteract the urban heat island effect. Data related to commuting and mobility can help create public transport solutions that reduce the carbon emissions and pollutants caused by traffic congestion. Geospatial and weather data can allow farmers to use precision agriculture to optimize the use of water, fertilizer, and pesticides, reducing the overapplication of chemicals and greenhouse gas emissions. Even retailers can use energy consumption data in stores, warehouses, and logistics to ensure they hit key carbon emissions metrics. Analyzing household energy consumption through open data-based tools could save the EU 5.8 million tonnes of oil. Settlement maps and solar irradiance data can provide insights on maximising the technical potential and adoption of rooftop solar systems—potentially increasing the EU’s solar energy production from 353 terawatt-hours (TWh) to above 467 TWh.
However, none of these initiatives would be possible without access to data. The EU has had successful initiatives that provided high-value data for new research and applications. But, the EU should do much more, especially creating supranational open data legislation that makes publicly-held data available, harmonized, and findable by default.
The UK and the United States provide a model for open data policy. Thanks to the UK’s focus on open data in the 2010s, the UK’s Office for National Statistics has created a robust repository for data of all kinds, including environmental data. In fact, the UK consistently ranks as a leader in open data initiatives—having created one of the most comprehensive data collections of government, local, and public body information accessible and reusable by the public. Like how the UK’s creation of its Open Government License and data repository opened up national UK data to researchers and innovators, the United States OPEN Government Data Act requires government data to be machine-readable, accessible, and reusable by default. Establishing a similar policy in the EU that standardizes how the member states treat data would provide substantial economic and social benefits, including making it easier to understand and track climate-and-sustainability-affected practices between member states.
A supranational open data policy in the EU would help make more publicly held data available in lagging EU member states like Lithuania, Greece, and Malta. Simultaneously, supranational legislation would ensure that more insights can be garnered regionally as each member state’s publicly held data would be similarly available and harmonized by default. From a sustainability perspective, a supranational open data policy in the EU could take the best elements of EU member states whose open data policies outperform others. Denmark and Finland have the most accessible and reusable data in Europe regarding information that affects emissions, biodiversity, and vulnerability—outpacing even the open data leaders like the UK. Access to sustainability data like Denmark’s or Finland’s at the EU level would help guide the Union as it navigates climate change, sustainability legislation, and supranational solutions.
If the EU wants to drive sustainability solutions, creating supranational legislation that makes publicly held data harmonized and reusable by default is a vital next step. Doing so would ensure that the European data economy leads the world in all types of data-driven innovation—including sustainability solutions.