Are We Missing (Half) the Point?: Two Things COP21 Negotiations Cannot Overlook

Are We Missing (Half) the Point?: Two Things COP21 Negotiations Cannot Overlook
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More than 140 heads of state and leaders gathered at the beginning of this week in Paris for COP21. Their challenge is to agree on a new climate accord, the third UN climate agreement in 23 years. This agreement intends to limit CO2 emissions, thereby restricting the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2°C.

Unfortunately, since previous climate agreements, the trend of rising CO2 emissions and correlated global temperatures has not stopped. We are currently facing an historic high in CO2 emissions and, according to NASA, have seen a 0.8°C rise in temperatures since 1880; two-thirds of that rise has occurred since 1975. The current trajectory has the temperature set not just for a 2°C rise, but rather for a 4°C to even 6°C increase. This would render some parts of Earth uninhabitable.

There are, therefore, actually two issues at hand at COP21. The first has been well publicized: negotiating how to establish country plans to limit CO2 emissions that are more than just ink on paper. The second has received less attention: How do we manage the climate change that is already happening - and which will only intensify in the near future regardless of what is decided in Paris? And furthermore what role can data play in these efforts?

While, the consequences of the rise in global temperature are already being felt in many parts of the world, including in rich countries, areas prone to natural disasters such as typhoons, tsunamis and tropical cyclones are hit particularly hard. The UNISDR's Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that future losses caused by these disasters could to amount 314 billion USD annually, disproportionally affecting developing and poor countries. Among these countries, the South Pacific region will be particularly affected as it bears the double burden of rising sea levels and being on the front-lines of natural disasters.

So what can be done? Developing countries are justifiably pressuring the developed world to foot the bill of climate adaptation efforts. (Developed countries are after all the main culprits of the past rise in deleterious climate gas concentration in the atmosphere). The total amount developing countries are asking for is 100 USD billion annually, of which, according to a recent OECD report, an average 57 USD billion has been put on the table between 2013-14. So the money is trickling in, but what about thinking through how to spend it?

Action around climate change adaptation needs to be co-ordinated, planned, monitored and evaluated. Otherwise, we risk entering into fire-fighting mode instead of developing a more strategic response. A key element to any adaptation strategy is accurate, timely and comprehensive data on the various aspects of disaster risk management. We need to document, analyse, monitor and project to get at what works best, where, why and how. We need to build registers of best practices and from this build early warning systems and better disaster response infrastructure.

Let's take a recent example.

When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu, with help from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, the country carried out comprehensive damage assessments using different types of drones, satellite imagery and GPS devices. This technology mix proved to be an effective alternative to relying on crowdsourcing, and additionally helped gather data on different topographical aspects that were not only useful to prepare better for future disasters, but also for other government programmes such as coastal management initiatives.

This is just one example of how new technology and data can help improve our response to natural disasters, increase their predictability and better prepare societies to withstand them. Adequate data can also help with the on-going relocation of communities, for instance. This is a process which has already started in many affected islands and is starting to be used to predict and monitor population displacement after earthquakes such as the one in Nepal.

To do all of this we need to tap into more than just mobile phone data. There are also household surveys, censuses, administrative data sources and other forms of big data, such as data from satellite imageries. But we also need to make these different sources speak to each other - interoperability is of the essence. The good news is that with relatively little money - i.e. just 1% of the 100 USD billion currently under discussion for climate financing - we can make a big difference.

Of course, investments in data and statistical capacity will not stop climate change-related disasters from happening. But that is not the only goal. They will help mitigate the risks that are already manifesting themselves by better targeting adaptation initiatives, using scarce resources more effectively when disaster strikes and by helping to build a knowledge base around what is effective. As COP21 discussions heat up, let's keep our eyes open to the role of data and statistics, otherwise we risk flying blind.

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