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How sharing data can help save the planet

Credit: Alamy

Michael Comer, Sophia Kladaki and Isobel Drever | Atkins

4 min read Partner content

As pioneering approaches are needed more than ever to tackle the climate crisis, developing a data sharing policy framework for Net Zero could play a vital part.

Data sharing, when optimised, can lead to good outcomes. Take anonymised public health research statistics for example; having a broad data set of a population unlocks knowledge that’s more than just the sum of its parts. It reveals a bigger picture and allows patterns to emerge. From there, data helps facilitate effective decision-making, so that healthcare organisations can implement appropriate interventions. In this data-driven age, the vast amount of consumer data held by large organisations could, and should, be safely shared to help us meet the key milestones on the UK’s journey to achieving Net Zero by 2050. Think of all the possibilities, especially within transport and energy.

Decarbonising power supply and transitioning to low and zero carbon transport will eventually reduce these emissions within the next 10 to 20 years, but if we could share data that’s drawn from right across the transport and energy sectors that reveals, for example, transport and energy usage patterns, we can better inform our understanding of where emissions are generated. This could have a significant impact: in 2019, domestic transport was responsible for producing 27% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, with residential energy use responsible for 19%*. This kind of data sharing would allow us to identify behaviour and patterns to target activity that could significantly reduce our collective CO2 emissions sooner. But this kind of data sharing is not currently happening at the size and scale we need it to. So, what can we do to get everyone on board?

Caution around the security of data sharing

The public is naturally cautious when it comes to sharing their data while organisations are legally-bound to protect their data. The main concerns that arise relate to privacy, cyber security, and the threat of misuse of this highly valuable commodity. We need to address these concerns and explore what is possible and what is safe; because the challenge that the world is now facing, namely meeting tough Net Zero targets, calls for some radical thinking and new approaches.  

We believe that a robust data sharing policy framework, that can govern data sharing in a fair, ethical, and appropriate way is the solution. Sector-specific standards already exist: in financial services, the creation of an Open Banking Standard enables banks to share customers’ financial information securely with authorised providers, including other banks, apps and cashflow tools. Consumers and businesses who want to access such benefits must opt-in to Open Banking before data is shared, and providers are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

Creating such a framework nationally will need muscle: it will need to advocate the value of data sharing by clearly articulating the potential benefits it could deliver for the UK in reaching Net Zero by 2050.

Any national framework must also make sure that the UK’s data regime is rooted in appropriate levels of transparency, has robust safeguards, upholds data protection laws, and offers credible assurances. Finally, it will need to give people the opportunity to control their own data by allowing them, for example, to opt out of the data sharing “scheme”.  But could it be the case that when we know our data is contributing to achieving the Net Zero target, we’d be more willing to share it?

Towards a data sharing policy framework

We believe that a data sharing policy framework is needed to align government departments’ data strategies, such as DCMS’ and BEIS’, resulting in an overarching data sharing strategy for Net Zero. As this article written by Jeni Tennison, Vice President of the Open Data Institute, states: “Many [government departments] are using data both operationally and strategically to achieve their departmental objectives…” but public bodies need to: “Improve access to data to support people, communities and organisations in the wider economy and society…” Surely this must also apply to our approaches on climate change, a concern that affects all of us.

Now is the time for government departments to think broadly about what tools are at their disposal to collectively strive to reach Net Zero by 2050. Because useful, transformative data is out there – it can help us plan, adapt and mitigate – we just need to get the right checks and balances in place through a robust framework to help us optimise its true worth.

*Source: Department for Transport; Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

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