Data Decade

Data Decade: Data and climate change

Mon Dec 19, 2022
$download_content = get_field('download_content');

As part of the Data Decade, we are exploring how data surrounds and shapes our world through 10 stories from different data perspectives. The 10th, Data and climate change, examines what data helps us understand about the climate crisis, while seeing how data infrastructure and data sharing can help us to tackle it in the next decade and beyond

Find out more about the Data Decade

By Gavin Starks, Founder of Icebreaker One, and Emma Thwaites, Head of Communication and Marketing at the ODI


As part of the Data Decade, we are exploring how data surrounds and shapes our world through 10 stories from different data perspectives. The 10th, Data and climate change, examines what data helps us understand about the climate crisis, while seeing how data infrastructure and data sharing can help us to tackle it in the next decade and beyond.

Listen to the podcast now

Listen to “Data And Climate Change” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

You can also listen and subscribe to the ODI’s podcast on your preferred platform: Apple Podcasts | Spotify

This is Data Decade, a podcast by the ODI. 

Emma Thwaites:
Hello and welcome back to Data Decade from the ODI I. I’m Emma Thwaites, and in this series we’ve been looking at the last 10 years of data, the next decade ahead, and the transformational possibilities for data in future. We’ve looked at a range of topics from data in arts and culture and how data’s shaping our cities, to trust and misinformation and the relationship between data and technology.

But in this final episode of the series, we’re going to look at how data can help to tackle the climate emergency. As we’re all aware, it’s the greatest challenge that we face. Yet, over the past decade, data has given us an increasingly sophisticated picture of the effects of global warming and has generated innovations with the power to help change our future.

So, we’ll examine what data tells us and helps us to understand about climate change, while seeing how data infrastructure and data sharing can help us to get to net zero. Can better data sharing and transparency drive innovation and help tackle the climate crisis? Let’s find out more.

Welcome to Data Decade.

Emma Thwaites: So this is going to be a really interesting episode. Joining me over the next 30 minutes or so to talk about how data can help tackle the climate crisis and also get us to net zero is Gavin Starks, who is the founder and the CEO of Icebreaker One. Welcome, Gavin, and great to have you here.

Gavin Starks: Hello and thank you for the invitation.

Emma Thwaites: Gavin, I want to, ‘cause you’ve had a really- before we get into the nuts and bolts of the climate crisis and, you know, your effort to get us to net zero, I’d like to reflect a little bit on your journey and what actually got you to this point. Cause you’ve had a really varied and interesting career. A lot of it in data.

Gavin Starks: Yes, thank you. I think looking at the climate crisis in particular, one of the organisations I set up over 15 years ago now was around carbon data and its mission was to measure the carbon footprint of everything on Earth. So like, as you know, small projects. And we created the first national carbon calculator for the UK.

A couple of million people in the UK used it. They’re working directly with DEFRA and the Department for Energy and Climate Change at the time. And that set us off on a journey of asking lots of questions of what does this mean? How do we get access to consumption data from consumers and from businesses? How do we get access to the methodologies themselves, which were typically locked up in spreadsheets inside government departments around the world? And how can we bring that together around this issue that affects everyone and democratise the access to that information?

That then led on to working with organisations like Autodesk and SAP. But after that, after we sold that, I joined the ODI and, you know, obviously spent a number of years there helping to create concepts like the Data Spectrum and data infrastructure as a thread. And then the, kind of, third piece of this jigsaw pre-Icebreaker was the creation of the Open Banking standards.

And, for me, the Open Banking standards, it was really inspirational. For me, it wasn’t really about banking. I had no prior experience in banking. It was really about how do we codify the way that the web works and the way that data needs to be shared across an entire sector and get it regulated. And this intersection between regulation and finance and data was really world-leading at the time.

And Open Banking is now not just successful in the UK, there’s hundreds of companies using it. All of the banks must use it. Millions of people have been using it. But it’s now in 80 countries and so it has scaled incredibly quickly over the last five or six years. It’s a, you know, blink of an eye. 

But I’d say it’s taken us, you know, 20, 30 years to get there. If we go back to the origins of the web, we didn’t really think about data rights. We didn’t really think about the consequences of this at a systemic level. There was lots of people raising alarm bells, but we didn’t have the tools or even the language to talk about it. So Icebreaker One is, is a nonprofit set up to make data work harder to deliver net zero.

And we’re working, I would say, at the intersection of the real economy – you know, the energy sector, the water sector and so on – and the financial economy. We say, “Well, what do you need? What information needs to flow here?” And that unpacks into many questions. But at some point in all of the conversations, people say, “We need all the data.”

And at that point, all of this kind of collective experience of the ODI and many other organisations around the world can come together and we can help people on this journey quickly.

Emma Thwaites: I get that, that’s quite a high level of ambition, but you have to tackle it, I guess, in sort of bite-size chunks. So where have you started?

Gavin Starks: Sure. So I think, you know, the bite-size chunks is a- it’s an interesting one ‘cause my bite-size chunk tends to be a whole sector in a whole country. So we’ve started with Open Energy. So over the last couple of years we’ve been rolling out Open Energy in the UK, and the question there is how do we better share access to data at industry level?

Many questions arise from that, not least the data maturity of the sector itself and the journey that they have to go on to just digitise things in the first place. And to make them interoperable, let alone make them interoperable across the whole sector or in between sectors as we move to electric vehicles, for example, and the intersection with transport.

But at the heart of all of this, we’d like to start with a very simple question of: what is the user need? Which user requires what access to which information, at what time resolution, and etc in order to make a decision? Now, the catalyst here is that, in order to get to net zero, we have about nine years and we have less than a 50% chance of getting to 1.5.

Now, the consequence of that is we need to move at an exponential rate from here on in. So one of the ways we could characterise the work that we are doing and we’re trying to catalyse across markets here, is to raise the bar on what is called a pre-competitive layer. So when you talk about access to information, lots of people have been making money about aggregating data, tidying it up and making it available to the market. 

That’s a perfectly fine business model. But actually we need to move past that very quickly to rapidly increasing the analytics, looking at the financial profile, looking at financial risk, basically de-risking investment for the financial community in low-carbon technologies and net zero solutions.

And that means we need to  get very rapid access to data that people haven’t shared necessarily in the past. Now, whether that’s open data or whether it’s shared data, these are all questions that we explore in the “what is the use case and the user need?” But our critical use case here is how do we de-risk this for the investment community?

You know, we need trillions of dollars to flow globally towards the net zero agenda. And these amounts are now being unlocked, but the financial community is nervous because they don’t have verifiable, auditable information, trusted information that they can base their financial decisions on.

Emma Thwaites: And let me just ask you about that, because gentle persuasion is one thing, but really nothing trumps a good piece of regulation or a legal instrument in these cases. And I just wonder what your- ‘cause obviously without banking, we had PSD2, which was an edict from the European Commission. I just wonder what is the role of regulation and law in solving some of these big challenges?

Gavin Starks: So there are similar patterns here, and with Open Banking we saw both regulation like PSD2, GDPR in the mix, and how do you make those real?

But you had, you know, we had to move very quickly to work out how it really applied to the use case within banking of “Here is a consumer’s or an SME’s bank account information, how do we share it at industry wide scale with the right data rights enforced with the right liability?” All the non-technical stuff is always the hardest.

What we’re seeing now is a pattern, I’d say, of regulators around the world – and that ranges from the FCA to the SEC in the US – who are going to start regulating mandatory disclosure of carbon and beyond. You know, ESG as a category is sort of going from a nice-to-have to an essential, and people are starting to incorporate that information into credit ratings. You know, you’ve got ESG scores. We’re working with a program called The Future of Sustainable Data Alliance, which includes Moody’s, Bloomberg, Standard & Poor’s, and they’re looking at what are the data gaps? Where are the holes in the information? How can we trust the information we’re getting?

And I’d say it’s early. There are international standards coming though, and this is where there’s a real opportunity and a risk. The risk is that we don’t move quickly enough to get to really credible and trustworthy information. Having a forward-looking statement in a corporate report saying, “Yes, we have a target of hitting 2050 and net zero targets,” I don’t really wanna bet the farm on in terms of my investment strategy. 

I’d like to see really quantifiable measures coming out of that. The opportunity is therefore to look at how can we bring data from the real economy – from energy consumption, water consumption, transportation, agriculture from the built world – how can we bring this right into the fold so that people doing the modelling can have better evidence of progress and demonstrate that the investments they’re making are going to be net zero?

I think there’s a risk, again in, in the mix here is, you know, I have a hundred percent confidence we’re heading for a low carbon future. But right now, I have no confidence at all that we’re heading to a net zero future. And the difference is important. Physics doesn’t care about our economy. And I’ve been on some calls with different modelling organisations and economic modellers who are looking at scenarios here. And once you, if you get to 2.7, 2.83 degrees, parts of our economy just stop existing, there’s a collapse.

It’s not a crisis, it’s a financial collapse at that point. And obviously we want to avoid that for many reasons. There’s a social reason for doing it. But from a- just purely looking at the market piece there, they’re having to embrace what’s actually happening in the world in a different way than they’ve had to before.

And that’s a massive challenge. And like I say, a massive opportunity for all of the work we’ve been doing.

Emma Thwaites: You mentioned that, you know, in different parts of the world, there’s a sort of an increasing, sort of, attention, if you like, to regulating and mandating ESG reporting. But for this to work, it kind of really, truly does have to be a global approach, doesn’t it?

Because you know, data flows across borders. So does money, so does investment. And actually it is one of those cruel matters of fate that the people who are going to be most affected by the climate crisis, probably are also those people who have the least agency in the decision-making. I just wonder how you kind of overcome issues of sovereignty and- it isn’t just about politics and economics, it’s also about the cultural differences between nations. A whole range of different factors to actually get everybody on the same page and to be thinking about this issue in the same way.

Gavin Starks: Absolutely. It’s a great question, and I think we see this writ large in all of the climate debates is who’s got the most money to invest in avoiding the worst impacts of climate? 

And that is disproportionate, but it’s not that disproportionate. I mean, one of the territories that’s at risk is Florida. A key constituency that is at risk is every coastal city, including London. So I think, you know, we can’t kind of look at those as a kind of us and them type scenario. It really is about everyone. 

In terms of addressing the things like cross-border data sharing, which we’ve done quite a bit of work on now working with various international and supranational bodies is to focus again in on the use case. So people get very anxious very quickly as soon as you start talking about cross-border data sharing.

You know, if you take all of the lessons learned from open data and getting a company to open its information, which is broadly terrifying, they run for the hills to begin with. You’ve gotta bring them back in and help them through that journey. The use case really helps. So if we say, “Well, we want to share the carbon intensity information of this SME across a border for somebody else’s scope three emissions reporting. But we can constrain the users of that information and we can also constrain the uses of that information within a rights agreement,” so the data rights are clear, then it helps calm everybody down. 

Cause they say, “Well, for that use case I’m happy, but I don’t want you to use it for anything else. I don’t want you to use it to economic analysis as to the potential financial risk around our business. We just want you to use that for our environmental risk.” So unpacking the E of ESG, the environment. ESG stands for environment, social and governance. So the process there of narrowing and narrowing and narrowing that use case so that everybody can say, well, actually we’re happy with that one.

And there’s a direct parallel here for what worked with Open Banking. If we’d started up with open finance, you know, with insurance and pensions and banks all round the table – which we did try – basically everybody thinks that they’re special, their data’s unique, and you enter a whole raft of conversations, which will take about 3000 years to unpack. With Open Banking, we had a very straightforward use case of current accounts and account switching. 

We didn’t really even talk about the other vast benefits of data sharing of financial information. We just narrowed it and narrowed it and narrowed it. And that still took 150 people three months to write, bringing together policymakers, the whole of industry, consumer rights organisations, SMEs, startups, and so on.

And then it could go into the regulatory process. And that took another year. So, and then again, that’s around one very simple use case. However, having done that and shown that it works, you can then say, “okay, what’s the next piece of information we want to treat like that?” Or the next use case. So now five years later, there’s an Open Finance working group looking at how to apply these lessons learned.

And obviously with the work we’ve been doing at Icebreaker One, we’re taking these models and saying, “how might they apply as a blueprint to the energy sector, to the water sector, to the built world, and so on?” So it’s really a question there of, you know, we talked about the international standards. The challenge in doing that top down is it takes forever and we don’t have time.

We have nine years and a low percentage chance. So we’ve somehow got to accelerate this and I think we can accelerate through picking incredibly narrow use cases that can scale like crazy.

Emma Thwaites: I love the way that you described that, and actually there’s a little bit of, kind of, nudge theory in there, isn’t there? You know, that what you are aiming for is behaviour change, but you kind of have to make it safe for people first.

Gavin Starks: Absolutely. And, you know, within the sustainability space, there’s a lot of calls for open data around everything, and I don’t think that’s gonna work. And for lots of reasons, not least the same patterns apply to every conversation we’ve had around open data with every organisation in history is “Well, I don’t want my competitors to know X, Y, or Z.” 

The issue with the sustainability information is it starts to reveal your operational processes. If you know the kilowatt hour usage of a factory versus another factory, well that’s great because you can say, “Well, actually, why are you using more energy than this other guy? Here’s an intervention that a bank can fund with a preferential interest rate” and so on.

But equally, your competitors could look at that and say, “Well, actually, we can see how to out-compete you on this thing.” Now, if you start applying that across all of the questions that you want to ask to really calculate an accurate footprint, that gets very competitive very quickly. So we need a safety, a trusted framework that can say, “this information will only go to these actors for this purpose” and if anything goes wrong, you can sue each other. So that’s one of the features of Open Banking is there’s a liability transfer in the middle of that that is overseen, ultimately, by the regulated entities, the FCA and the main nine banks. So it’s a pretty hard stick at one end, but that’s the only way you’d ever get to Open Banking because the rules are in place to get everyone to behave.

The outcome is an open market. 

Emma Thwaites: And I think that people have seen the potential realised with Open Banking. A collection of words that I never thought I would see in the same title is Bankers for Net Zero. I mean, it would’ve almost been unthinkable 10 years ago, that you would have a group of banks, a group of bankers who were, you know, deliberately and deliberatively, striving for net zero.

I know you are involved in that. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Gavin Starks: Certainly. So there’s a UN Net-Zero Banking Alliance, that’s affiliated with the GFANZ group. Again, there’s a whole range of cascading things going internationally. And the UK has a group called Bankers for Net Zero, which has been led through an all-party parliamentary group and has been working very hard to say, “well, what are the questions here that need to be addressed?”

We were just at COP announcing a program with SMEs and the vision there is to automate greenhouse gas reporting for every SME in the UK by COP next year. Now that’s quite a bold statement. How might we go about that? And again, we’ve taken this minimum viable approach. But the driver, the catalyst here is actually regulatory.

The banks hold the liability for delivering net zero, and they have mandatory reporting. So they’re having to create reports for their stakeholders. In some cases they’ll be regulated, but for example, their loan books are things that they have to carry responsibility for. So when they’re making a loan to an SME, they wanna know, is that loan going to help move us towards net zero or not?

And if not, or if they don’t know, they might have to restrict access to capital potentially, right? Obviously, that’s not acceptable either from an economic point of view, and the regulator would have something to say about that. However, if they can get better data, then they can tailor their loan structures and other financial instruments to help invest in net zero solutions.

And so that might translate into a different interest rate for a green loan, if you can provide the evidence. Well, what does the evidence look like, is that question then. So what we’re kicking off is to ask that question, what’s the minimum viable thing that we can achieve here quickly for everyone?

And where we’ve started that journey is to ask the question, well, what if we could get hold of all of the energy data for all of the SMEs? Their kilowatt hour usage, ideally the carbon intensity of those kilowatt hours. Certainly the kilowatt hour information is already on the bill. You know it’s on, on your monthly billing.

Can we provide that to the banks? Well, the answer to that is yes. And we could go along, you could buy the data and just give it to them. But that doesn’t build engagement. It doesn’t build a system in which this is for everyone, right? So the process we’re looking and going to explore is can we use open energy?

So at the point someone logs into their bank account, it just pops up and says, would you like a better interest rate on your loan? To do so, you need to share, do you consent to sharing your energy data with your bank? Exactly like Open Banking. The data can then flow from the energy company directly into the analytics software at the bank, and the PWCs and KPMGs of the world can come in and ensure that data and audit it.

Now, that’s something we know the infrastructure is there for, it’s in open banking. There’s a common language around that, which most SMEs, even if they don’t know the word open banking, have used to integrate with our accounting packages and so on. And it’s, if you like, the minimum viable thing, just energy data, monthly.

We could even time limit it. Just say for the next six months or something. And there, in the process of that, create the wiring, create the, if you like, the plumbing for how this data can flow. But as part of that, work out what the data rights question, or the answers to the data rights questions are.

Now, I think if we can get there, that could scale incredibly quickly and the win is there, the banks get a bit of risk profile, the SMEs get better interest rates, and we all collectively drive to net zero. So I’m yet to see a particular downside, but the hard bit will be to go together, you know, as with all these things. To go far, we have to go together. So, having built something very similar to this over a decade ago where we went out and led, and if you wanna go fast, go alone. And so we ended up quite alone at the end of that journey. 

So this time I think we really need to bring everybody on the journey. So this is why it’s about bringing that consensus, understanding, getting the language right, and really making the benefit case to everybody – what’s in it for them – very clear. As part of that, we’re creating a policy working group, which is going to explore the question, what policy interventions might help with this process?

Emma Thwaites: I was gonna ask you about that actually, because everything that you’ve described in the course of our conversation, you know, has been very much what I would describe as market-led.

That’s possibly a slightly lazy way of describing it, but it’s kind of bottom-up approaches essentially, without a huge amount of intervention or involvement from government actors. I wonder whether that is something that you- whether you think that’s the right way for things to be done or whether actually you would like to see more proactivity on behalf of government?

And I’m not just talking specifically about UK government here, but governments around the world.

Gavin Starks: I think yeah, governments around the world are starting to regulate around the net zero agenda, but they’re not necessarily aware of, or have confidence in, how these data infrastructure approaches could radically improve how they’re trying to regulate and the potential outcomes.

So, in all of our experience of working with governments and policymakers, you’ve got to show them that industry is not going to immediately throw up all over their policy. So it’s far better to bring industry along and get everybody happy and say, “well, this actually creates value.” But we are a bit stuck in getting everybody on board unless there’s regulation.

So if we can demonstrate that there is a material benefit to SMEs – and there’s 5 million SMEs in the UK. That’s over a trillion of value to the economy. It’s a huge part of our economic infrastructure. So if you’re gonna take something along there and say, “well, there could be an opportunity for the FCA or Ofem or energy,” to do something, you need to have a lot of evidence. 

You need to have really done that- gone through the ringer of open consultations, everybody getting on the same page, getting the people who either don’t want it or don’t see the value in it, in the room so that we can work through: well, is that a blocker or is it just a misunderstanding? Or does it, you know, what’s the impact of those things? 

So if you go back into the policy framework and policy makers, then you can give them confidence that this is possible. What I think I’ve learned certainly over the last decade is if you get the policymakers in the room at the beginning, It helps the commercial sector move forward faster cause they go, “well we wanna at least have a say in this, if there’s going to be policy” even if the policymaker hasn’t said they’re gonna regulate, you know. 

And it helps the policymaker then better understand how industry works. There’s a massive knowledge gap, I’d say, between the way that industry understands how policy works. And policy makers in understanding how industry works.

So bringing those people together right at the outset is really valuable.

Emma Thwaites: Really good insight. I can’t believe we’ve actually come to the end of our time, but I do have one final question for you. In fact, this is the final, the very last question of the whole series. And it’s a question that I ask all of our guests, which is to invite you to look into the crystal ball and make a prediction for the next 10 years of data, perhaps with the framing of the work that you are currently involved in and maybe what you would like to see, rather than the horrible dystopian futures that we all imagine.

Gavin Starks:
Well, I think, you know, obviously what I’d love to see is the adoption of trust frameworks as a mechanism for data sharing. From my perspective, the approach to developing a trust framework achieves a few things. 

Firstly, it doesn’t try and put all the data in one place, and there are, I’ve lost counts of the thousands of initiatives around the world that are trying to do that. We have a principle at Icebreaker One of connect, don’t collect. Now if we create the interoperability between data, then people can also create their data lakes and so on as they need.

But there are so many different use cases here. You know, the energy sector needs to share data with itself and with the transport sector and with the financial sector and with- you all have all these cross sector pieces. So really we need to build a web of data. It’s back to Tim’s call from, well over a decade now.

But the way that we need to do that is different. It is not trying to create a centralised approach to data management. It’s creating a trust framework that enables all these pieces to join together.

Emma Thwaites: Amazing. And I think that’s a really fitting place to end. So, Gavin Starks, CEO of Icebreaker One. Thank you very much. 

Gavin Starks: Thank you.

Emma Thwaites: So that brings us to the end of this episode of Data Decade, and also the series. 

Thanks to Gavin Starks for joining me and to all of our previous guests who’ve helped look at how data has shaped our lives over the last decade and where it could take us in the future. 

And if you want to find out more about anything that you’ve heard in Data Decade, please head over to theodi.org where we continue the conversation around the last 10 years of data and what the next decade has in store for us.

Thanks again for listening. I’m Emma Thwaites, and this has been Data Decade, a podcast from the ODI.