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COP and the SDGs: Why smart data should drive sustainable economic growth

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Our experts provided insights into how and why climate change is a development issue during the lead up to COP24

At a first glance energy access and data innovation might not appear to be key climate change issues – but they are. With energy systems being responsible for more than three quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions, how can we ensure all people have access to safe energy without endangering our planet further? What role can off grid energy solutions play in boosting access to energy, while also ensuring economic growth? And where does data innovation tie in with all that? In the third post of our Climate and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) series we explore key priorities for each intersection.

SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy

Ryan Hogarth, a consultant in our Climate Change and Disaster Risk team, discusses why energy access is a key climate issue.

World energy systems are responsible for 76% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primarily from electricity and heat production, industry, and transport. Globally, more than a billion people lack basic access to electricity, and further three billion lack access to clean and safe energy for household cooking, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Access to even small amounts of modern energy can greatly improve these families’ quality of life. Given that achieving SDG 7 will require an increase in energy access and consumption for billions of people, it may seem discordant with the UNFCCC’s goal of reducing GHG emissions – this is not the case.

First, access to clean forms of cooking tends to be a win-win: traditional forms of cooking produce toxic air pollution, a leading environment killer; and where fuelwood and charcoal is consumed at an unsustainable rate, traditional cooking methods can lead to a net loss in forest carbon stocks. Second, over half of those lacking electricity would be served most cost-effectively through off-grid systems or mini-grids that produce little or no GHG emissions. Even for those 40% best served via grid connections, they will likely consume little electricity at first, resulting in little increase in generation.

However, overall energy demand is growing, driven by already connected households and industry. Renewable energy sources can potentially supply this increased demand, whilst continuing to grow their share of the global energy mix. Disruptive technologies – wind power, solar PV, storage and smart grids – promise to transform the way in which electricity is produced and distributed; and electric vehicles promise to displace internal combustion engines. However, challenges remain in the design of infrastructure, markets, institutions, financial systems, and business models required to accelerate the renewable energy transition to meet GHG reduction targets, while meeting growing demand.

Beyond reducing GHG emissions from energy supply, SDG 7 aims to reduce the amount of energy demanded relative to economic productivity. Numerous technologies and practices exist that can reduce the energy consumption of buildings and industry, sometimes even saving energy consumers’ money. Further research is needed to understand why these money saving opportunities are not adequately exploited, and how governments can shift market incentives through fiscal incentives, standards, regulations, and energy efficiency awareness campaigns.

We are leading the Energy and Economic Growth Applied Research Programme (EEG), funded by the UK Department for International Development, which is producing cutting-edge research projects spanning the SDG 7 targets. By building a robust body of evidence on energy access, renewable energy, and energy efficiency, EEG aims to aid the transition to more sustainable, reliable, and equitable energy systems in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Principal consultant in our Natural Resources and Energy team, Simon Trace, explores how climate change impacts jobs and growth, focusing on renewable energy sector.

Climate change poses a great threat to livelihoods and jobs, for example, changing climatic conditions are negatively impacting agricultural production in certain parts of the world and that has a knock-on effect on farming as a source of jobs. But efforts to mitigate climate change through ‘green growth’ based on clean technologies, for example food production or waste management approaches that avoid carbon emissions, also offer opportunities for the creation of new types of jobs. 

The creation of new green job opportunities is essential not just for the formal employment sector, but also for the informal one, which is hugely important as it accounts for over half of global employment, and as much as 90% of employment in some low- and middle-income countries.

Green growth employment opportunities in the informal sector in low- and middle-income countries include the production, marketing, and maintenance of renewable energy technologies. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) suggests that by 2030, off-grid renewable energy sector will create 4.5 million direct jobs around the world, with 2.9 million being in the deployment of solar home systems and solar lamps. Downstream jobs, such as solar home installers, solar lantern distributors and retailers, and repair and maintenance services, are expected to provide the bulk of employment in this sector with jobs in manufacturing of the systems remaining a relatively small proportion of the total.

Other green growth employment opportunities in the informal sector in low- and middle-income countries also include the expansion of organic agriculture, recycling of solid waste in urban centres, ecological tourism, and sustainable forestry (timber and non-timber products).

SDG 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure

Our senior consultant in data analytics, Paul Jasper, looks at how data innovation can help tackle issues of climate change.

Development of new and upscaling of existing information and communication technologies has been identified as crucial for finding sustainable solutions to economic and environmental challenges. Data innovation is an important part of this goal, as it can help identify issues in how we are currently managing various processes, such as waste management or pollution monitoring, and by doing so, we can improve our activities to reduce the impact they have on climate.

New and smart ways of collecting, analysing, and disseminating data can help us to better manage and monitor human activities and potentially find solutions to identified problems, for example illegal logging. Recognised as a global problem which negatively impacts economy, society, and environment, many countries have made it their priority to stop illegal logging. However, using traditional methods to identify and stop illegal logging has proved time consuming, expensive, and often ineffective. By using available smart data, such as satellite imagery, governments can detect forest disturbances more quickly than before – one such project was piloted with great success in Cameroon.

Every year more than four million people die as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution, with more than 90% of global population living in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits. Measuring and tackling pollution levels has become a crucial priority, and many cities are relying on connected digital sensors to map areas of high pollution, track changes over time, and analyse potential solutions.

As data gathered in new and innovative ways becomes more important to guide policy reforms, decision makers need to focus their priorities on improving the quality of data coming in, as well as ensuring public accountability, accessibility, and scrutiny of algorithms and mathods used for public good.

Discover other posts in our Climate and the SDGs series – focusing on eliminating poverty, zero hunger, and good health; quality education, gender equality, and clean water and sanitationreducing inequalities, sustainable cities, and responsible consumption; climate action, marine life, and sustainable forestry; and peace and strong institutions, and goal partnerships.