13 August 2009

The UN FCCC and Access to Climate Data: A Guest Post by Richard J. T. Klein

A guest post by Richard J. T. Klein, of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

I've looked into how the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), in response to Articles 4.1(g) and 5, has addressed the issue of climate-data exchange to date, and it turns out there's more to it than I thought. Importantly, there appears to be an important dialogue between the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP). GCOS has released a series of reports that consider the issues of data exchange, management and stewardship, and make clear recommendations. There has been some follow-up by the COP, but more can be done.

Following the publication in 1998 of the GCOS report "Report on the Adequacy of the Global Climate Observing System" (PDF), COP-4, in decision 14/CP.4 urged Parties to the UNFCCC to undertake free and unrestricted exchange of data to meet the needs of the Convention.

In 2003 GCOS published its "Second Report on the Adequacy of the Global Observing Systems for Climate in Support of the UNFCCC" (PDF), which states in reference to decision 14/CP.4 that "the record of many Parties in providing full access to their data is poor. Indeed, most Parties appear to be unaware of their performance in this respect." The report contains a section on data management and stewardship, which states that "the preservation of the data for future use requires facilities and infrastructure to ensure the long-term storage of the data". One of the findings of this section is "The rapidly-increasing volume of raw observations that must be saved and stored in an archive is such that the data are too often inaccessible to many users."

In response to the second report, COP-9, in decision 11/CP.9, requested Parties to review the report and to consider what actions they can take to address the findings, noting, among other things, "the importance of adhering to applicable adopted principles of free and unrestricted exchange of data and products, especially with respect to the set of Essential Climate Variables as defined in the second adequacy report."

A year later, in 2004, GCOS submitted its "Implementation Plan for the Global Observing System for Climate in Support of the UNFCCC" to the UNFCCC Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) (PDF). It also has a section on data management and stewardship, building on the second adequacy report of 2003. A draft "Progress Report on the Implementation of the Global Observing System for Climate in Support of the UNFCCC 2004-2008" is available for comment on the GCOS website (PDF). There is no section on data management and stewardship in this report.

In 2005 GCOS submitted the report "Analysis of Data Exchange in Global Atmospheric and Hydrological Networks" (PDF). The "reluctance of some countries to exchange data", and "data and metadata standardisation and data stewardship" were among the major problems and challenges identified in the report. In response, SBSTA-23 in 2005 urged Parties and invited intergovernmental organisations and international bodies to provide active support to international data centres in their efforts to obtain permission from countries for the release of the data and the rescue of historical climate records."

The exchange and management of climate data was also discussed at an expert meeting held in the context of the Nairobi Work Programme on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change. The report of the expert meeting (PDF) states,
"A key barrier identified in exchanging data and information, besides the fact that some data are privately held, is that the mandates of institutions holding data are not necessarily aligned with the needs of users for impacts, vulnerability and adaptation work. In this regard, WMO Resolution 40, which urges members to strengthen their commitment to the free and unrestricted exchange of meteorological and related data and products, was noted."
It also says,
"Regarding data exchange, data increase their value with use and should therefore be openly disseminated, tested, validated, documented and supported by metadata; arrangements such as the GNU General Public License (a free ‘copyleft’ licence for software and other works), which would require users to provide information on their use or modification of the data, could be explored."
Is all or any of this relevant to CRU? Yes, I think it is, in particular the response of SBSTA to the 2005 GCOS report. Presuming that CRU qualifies as an international data centre, its functioning is dependent on receiving adequate support from the UK and other Parties. However, none of the above is put in particularly strong language, and while Article 4.1(g) is an international legal commitment, the COP decisions and SBSTA report can safely be ignored by Parties. But with the publicity this debate is generating and the generally perceived increased need for climate data (not only for adaptation but also mitigation), my guess is that there will be more pressure on Parties to take Articles 4.1(g) and 5 seriously.