Look to the cloud for climate inspiration, says WRI chief

Development specialist Andrew Steer says big data projects can help make systems greener and hold companies to account

Pic: Brandon Oh/Flickr

Pic: Brandon Oh/Flickr

By Ed King in Washington DC

Cloud computing, big data and smartphones should be the tools of choice for green groups who want to drive global change and force business and governments to respect the environment.

That’s the view of one of the planet’s most experienced development specialists, World Resources Institute president Andrew Steer, who thinks many organisations are too obsessed with piloting small energy or farming projects which have limited impact.

In July the WRI launched a data mapping tool using technology from Google, tracking for the first time forest cover in real time. This exposed companies involved in illegal logging or farming in protected areas.

Steer says his Washington-based team is now looking at how they could map water use and shortages, and roll out a platform focused on the vulnerabilities and positive policies of cities.

“The stakes now are so high we have to aim for systemic change,” he tells RTCC in an interview on the sidelines of a Global Environment Facility conference in the US capital.

“The world is too big, time is too short and the money is too little if we are simply going to work on a project by project approach and reward ourselves for each individual pilot project looking good. The time for piloting has now ended and we need to think of scale.”

LINK: International Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development

An economist by trade, Steer previously worked at the World Bank and for the UK government before joining the WRI, a non governmental organisation which relies more on analysis and less on political actions to win influence with decision makers.

He believes big data could force companies to change their habits, citing the scrutiny imposed by WRI’s forest tool as one of many reasons why leading palm oil producers and loggers are starting to adopt more sustainable practices.

Indonesian paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper is one company that has pledged to review its policies and halt deforestation, a decision its chief sustainability officer Aida Greenbury told website BusinessGreen was due to pressure from NGOs, customers and directors.

Unilever is another that wants to reform its ways, announcing last month it was partnering with WRI, using the tool to manage its supply chains and ensure the palm oil it buys does not come from illegal plantations.

Steer says supermarkets can be the “new allies” in forcing polluters and loggers to change their ways.

And he warns that data mapping and other innovations from the hi tech revolution means no company can be safe from prying eyes, citing this as one of the best ways to hold a light to previously unaccountable multinationals.

A map of sites suitable for sustainable palm oil in Indonesia (Source: WRI)

A map of sites suitable for sustainable palm oil in Indonesia
(Source: WRI)

“We want to use that in order to learn what is going on in real time, so that the bad guys can’t hide any more and the good guys get rewarded, and that’s exactly what is happening,” he says.

“We should be able to know in real time exactly what is happening in a way that will enable decision makers to make better decisions and move towards a path which is not only greener but better for the economy.”


Steer’s appearance at the GEF meeting comes at a critical point in efforts to address the causes of climate change and try and help countries at every level of the development ladder to follow a more sustainable path.

Over the past decade billions of dollars have been poured into schemes to cut carbon emissions and help countries adapt to projected future weather events, with mixed results.

The point of this week’s gathering, involving experts from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas is to work out how to work out what kinds of projects are effective and which are best value for money.

It’s a task that is unlikely to be resolved in a few days, but it points to an increased focus from donor governments and the private sector on how their money is bring spent.

And with the UN’s Green Climate Fund now demanding upwards of US$10 billion by the end of 2014 from rich countries, there’s pressure on industry professionals to develop a clear way to rate policies.

Steer says the key for the GCF will be to build on existing foundations, backing projects like Bus Rapid Transit systems that operate in 180 cities, offering effective metro-style services at the fraction of the cost of railways.

Once seen as a preserve of Latin American and developing countries, the BRT concept is now being talked about seriously for the US cities of Houston and Atlanta, whose vast suburbs lack decent links to the city centre.

“We need to look for mayors who say they understand it will be good for my citizens, poor, competitiveness and the environment, and support them in a way that will have a ripple effect that is much greater than those individual projects,” he says, adding later: “small amounts of money need to be used exceedingly well”.

A renewed focus on cities could also offer an escape from toxic climate politics at the top of government, which has infected decision-making on both sides of the Atlantic.


This week’s mid term elections have exposed many Republican candidates for Senate as ardent climate sceptics, promising to block any new policies aimed at cutting US carbon emissions in the near term.

Steer says the first action must be “trying to bring evidence” on climate change, and failing that recommends “going to the sub national level”.

He predicts that the role of cities will rapid rise in the coming decade, citing the Compact of Mayors that was released at the recent UN climate summit in New York, committing 228 cities, home to 437 million people, to saving 13 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050.

And he picks London as an example of how a city can change its spots, perhaps imperceptibly to its residents, but enough to use it as a case study for how to wean people off cars as their favoured mode of transport.

“Very few cities have come as far as London has in the past 20 years. That wasn’t necessarily as a result of central government,” Steer says.

“Look at London’s road pricing system – central government was happy but they didn’t push it. Look at bicycle lanes. When I was a boy we used to drive into London all the time. I lived for three years recently in the suburbs, in Surrey, and never once drove my car into London.

“There was a psychological switch. I didn’t want to drive into town. And that’s in a political environment that seems like it [change] will take forever.”

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