Why is this review needed?
Climate change is widely seen as the most important challenge facing the world today. With a rising global temperature resulting in warming oceans and more extreme weather events, it is an issue that is becoming ever more pressing. Climate change is already having wide-ranging effects on all areas of life, and the impact will become more severe as temperatures continue to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, published in August 2021, was the starkest warning yet of the major effects of climate change caused by human activities and shows the urgent need for significant policy action and a strong evidence base to underpin decisions.
Relevant, accessible, and insightful statistics are essential to support delivery of the UK’s climate change goals – they are crucial for informing the design, monitoring and evaluation of policies that reduce or preventing the emission of greenhouse gases (mitigation) and those that prepare us for the expected impacts of climate change (adaptation). The statistics also help the public understand the nature and impacts of climate change, which is pivotal in effecting the wider societal change needed to tackle the problem. Looking in detail across the UK climate change statistical landscape is thus timely and sheds light on the value of these important statistics.
We have looked at what we consider are the main climate change-related official statistics produced by UK government departments and the devolved governments. In doing so, we have focused on two key aspects of current climate change statistics: their accessibility – how they are presented to meet the needs of different types of users and whether users can find the information they need – and their coherence – how well sets of statistics work together to inform the bigger picture.
We have focused on exploring the following:
- What producers of climate change statistics have recently done and are currently doing to enhance the accessibility and coherence of their statistics.
- How statistics producers are working together to achieve improvements to the statistics.
What we found
The UK climate change statistics, data and analysis landscape is broad, complex and changeable.
Many new official statistics have been developed in the last decade to support user need and add insight on climate change, which we welcome. However, the development and use of common climate change-related statistics frameworks has also served to highlight data gaps that must be addressed. This is particularly true for the area of adaptation, where there are very few official statistics, and most adaptation indicators rely on proxy variables that are produced for other policy areas.
It is important that the development of statistics continues, not only to fill existing gaps, but also to ensure they keep pace with scientific advances and evolving policy priorities, to help inform decisions and support public understanding. Statistics producers should be open and transparent about their approach to the development of their statistics, setting out their plans and timetables, and explaining the scope and nature of the development.
We found that statistics on climate change have become more accessible. The development of interactive dashboards, data tools and maps as means of disseminating statistics has enhanced understanding, use and reuse of the statistics. These types of tools are helping make the statistics more accessible to a wider range of users, including non-specialists.
Responsibilities for statistics on the same topic area can lie across a number of government departments, and what is measured in the statistics largely reflects the specific needs of the department. For example, separate greenhouse gas emission statistics are produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Whilst there exists the potential for confusion – different producers publishing very similar figures – we found that, in the case of greenhouse gas emissions, statistics producers provide good guidance for users on how the statistics should and should not be used, and comparisons between the three estimates are published.
We found that compendium outputs which bring together related statistics and data are providing a much-needed joined-up narrative on climate change, but one which is largely restricted to a specific area, sector or government department producing the statistics.
There are currently no official statistics outputs at a UK level which draw together statistics on all areas of climate change (drivers, emissions, impacts, mitigation and adaptation). Such outputs would contribute to public knowledge and understanding of climate change-related issues and could help inform behavioural changes. UK Government should work towards producing UK-level climate change statistics outputs that meet the needs of both a specialist and non-specialist audience.
In the short term, until such outputs can be produced, the website landing pages for climate change statistics could be improved to help users find relevant and related sets of statistics. Currently, cross-referencing and signposting across different sources of information is not particularly clear, especially between policy pages and related sets of statistics from different producers. The climate change and energy portals on GOV.UK currently contain a long list of links to statistics, with no introduction or context, and adding additional supporting information would benefit users.
Collaboration between statistics producers is essential to support the development and improvement of climate change statistics. We found good levels of collaboration across government and several examples of proactive engagement between analysts in different government departments.
Currently, a significant focus for cross-government engagement and collaboration on climate change statistics is the development of a new UK climate change portal, led by ONS. The climate change portal is one of several pilots for ONS’s Integrated Data Service (IDS). The IDS is being developed as a digital collaborative environment that aims to unlock the potential of linked data and build up data standards, tools and approaches. At present, the target audiences for the pilot climate change portal are government analysts, policy teams and other experts. ONS told us it is planning to further develop the portal to make it more accessible to the wider public.
The project has significant potential to improve climate change statistics. We anticipate that, by providing a central repository of information, it will make the existing statistics and data more accessible and will expand opportunities for data linkage, both within climate change datasets and with statistics on connected topics, such as the economy and transport.
We encourage ONS to make the most of this opportunity by delivering a portal that not only makes data open, accessible, and consistently formatted, but also presents data in an engaging and interactive way for a wide range of users, to meet the information needs of society.
Climate change is such a high-profile, strategic challenge and deserves this level of prominence from the UK’s national statistical institute.
We are recommending:
- UK Government should work towards producing UK-level climate change statistics outputs that meet the needs of both a specialist and non-specialist audience.
- The climate change statistics and data frameworks developed by the United Nations Economic Commission of Europe (UNECE), the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and others are helping highlight gaps in the UK official statistics. Relevant producers should attempt to address these as a matter of urgency and in the short-term, where possible, proxy variables should be identified to add insight and support understanding.
- Producers should ensure that experimental statistics have a clear development plan that covers how they intend to develop them and across what timeframe.
- Government landing pages should include clear guidance for users about which sources and datasets are available, how they can be used to answer different questions on climate change and improve cross-referencing and signposting across different sources of information.
- When statistics are used by government which have more than one official source, for example greenhouse gas emissions or green jobs, it should be clearly stated which source is being used and why.
- Statistics producers should be transparent and publish information about their coordination arrangements. This helps statistics users understand the extent of collaboration and engagement across government and how this supports high quality and valuable statistics on climate change.
We would encourage ONS, in its development of the climate change portal, to consider the following:
- To promote the portal, ONS should lead on publishing a development plan for the portal, which includes regular progress updates.
- We recommend that ONS clearly communicates the target audience and deliverables to all stakeholders.
- It is important that the climate change portal is resourced to support long-term delivery and is able to respond to changing policy priorities and evolving datasets.
- Any central narrative will need to align with that of the existing statistics and this will require close collaboration across government departments.
- We fully support ONS’s ambition to develop a public-facing version of the portal. In doing so, user engagement will be vital for understanding the needs and gathering the views of all types of users.
- It is important that ONS, alongside statistics owners, considers how it communicates information about the quality, strengths and limitations of all data sources in the portal, including those which are not official statistics.