Unlocking the Power of Open Data for Climate Action | Land Portal

Introduction

Imagine a world where every community has the data, information and knowledge it needs to make informed decisions about the land they call home. A world where the power of information is harnessed to hold leaders accountable for managing essential natural resources sustainably. This is the transformative potential of open and accessible land data in the fight against climate change, which is the defining challenge of our time, threatening the lives and livelihoods of communities worldwide.

Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and other climate impacts are creating a "code red for humanity" devastating landscapes, exacerbating inequalities, and undermining progress towards sustainable development. Urgent action is needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to unavoidable changes, and build resilience, particularly for the most vulnerable.  

Land is both a driver and a solution to climate change. Unsustainable land use practices, including rampant extractivism, deforestation and soil degradation, contribute significantly to global carbon emissions. Currently our food systems cause about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with two-thirds of that resulting from agriculture, forestry, and other land use. More sustainable land management practices, such as agroforestry and ecosystem restoration, offer immense potential for carbon sequestration and adaptation.

However, realizing this potential requires a transformation in land governance, underpinned by open, accessible, and inclusive land data. A strong and vibrant civil society can harness open land data - data that is freely available, usable, and redistributable by anyone - to protect land rights, enable informed decision-making, and hold powerful actors to account. 

At the same time, we need to be mindful of the ways in which land rights and data have been conceptualized in much of the international literature. These are frequently overlaid with Northern biases, experiences and assumptions, which are often insufficiently nuanced or reflective of the context shaping the global South.

These limitations notwithstanding, the present conjuncture provides a critical opportunity to mobilize around a shared vision of open land data for climate action. The Land Portal works with data custodians in different settings – multilateral institutions, governments, civil society, ILPCs and the private sector. We advocate for legal frameworks which guarantee human rights, access to information and data governance systems that are just and equitable.

 

The Need for Open, Inclusive and Up-to-Date Land Data 

In many countries, land governance is characterized by opacity, inequality, and insecurity. Land records are often incomplete, outdated, or fragmented, and much of the data is locked up in silos or behind paywalls. This lack of transparency enables land grabbing, corruption, and the marginalization of vulnerable groups, particularly indigenous peoples, women, and the poor. Knowing who owns land and under what tenure system is essential, as land is a major target for corruption and money laundering. When land records become publicly available, with adequate safeguards and protections, this creates possibilities for communities and civil society organizations to monitor land transactions, expose corrupt practices, and demand accountability. Take the example of Cambodia, where the Open Development Initiative has created a public database of land concessions, empowering citizens to track the deals that are reshaping their landscapes and advocate for their rights.

Making data openly available, especially on key areas like land ownership, and ensuring datasets can be linked together, is a powerful tool for exposing networks of corruption - but much work remains to realize this potential globally.

The impacts of dysfunctional land governance are exacerbated by climate change. As resources become scarcer and competition intensifies, those with insecure land rights are at greater risk of dispossession and displacement. Moreover, the lack of comprehensive and up-to-date land data hampers efforts to plan for and respond to climate risks. 

Policymakers and practitioners need granular information on land and resource rights, land use, land cover, soil quality, and other attributes to identify vulnerable areas, prioritize interventions, and monitor progress. But in many contexts, this data is either unavailable or inadequate.

Open, inclusive and up-to-date land data is therefore a critical enabler for climate action. However, for data to be truly open, it must be both legally and technically open. Legally open data is licensed in a way that allows anyone to freely use, modify, and share it for any purpose. This is typically achieved through the application of an open license such as Creative Commons. Technically open data is published in formats and structures that enable easy and automated processing and integration with other datasets. This requires the use of open, machine-readable formats and the adherence to open data standards.

The importance of technical openness and interoperability cannot be overstated. Interoperability allows different data systems to exchange and make use of information seamlessly. It enables the integration and analysis of data from multiple sources, which is critical for understanding complex phenomena like climate change and its impacts on land and people. Open standards for data exchange, such as those developed by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), are key enablers of interoperability.

However, achieving legal and technical openness requires more than just publishing data online. Data custodians, particularly government agencies, need to have robust data management plans in place. These plans should address the technical aspects of data publishing, such as data formats, metadata standards, and licensing. They should also consider the legal and institutional frameworks that govern data sharing and use, including privacy and security concerns. Capacity building and resources are needed to support data custodians in developing and implementing these plans.

There are a range of principles to inform open land data strategies. These include the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance and the FAIR Principles for scientific data management and stewardship. 

The CARE Principles assert that Indigenous Peoples have the right to govern the collection, ownership, and application of their own data. CARE stands for Collective benefit, Authority to control, Responsibility, and Ethics. A variation on these principles has been developed by the First Nations Information Governance Centre in Canada. The OCAP principles emphasise that indigenous communities should control the data collection processes and that they own and control how this information should be used. 

The FAIR Principles, on the other hand, emphasize that data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. At first glance, there may seem to be tensions between the CARE and OCAP Principles' emphasis on Indigenous control over data and the FAIR Principles' emphasis on open access. However, these principles can be complementary if applied thoughtfully. For example, Indigenous communities could choose to make certain subsets of their land data openly accessible (FAIR), while retaining control over sensitive cultural knowledge (CARE). The key is to ensure that Indigenous Peoples have the authority to make these decisions for themselves.

More broadly, the CARE Principles remind us that open data initiatives must prioritize the rights, interests, and well-being of the communities who are represented in the data. This means going beyond just making data accessible, to actively involving communities in data governance and ensuring they benefit from data use. The FAIR Principles, meanwhile, provide a roadmap for making data more usable and interoperable, which is essential for maximizing its value for climate action. 

By making data more transparent, interoperable, and accessible, while respecting Indigenous data sovereignty, open data can empower communities to protect their rights and resources. It facilitates more informed and participatory decision-making, allowing diverse stakeholders to collaborate on sustainable land management solutions. And it provides the evidence base for civil society to hold governments and corporations accountable to their climate commitments.

 

Evidence Supporting Open Data-Backed Land Governance for Climate Mitigation

A growing body of evidence demonstrates the potential of open land data to support climate change mitigation. For example, recent studies estimate that securing indigenous and community land rights in just 24 developing countries could prevent deforestation and associated emissions equivalent to taking hundreds of coal-fired power plants offline. 

Open data can also help identify and prioritize areas for restoration and conservation. The Restoration Opportunities Atlas, developed by the World Resources Institute and partners, uses open data on land cover, soil type, and other factors to map potential restoration sites across the globe. The availability of this information can guide governments, civil society, and other stakeholders in implementing nature-based solutions to climate change.

Moreover, open data enables more effective and equitable land use planning. By integrating data on land rights, land use, and land value, policymakers can make informed decisions about balancing competing demands on land, while protecting the rights and livelihoods of local communities. For example, the Social Tenure Domain Model, developed by the Global Land Tool Network, provides a standard for capturing and representing complex land tenure arrangements, including customary and informal rights.Although it doesn't necessarily make data open, it is recognized as a highly participatory process and tool that can help ensure land use plans and policies are inclusive, responsive to local realities, and counter northern bias.

 

Potential Risks and Challenges of Open Data

While the potential benefits of open land data are significant, there are also risks and challenges that must be carefully navigated. One major concern is the potential for elite capture and data misuse. If land data is not governed and managed responsibly, it can be used to reinforce existing power imbalances and enable land grabs by powerful actors. 

Open land data can help prevent corruption in countries with strong institutions and low inequality. However, in contexts with weak land rights and significant power imbalances, the same data can enable powerful actors to dispossess vulnerable communities. Research has shown how large-scale land deals can be facilitated by access to land registry data, at the expense of undocumented customary rights holders.

The risks and benefits of open data must be carefully weighed based on each country's legal protections, institutional capacity, and power dynamics. Effective data governance requires not just data availability, but also safeguards to ensure responsible data use and protect the data rights of vulnerable groups. This is where the CARE Principles can provide crucial guidance, by centring the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in data governance.

Another risk is the potential for privacy breaches and the misuse of sensitive information. Land data often contains personal and confidential details that, if not properly protected, can be used for fraudulent or malicious purposes. Land registration processes can be captured by elites, resulting in the exclusion of customary rights holders, particularly women, pastoralists, and indigenous communities, whose claims to land may not fit neatly into formal legal frameworks. In India, a programme to digitize land records was hijacked by powerful actors who exploited the transition to grab land from smallholder farmers.

Moreover, open data initiatives can inadvertently exacerbate existing inequalities if they are not designed and implemented in an inclusive and equitable manner. If data is only available in certain languages or formats, or if it requires specialized skills or equipment to access and use, it may exclude marginalized groups from participating and benefiting. The FAIR Principles can help mitigate some of these risks by making data more findable, accessible, and usable by a wider range of stakeholders. But FAIR data is not enough on its own - it must be coupled with systematic support to defend the rights of ILPCs.  

Addressing these risks requires more than just technical fixes; it demands a fundamental reckoning with the power imbalances that pervade land governance systems across the globe. The CARE and OCAP Principles offer a starting point for centring equity and inclusion in open data initiatives, but they must be translated into concrete practices and safeguards, developed in close partnership with affected communities.

 

Key Trends and State of Play in Open Land Data

There is growing momentum around open land data, particularly in the context of the global South. Governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders are increasingly recognizing the importance of open data for land governance and sustainable development, perceiving the benefits to outweigh the risks.

At the global level, open land data has been identified as a key priority in various international frameworks and initiatives, such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure and the Open Up Guide for Land Governance. These provide guidance and principles for making land data open, accessible, and usable for all, within a framework of access to information as a human right. For example, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has developed a Model Law on Access to Information for Africa.

However, the recent Broken Links report highlights systemic weaknesses globally with respect to data collection, data publication, data useability and interoperability. It notes that land is a focus of major policy decisions and a means of hiding illicit enrichment and therefore an important focus area. 

In addition, many countries still lack comprehensive and up-to-date land data, particularly for customary and informal tenure arrangements, irrespective of whether this data is open or closed. Capacity and resource constraints continue to hinder the development and sustainability of open land data systems.

While there are countries that have made progress in digitizing land records and making these open and transparent, substantial challenges remain in keeping land records up to date. As a result, the quality and accuracy of the data quickly erodes. This highlights the importance of sustained investment in land data governance systems and ensuring that land transactions are open wherever possible. 

Currently mapping and recording of complex land tenure arrangements, such as customary or informal rights at scale, and keeping these records current is often beyond the capacity of local land governance institutions. 

 

Intersections Between Land Data and Climate Action Planning

The intersection between land and climate data is increasingly recognized as a critical frontier for climate action. Land use and land cover changes are both drivers and consequences of climate change, making integrated analysis of land and climate data crucial for informed decision-making. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) keeps emphasizing that clear land tenure and integrated land-use planning are essential for effective adaptation and mitigation actions. It notes that land policies (including recognition of customary tenure, community mapping, redistribution, decentralisation, co-management, regulation of rental markets) can provide both security and flexibility to respond to climate change.

Open land data has immense potential to inform and accelerate climate action planning at multiple scales. By providing timely, accurate, and granular information on land use, land cover, land rights, and other key variables, open data can help decision-makers:

  • Assess climate risks and vulnerabilities 

  • Identify and prioritize climate mitigation opportunities

  • Plan and monitor climate adaptation measures  

  • Engage and empower communities in climate action

  • Monitor and report on climate action progress.

When data is open, it can be analysed and correlated across datasets, significantly benefiting research. Integrating land cover data with carbon stock assessments can enable more accurate monitoring and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions from land use change.

Moreover, the growing availability of remote sensing and geospatial data is creating new opportunities for land-climate data integration. For instance, the Africa Regional Data Cube provides analysis-ready satellite data for five African countries, allowing users to track changes in land cover, water resources, and other environmental indicators over time. By combining this data with carbon stock assessments, which estimate the amount of carbon stored in various land cover types, it becomes possible to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from land use changes more accurately.

However, realizing the full potential of land-climate data integration requires overcoming several challenges. These include data gaps and uncertainties, particularly in developing countries; the need for more standardized and interoperable data formats and protocols; and the capacity constraints facing many land governance and climate adaptation practitioners. The FAIR Principles provide a framework for addressing some of these challenges, by making data more findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable.

While open land data can actively contribute to climate action planning, realizing this potential will require sustained investment in open data infrastructures, capacity building, and partnerships, as well as a commitment to data governance principles that prioritize equity, inclusion, and accountability.  The CARE Principles offer crucial guidance in this regard, by asserting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to govern their own data for collective benefit.

 

The Relevance of Land Portal's Work on Open Data to IPLCs and Climate Action

The Land Portal's work on opening up land data and information is highly relevant to indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and can become an engine for climate action. The Land Portal has conceived the State of Land Information Indicator (SOLIndex) as a global benchmark and diagnostic tool to track the completeness of land information and assess its openness. The SOLIndex complements existing benchmarks on land corruption (TI), community data on land governance (ILC), large scale land acquisitions (Land Matrix) and tenure security (Prindex).

The SOLIndex has also been adopted by LANDex, which will incorporate the data along with its community-based land data indicators. Finally, the Global Land Observatory (GLO) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also adopted the SOLIndex as one of its key indicators.

The CARE Principles provide a framework for engaging with ILPCs, by centring Indigenous rights and self-determination in data governance.

With regard the openness and control of data there remain two distinct issues at play that should not be conflated:

1. IPLCs accessing open land data from external sources to better protect their land rights. 

This would require developing local capacity to access, use and interpret existing open data sets . 

  • Open land data can help IPLCs document, map, and assert their customary land rights and tenure claims. By accessing sources of open data as with the Cambodian example cited earlier, IPLCs can better protect their territories from encroachment, bogus carbon offset investments, land grabs, and other external threats, which are often exacerbated by climate change. 
  • By accessing and using land data, IPLCs can inform and influence decisions around land use, conservation, and development, ensuring their knowledge, priorities, and practices are taken into account.
  • Open land data can also help IPLCs access climate finance and support for adaptation and mitigation actions in their territories. While it is essential that resources find their way to those most affected by climate change and who are playing stewardship roles of global importance, the injection of resources carries with it the risk of social fragmentation and struggles to control resource benefits.

2. The issue of IPLCs opening up their own land data to others. 

In this case, many are understandably hesitant due to fears that governments and other parties could use the data against their interests. Clearly the question of ownership and control of IPLC land data needs to be prioritised and to take into account the specifics of context. Decisions about opening up IPLC data must respect, protect and promote the rights, knowledge, and practices of IPLCs, to be active agents and drivers of climate action. In this regard there needs to be further analysis of whether open data is a threat in itself, or whether it is the absence of legal recognition of land and tenure rights and effective protection against resource capture and dispossession that is putting ILPCs at risk

 

Conclusion

The climate crisis is a clear and present danger that demands urgent and transformative action. As the world grapples with the devastating impacts of climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that land is both a critical battleground and a powerful solution space for climate action.  

But to harness the full potential of land-based solutions, we need new paradigms of land and data governance that are transparent, inclusive, and accountable. We need to move beyond the siloes and opacity of the past, towards a future where land data is open, interoperable, accessible, and actionable for all, while protecting the rights and resource entitlements of ILPCs.

Transforming land governance for climate action will require addressing high-level political challenges as well as implementing concrete legal and technical interventions. Systemically, we need to challenge the vested interests and structural inequalities that drive unsustainable and unjust land use practices and the economic systems which underpin them. 

This essential and urgent work requires new partnerships and collaborations that transcend sectoral and disciplinary boundaries, Such partnerships require more than just data sharing. They also require trust, transparency, and equity in decision-making and benefit-sharing. This means involving communities and marginalized groups as active partners in data governance, rather than just as passive data subjects. It also means ensuring that the benefits of open data flow back to the people and places that need them most.

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