Harnessing technology in the fight against climate crises: a roadmap for leaders

Technology Policy Tech for Development Net Zero

Harnessing technology in the fight against climate crises: a roadmap for leaders

Commentary
Posted on: 5th November 2021
Devorah West
Policy Lead, Tech for Development Policy

Harnessing technology in the fight against climate crises: a roadmap for leaders

The countries which have contributed the least to climate change are suffering its worst impacts. Extreme weather events are “the new normal”. They already displace three times more people than war, and these crises are growing in frequency and scale. By 2030, climate crises will push more than 130 million people into poverty, doubling the current figure of those requiring emergency aid to 200 million a year. By 2050, climate shocks are expected to displace 1.2 billion people, with already vulnerable regions including sub-Saharan Africa especially affected. As well as causing untold human suffering, these crises are setting back hard-won development gains, destroying infrastructure and disrupting food supplies and health provision. Systems that were built to withstand extreme weather events are quickly becoming useless, as bigger and more damaging crises pummel parts of the world.

But while disasters increase each year in frequency and scale, the ways we respond to them remain frozen in time. We know that responding early, before a crisis has struck, costs a small fraction of post-crisis response, as well as saving some 23,000 lives each year, and safeguarding livelihoods. Yet, the vast majority of disaster response comes weeks and even months after a crisis.

So what can leaders of climate vulnerable countries do to reduce the impact of worsening shocks? They can build the systems to see crises coming, and commit to early action.

Technological advances over the last decade mean that most crises are predictable. From AI to Earth Observation to cloud computing to a better-connected world, we have the tools to see crises coming and prepare and respond better and faster, saving lives and livelihoods.

While adaptation to climate crises is acutely underfunded – the worst affected countries receive less than $1 per capita – the returns on investing in tech-enabled disaster management are staggering. By upgrading early warning systems across the world to match European standards, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) estimates we could save $66 billion in loss and damages each year, with a total investment of less than one tenth that amount.

While many countries set out the ambition in their climate plans to leverage technology, few have made significant progress in realising its potential. Governments of climate vulnerable countries often lack a clear overview of which technologies can be leveraged, the technical capacity needed to turn data into signals into action, and the financing they need to access them.

We have developed a roadmap for policymakers setting out the key steps to using, accessing and financing the technology needed to transform disaster response. The roadmap shows how governments can build tech-enabled disaster management systems which allow them to warn vulnerable populations at least 24 hours before a disaster occurs. This includes the tools available, the governance structures in which they can be embedded and the channels through which this can be financed. These steps promote the integration and coordination of what are currently fragmented preparedness and response efforts. They also champion national ownership of tech-led solutions, which is vital to strengthening early-warning and early-action while ensuring such efforts are demand-driven. Using this roadmap to adopt and scale these technologies will also enable governments to use core technologies for additional services essential to governments in the 21st century, including supporting remote access to education and health care.

While awareness of and the urgency around leveraging tech to see crises coming has increased in recent years, the tools and skills needed to do so have largely been captured by international organisations, leaving governments out of the picture. Policymakers we spoke to during our research pointed to an array of disconnected donor programmes run through different parts of government, or entirely outside government control, limiting leaders’ ability to predict disasters and manage their impact. National leaders must be in the driving seat, as they plan to protect their people from worsening climate crises over the long term. The roadmap therefore also sets out key considerations for donors in unlocking the value of tech-driven disaster response and in helping to empower national governments over the long term. It calls for investment in risk-informed early action; prioritising the creation of a streamlined and coherent tech-centred disaster risk-management system that integrates the multitude of existing systems; and financing disaster response with more certainty through a set of standard operating procedures and pre-negotiated triggers.

While the roadmap focuses on those in power, it stresses the need to put the people worst-affected by climate impacts and least equipped to cope at the heart of systems design and early warning systems. Getting actionable information and assistance to those in the path of a disaster at least 24 hours before it strikes is a critical responsibility of governments in the 21st century. And establishing channels to gather crowdsourced data on impending crises and response options is one of the most powerful tools in ensuring early-warning and early-action.

In a warming and changing world, traditional approaches to disaster management are unfit for purpose. Leaders – equipped with the tools to make this possible and supported by the right funding flows – need to commit to radically scale up their ability to protect their people from natural disaster. The technology to do this exists, and the economic case is clear. We hope that this roadmap will be a useful contribution to this transformation, and we stand ready to support leaders in implementing it.

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