Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Students from four universities and two countries compiled a climate policy database over Summer 2020.

March 23, 2021

Global Student Policy Alliance Creates Climate Policy Database

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Students from four universities — including Cornell — and two countries have worked to compile a comprehensive database of climate policy initiatives from the 193 member states of the United Nations.

These students comprise the Global Student Policy Alliance, a transatlantic association of think tanks based at Cornell, the University of Chicago, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge. The group of about 30 students met over a planning period this summer to divide up the research as they explored different countries’ policies.

Zarek Drozda, one of the project organizers and analyst for the Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change at the University of Chicago, said the inspiration for the database grew out of a joint project between the Wilberforce Society, a University of Cambridge student think tank, and the Paul Douglas Institute, a UChicago public policy think tank.

The students set to condense a wide array of public sources of climate information into qualitative rankings of both global climate policy proposed and implemented. Many of its members see the project as an extension of youth climate activism, such as the Fridays for Future movement associated with Greta Thunberg and the Sunrise Movement in the U.S.

According to Stella Linardi ’22, one of the researchers from Cornell, members wanted to expand on the youth climate movement and analyze the difference between countries’ climate change policies on paper compared to policy implementations. The team established a global ranking by country, assessing the effectiveness of each climate policy.

“NGOs and also governmental institutions have a lot of constraints when doing research. Students from different universities don’t really have these institutional constraints,” Linardi said. “We were able to assess every single country’s fossil production and policy commitments, deforestation processes, extraction radars, really the climate policy of every single country.”

One of the ideas motivating the project was that as students, they would face less institutional constraints than typical climate policy reports. According to Adam Ó Conghaile, a Ph.D. student in computer science at Cambridge University, one weakness of many other climate policy database projects is that they rely on funding from NGOs and other diplomatic organizations, which rely on the countries that they are trying to hold accountable.

The team grouped their research into four main policy areas, assigning each to one of the participating think tanks. One metric they used was the percent of GDP developed through agriculture compared to its emissions to form an agricultural emissions efficiency ranking. The team also studied qualitative attributes, such as the potency of a country’s green subsidies programs.

The researchers hoped to fill gaps in much of the current climate policy literature. For example, less than half of the countries included in the study have policy strategies addressing agricultural emissions.

“We found that some NGOs including Climate Action Tracker, the Climate Group and the Climate Score Card have tried to fill this literature gap in climate policy by tracking global climate policy,” Linardi said. “[However] they have significant data limitations which prevent high granularity in these assessments and they did not evaluate undercovered sectors [sufficiently].”

The team also faced challenges in compiling a comprehensive dataset across many countries with limited transparency. For example, they originally wanted to rank countries based on emissions scandals, such as the Volkswagen scandal, but found that unevenness of data meant that this was not reproducible on a global scale.

The project found that most countries, despite increases in renewable energy, are either maintaining or increasing fossil fuel energy production.  

“For the emissions data itself, in some cases, a number of countries haven’t reported their emissions in 15 years. On a timescale where we have 20 years to get to zero emissions that’s a huge problem,” Drozda said.

These statistics indicate that countries are unlikely to meet the UN climate policy goals established in the Paris Agreement to keep global warming within a 2 degree Celsius increase, even with full adherence to their nationally determined contributions.

The team hopes to make this an ongoing and updatable source of information, and for people to be able to use the dataset as an open source of information to hold their home countries accountable. The team also hopes to attract members from universities outside the United States and Britain.

Drozda also said he hopes that the project might demonstrate that students can organize and contribute climate research to influence policy recommendations.

“We’re trying to underline the role that students have in also driving climate action and holding large greenhouse gas emitters accountable through research,” Linardi said.