The International Energy Agency is proposing to lift the paywall on its extensive energy database, in a potential boon for climate research
Climate and energy researchers around the world have expressed excitement at the news that the International Energy Agency (IEA) wants to make its vast energy database freely available.
Energy ministers from the IEA’s 30 member states will consider a proposal to remove the paywall from their reports and data at their next ministerial meeting in Paris, 2-3 February.
The IEA gets around a quarter of its budget, €5.6m ($6.3m), from selling raw data and analysis. The IEA’s head Fatih Birol hopes to replace paywall revenues with extra contributions from member states or private donors, according to an internal staff email seen by Quantum Commodity Intelligence.
“I am hopeful that we may be able to find a creative solution with the support of several members and large philanthropists that could permit us to make it a public good, in the interests of boosting market transparency and promoting good energy/climate decision making,” Birol reportedly said in the note.
An IEA spokesperson told Climate Home News it was “exploring options to further increase the amount of data that is available for free to more users while at the same time maintaining the financial stability of the Agency.”
If the proposal is approved, it will be a victory for Our World in Data, an open data analysis site that started campaigning for the change in 2020.
A tweet asking if anyone used the IEA’s data quickly received nearly 50 responses and 190 likes. The majority were from researchers saying they found the IEA’s data useful but were frustrated at the paywalls and copyright restrictions applied to some of it.
Does anyone here use, or would like to use, the International Energy Agency’s data for their research?
— Joe Lo (@joeloyo) January 7, 2022
UK-based Ember electricity analyst Dave Jones said: “It’s so hard to find the latest data for countries throughout the world, and as the IEA have made leaps and bounds adding new datasets and making it even more up-to-date, it’s tantalizing to see [if] this will be freely available.”
Spanish energy economist Mar Rubio-Varis said she uses the IEA’s data “whenever I can get hold of it”. She adds: “Paying, stealing from colleagues who paid. It needs to be open access, public and able to be discussed and corrected if need be.”
Barry McMullin is an engineering professor at Dublin City University in Ireland. He told Climate Home News: “Our focus is on energy system decarbonisation at a national level. An element of that is trying to downscale IEA global scenarios and figure out whether or how well they align with our more bottom up/local national analysis… having unencumbered access to the IEA datasets (and ultimately to their models!) will certainly facilitate us in this kind of study.”
Our World in Data researcher Hannah Ritchie said that copyright restrictions on the IEA’s free and paywalled information made research more difficult and less transparent. Academics should be able to show their workings so that they can be scrutinised, she said, and copyright restrictions prevent this happening.
For example, she said the IEA’s analysis of jet fuel data is the only source of information on historic emissions from aviation. “So we’re in this really ridiculous situation where we can’t even publish a data set on aviation emissions since 1960,” she said.
IEA reports can cost several thousand dollars. Researchers who can’t afford them have to rely on less comprehensive sources like the annual statistical review of world energy produced by oil major BP.
BP chooses metrics that flatter fossil fuels. It provides data on primary energy consumption but not final energy consumption. For fossil fuels, unlike renewables, much of the primary energy is lost as waste heat when it is converted to electricity.
Using primary energy, Ritchie said “it would look like you would have to produce massive amounts of renewables and other low-carbon sources to basically meet the energy supply… But that’s not true, because that’s also including all of the inefficiencies in fossil fuels that you would take away if you decarbonised,” she added.
The oil company also provides little data from the poorest countries. “If you live in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, you’re not really involved in the public discussion because there’s no open data for your country,” Ritchie said.
An IEA spokesperson said: “The IEA provides free of charge access to its data and reports to all governments and to the press, and offers much of its data for free or deeply discounted to not-for-profit organizations, researchers and academics.
They continued: “The bulk of data sales that are generated come from private companies and consultancies using it for commercial purposes. The revenue generated from these sales represents around 25% of the IEA core budget, reducing the need to call on member countries for additional funding.
“The IEA is now exploring options to further increase the amount of data that is available for free to more users while at the same time maintaining the financial stability of the Agency.”
This article was amended on 10 January to include the IEA’s response.