Digital public infrastructure for green transitions

September 18, 2023
Two farmers standing in soy field

A soybean farm in Paraguay practices sustainable agriculture. We need sustained, rapid mitigation and adaptation in energy transition, nature conservation, land-use, reforestation and community resilience building..

Photo: UNDP Paraguay

The 78th UN General Assembly calls on the international community to keep the promise of the 2030 Agenda. Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) is one of the UN’s High Impact Initiatives focused on mobilizing action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Imagine the humble Lego block—simple, versatile and accessible to everyone. That's  digital public infrastructure—a basic digital unit that's open, inclusive, and does one thing superbly well at a massive scale. These are society-wide digital capabilities that are essential to participation in society and markets. A leading example is exponential financial inclusion in India, catalyzed by Aadhaar, India’s national ID system, which inducted over 80 percent of Indians into formal banking. What could have taken five decades was accomplished in less than one. That's the power of DPI!

DPI assembles digital building blocks so they are inclusive, open and interoperable and, most importantly, minimalist. They work seamlessly with each other. They cover only what is needed to lay down the ‘digital rails’ such as data protocols, standards, IDs, and credentials. Ensuring public governance of the building blocks and adequate government capacity allows for an ecosystem of public and private entities to compete, innovate, integrate and develop solutions. The question is, how do we use DPI to address our diverse, complex, and deep-rooted planetary crises?

We need to think beyond traditional linear solutions. We need sustained rapid mitigation and adaptation in energy transition, nature conservation, land-use, reforestation, community resilience building, and much more. Here are five ideas for exponential green transitions. 

1. Transparent carbon markets

The Challenge: Countries are facing a massive financial hurdle to meet their 2030 climate commitments, requiring an estimated US$5.8 to 5.9 trillion. One of the main bottlenecks is the convoluted and costly process of carbon credit verification. These complexities disproportionately affect smaller projects, particularly in the global south.

DPI Response: Creating an efficient carbon market requires an integrated approach:

  • Utilize open-source, standardized components for carbon trading. This involves digitizing methodologies, employing reliable Measurement Reporting Verification systems, and establishing consistent carbon registries.
  • Introduce a Climate Action Data Trust layer. This meta-layer would oversee all activities, ensuring transparency and accountability in carbon transactions.

By synergizing these components the carbon market can be revitalized. The potential outcome? A surge in trust and efficiency, reducing costs and paving the way for countless climate projects to access funding and support. 

With backing from organizations like the World Bank, UNFCCC, EBRD, and UNDP (The Digital For Climate Working Group), the movement toward a transparent, DPI-driven carbon market is gaining momentum. DPI's inherent versatility can be harnessed for educational purposes. Initiatives like the ONEST project exemplify this.

2. Efficient and inclusive circular economies

The Challenge: As of 2023, only 7.2 percent of the global economy is circular, which is a decline from 8.6 percent in 2020 and 9.1 percent in 2018. Our consumption patterns are alarming—100 billion tons of resources are consumed yearly, with approximately 90 percent ending up as waste. By embracing an efficient circular economy, we can achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, tap into US$4.5 trillion of potential economic value, and create six million jobs by 2030.

DPI Response: Merging the principles of a circular economy with an open commerce network, such as ONDC, can pave the way for sustainable market flows. This has the potential to exponentially impact waste management in areas including plastics, urban waste, construction debris, textiles, and food. The existing DPI frameworks for identification and payments can empower informal workers to actively participate in this circular transformation, fostering inclusivity. Examples from places such as Tanzania show the real-world impact.

3. Smart energy networks 

The Challenge: More than 675 million people lack access to energy. To reach the 2050 net-zero goal, we must shift to sustainable energy. We need an 80 GW increase in global grid-scale battery storage every year until 2030. Only 16 GW was added in 2022. This shift demands faster energy storage, better utilization of idle storage, and matching demand with supply.

DPI Response: Unified Energy Interface (UEI). Think of this as the email system for energy. Just as different email providers have standardized approaches to send and receive messages, UEI uses open-source protocols to manage stored energy resources. This system can:

  • Support local energy grids, allowing communities to manage and share energy
  • Consumers both use and produce energy while balancing it in real-time
  • Encourage both public and private sectors to create diverse energy solutions

This is being tested by energy experts in India.

4. Climate resilient urbanization

The Challenge: Cities are burgeoning, especially in low- and middle-income countries, with the urban population expected to grow to about 75 percent by 2050. This means much of the infrastructure in the global south has yet to be built. Cities contribute around 70 percent of greenhouse gases. It's crucial to re-envision how we plan, construct, and maintain them. 

DPI Response: Planning Codes: Urban designs should prioritize blue-green infrastructure, which merges water management with green spaces. By limiting sprawl and emphasizing transit infrastructure, intelligent urban planning can cut transport emissions by about 12 percent and bolster resilience against natural disasters.

City Operations: Efficient management of waste can reduce 3.2 percent of emissions. DPI can shine a spotlight on waste's journey—from its creation to its final, sustainable disposal or repurposing—ensuring accountability and promoting greener disposal.

Response Plans: Cities need to be equipped to handle climate-induced calamities. DPI can provide everything from financial support during severe heat waves, to organizing evacuations, and food aid during floods.

5. Green finance for local climate action

The Challenge: Indigenous groups and farmers are guardians of forests, water, and other ecosystems. Many are vulnerable to the effects of climate change yet connecting them with climate financing remains a challenge. New avenues, such as carbon trading, payments for ecosystem services, and potential biodiversity credits, aim to back these groups. Most have room for improvement.

DPI Response: The key challenges in climate financing support are:

  • Swift transactions: Reducing the gap between financial commitment and actual disbursement
  • Transparency: Ensuring funds reach their intended recipients through a clear and traceable process
  • Complex transfers: Simplifying intricate payments that cut across global, national, and local levels and adhering to international and national standards

recent study by UNDP looked at digitalizing result-based green financing. By harnessing the Government to People (G2P) payments as part of a DPI, modelled on the open G2PConnect Blueprint, we can efficiently funnel climate finance to those who need it, ensuring direct, transparent, and impactful support.

Call to action

We believe that global communities of DPI and climate experts must come together to build and scale climate DPIs and innovation ecosystems. What milestones can we reach? Can we convene experts to design such DPIs during Climate COP28, prototype them by COP29 and demonstrate impact at scale by COP30? We look forward to working with countries and partners. 

Contributors: UNDPSocietal ThinkingeGovernments FoundationCentre for Digital Public InfrastructureFoundation for Interoperability and Digital Economy, and Co-Develop