Carbon Brief is a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy. We specialise in clear, data-driven articles and graphics to help improve the understanding of climate change, both in terms of the science and the policy response. We realised in 2016, after the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was adopted, that project-level data about how the UK government was spending billions of pounds on “climate finance” abroad was not in the public domain. The UK is one of the world’s largest funders of climate-related aid projects and yet journalists, NGOs, academics, politicians and even civil servants have struggled to obtain a detailed picture of how this money is spent "on the ground".
What makes this project innovative?
This data had never been viewed in public, let alone analysed before. And yet it represented billions of pounds of UK taxpayers' money. It was a long-running struggle to extract the data from the UK government via FOI requests and, once it was finally released to us, we then had to conduct a further task in matching the project codes with existing supplementary data sitting deep on a government website. Combining these two sets of data was crucial, but had to be done very carefully as they represented huge sums of money. Some project data seemed contradictory or mistaken so had to be checked individually and verified with government officials to ensure accuracy. Carbon Brief spent 10 months on the project in total and drew together a number of different data journalism techniques to complete the task.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
A month after the article was published, the UK's climate minister Claire Perry MP told journalists at a press conference at the annual UN climate summit in Germany that it was only when she had read Carbon Brief’s analysis that she learned herself exactly how the UK spent its climate finance abroad. “I’d been asking my civil servants for this data myself. I’ve now got a copy of the article pinned to my wall in the office,” she said. Carbon Brief followed up this article a few weeks later with a companion piece of analysis showing were the multilateral climate funds spend their funds – and how their key donors are. Our analysis was widely read and shared online, including a supportive tweet by the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All.
Source and methodology
In early 2017, Carbon Brief submitted an FOI request to the UK government asking for a full breakdown of how it had spent almost £5 billion of UK taxpayers’ money on foreign aid relating to climate change since 2011. In the end, it took two separate FOI requests and repeated questioning of three different government ministries over ten months to pull all the data together, which covered hundreds of projects around the world. Once all the project codes had been obtained via the FOI requests, it was then possible to "data scrap" additional supplementary data from UK government websites. Carbon Brief then had to carefully combine the data together to produce one spreadsheet before any analysis could be undertaken. Carbon Brief then checked with government sources to verify that all the data obtained was accurate. Once this was completed, Carbon Brief broke the data down so it could be analysed by country and by region. This allowed us to produce an interactive map and chart of the world showing where the UK has spent its foreign aid – and which countries and regions have received the most in donations. For the first time, it revealed that Ethiopia had received the most over this period - £139.7m. It also showed that Africa had received the most regional funding - £826.4m. Hundreds of other new insights could now be obtained from the new dataset.
Carbon Brief used Import.io and Google sheets to "data scrap" and extract the supplementary data from UK government websites, such as devtracker.dfid.gov.uk. A single Google sheet was then created to publicly share and analyse all the data collected which combined the FOIed datasets and data scraped from the websites. To visualise and map the data, Carbon Brief used Tableau, Highcharts and Carto.
Rosamund Pearce, multimedia journalist