HomeOur World in Data

The International Energy Agency publishes the detailed, global energy data we all need, but its funders force it behind paywalls. Let’s ask them to change it.

To make the transition to low-carbon energy sources and address climate change we need open data on the global energy system. High-quality data alread

To make the transition to low-carbon energy sources and address climate change we need open data on the global energy system. High-quality data already exists; it is published by the International Energy Agency. But despite being an international institution that is largely publicly funded, most IEA data is locked behind paywalls. This makes it unusable in the public discourse and prevents many researchers from accessing it. Beyond this, it hinders data-sharing and collaboration; results in duplicated research efforts; makes the data unusable for the public discourse; and goes against the principles of transparency and reproducibility in scientific research. The high costs of the data excludes many from the global dialogue on energy and climate and thereby stands in the way of the IEA achieving its own mission. 

We suggest that the countries that fund the IEA drop the requirement to place data behind paywalls and increase their funding – the benefits of opening this important data are much larger than the costs.

Transitioning to a low-carbon energy system is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. Since 87% of annual carbon dioxide emissions come from the energy and industrial sectors, this transition is essential to address climate change.1 At the same time the provision of clean energy is also a priority for global health and human development: 10% do not have access to electricity; 41% do not have access to clean fuels for cooking, and estimates of the health burden of anthropogenic outdoor air pollution range from 4 to over 10 million premature deaths per year.

To understand the problems the world faces and see how we can make progress we need accessible, high-quality data. It needs to be global in scope – leaving no country absent from the conversation – and it needs to cover the range of metrics needed to understand the energy system: this includes primary energy, final energy, useful energy, the breakdown of the electricity mix, end-sector breakdowns of energy consumption, and the CO2 emissions that each sector produces.

This data exists. It is produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the IEA only makes a fraction of their data publicly available, and keeps the rest behind very costly paywalls. This is despite the fact that the IEA is largely funded through public money from its member countries. The reason that the IEA puts much of its data behind paywalls is that the funders made it a requirement that it raises a small share of its budget through licensed data sales. As a consequence of this requirement the data is copyrighted under a strict data license; to access more than the very basic metrics, researchers and everyone else who wants to inform themselves about the global energy system needs to purchase a user license that often costs thousands of dollars.

In 2018, the annual budget of the IEA was EUR 27.8 million. According to the IEA’s budget figures, revenues from its data and publication sales finance “more than one-fifth of its annual budget”. That equates to EUR 5.6 million per year. To put this figure in perspective, it is equal to 0.03% of the total public energy RD&D budget for IEA countries in 2018, which was EUR 20.7 billion.2 Or on a per capita basis split equally across IEA member countries: 0.44 cents per person per year.3

We believe that the relatively small revenues that the paywalls generate do not justify the very large downsides that these restrictions cause.

Despite it being one of the most pressing challenges we face, energy is the only area of development without a global open-access dataset that researchers, policymakers and innovators can use to understand and tackle the problem. The paywalls the IEA is required to put in front of its data make it impossible for it to achieve its own mission. The IEA wants to be at the “heart of global dialogue on energy, providing authoritative analysis, data, policy recommendations, and real-world solutions to help countries provide secure and sustainable energy for all”, but as it stands the IEA is only providing data to rich elites as the restrictive licenses ensure that it cannot be part of the global dialogue on energy.

As explained, the problem is not so much the IEA itself, who surely has an interest in achieving its mission. The problem is the member countries’ imposition that the IEA has to raise a part of its budget through the sales of data licenses. To make it possible for the IEA to achieve its mission, the global energy and climate research community should therefore recommend to IEA member countries that they remove the requirement to charge for data use and close the relatively small funding gap that remains.

The pandemic has taught us many lessons over the past year. One key lesson has been that timely, accurate, and open global data is fundamental to the understanding of a global problem and an appropriate response to it. In the same way that the lack of public data would have stood in the way of fighting the pandemic, the lack of public data on the energy and climate system is standing in the way of solving one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime.