Open Source in Environmental Sustainability
* Report: Open Source in Environmental Sustainability. Preserving climate and natural resources with openness. By Tobias Augspurger, Eirini Malliaraki and Josh Hopkins. Report 2023
"This report provides the first comprehensive analysis of the open source software ecosystem in the field of sustainability and climate technology."
"Open source is everywhere. Its culture of transparent and collaborative innovation has transformed modern society, with over 97% of critical digital infrastructure and services depending on it. The role of open source has become increasingly important in addressing environmental challenges. Mathematical models, data and measurement tools, accumulated and shared over decades, have empowered communities worldwide with the understanding needed to preserve Earth’s vital resources – fresh water, fertile soil, clean air, and a stable climate. Open cultural and technical approaches are essential for supporting traceable decision-making, building capacity for localisation and customisation, providing new opportunities for participation, and preventing greenwashing by ensuring transparency and trust. Yet, despite the transformative impact of open source, its potential within environmental sustainability is not well understood. This has resulted in a systemic lack of investment, ultimately limiting our collective capacity in addressing society’s most pressing challenges. There is a clear need to accelerate open source efforts to achieve innovation and sustainability at scale. However, a systematic assessment of which projects can be considered critical digital infrastructure or where significant funding and resourcing gaps exist has been lacking.
This report provides the first comprehensive analysis of the open source software ecosystem in the field of sustainability and climate technology. More than one thousand actively-developed open source projects and organisations were compiled and systematically analysed using qualitative and quantitative methods as part of the Open Sustainable Technology project and its associated database. The analysis covers multiple dimensions – including the technical, social, and organisational – providing an empirical basis for guiding community building, policy development and future investment. We examine the health and vibrancy of this emerging ecosystem, highlighting key risks and opportunities for users, developers, and decision-makers. Finally, we present a shared vision and strategies to accelerate the widespread use and adoption of open source within this increasingly important field.
Our findings reveal that while there is wide recognition of the importance of technology in the transition to a more sustainable future, open cultural and technical approaches used in the research, design, operation, and maintenance of human-engineered systems are rarely considered in their own right. Despite the proven transformational potential of open source in other domains, open source still plays a minor role within sustainability as a transformation strategy.
Half of all identified projects are in high-impact, data-rich fields such as climate science, biosphere, energy system modelling, transportation and buildings. Other topics, such as carbon offsets, battery technology, sustainable investment, emission observation and integrated assessment modelling, show few notable developments. Most identified projects are relatively young, with a median age of 4.45 years. Despite this, their open source contributors demonstrate a high level of knowledge and ability to sustain innovative capacity and project longevity, given sufficient resources and support.
Social rankings, derived from software development platforms, show a total of ~127,000 stars across all identified projects, with a median of 42 stars. As a proxy for popularity, the total stars suggest this ecosystem attracts moderate interest amongst open source contributors. Some emerging topics, such as green software, have shown rapid popularity growth in recent years. In comparison, however, the top 27 software projects hosted on Github each have more stars than the entire open source ecosystem in environmental sustainability combined, with a median of ~161,000 stars. Only three of the identified projects have more than 1,000 stars. This highlights a general lack of awareness of this critical ecosystem within the broader developer community and public domain.
Perhaps unsurprising to developers, the programming languages Python and R dominate this open source ecosystem, indicating a strong focus on data analysis, scientific computing, and statistical modelling. The ecosystem maintains an open orientation from a legal perspective, favouring permissive licences such as MIT (26%), allowing others to use and share software with few restrictions, followed by the copyleft licence GPLv3 (17.3%).
Analysis of the distribution of knowledge, work, and project governance reveals that small, open source communities lead most of the development in this ecosystem. On average, open source software projects rely heavily on a single programmer responsible for ~70% of the contributions to a project. This indicates potential contributor risk, which could limit the potential of many of these projects. A sectoral imbalance in open information and knowledge exchange can be seen, with academia and several government agencies contributing significantly to this ecosystem. Meanwhile, the lack of for-profit organisations and startups with open source business models is remarkable, particularly given the rise of similar ventures within other domains. This sectoral imbalance is further highlighted by the growing demand for open science approaches within corporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies. Geographically, most open source software projects within the ecosystem are based in Europe and North America (64%), with few projects from the Global South. In India and China, notable development efforts appear either underrepresented or nonexistent, despite having large software developer communities.
While capturing the ultimate use of open source technologies remains a challenge, the report highlights key examples of projects which demonstrate alignment and capacity towards positive impact. Many of the identified projects both enable and accelerate sustainable outcomes. These range from the consortium efforts behind models underpinning the well-publicised assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to community-driven projects that provide real-time electricity insights to decision-makers across the globe.
Beyond environmental considerations, our findings support recent research suggesting that open source is instrumental in increasing efficiencies through iterative innovation and avoiding the need to “reinvent the wheel”. Importantly, building capacity around open information and technology has been shown to have cascading effects across the whole of society, stimulating endogenous growth and the formation of start-ups, as well as boosting labour productivity. However, there are few dedicated funds for open source development and maintenance. There are even fewer funders who have adopted an open source criterion for sustainable investment. Furthermore, while recent policy developments acknowledge the wider potential of open source, there is a lack of cross-sector advocacy and support for this critical ecosystem.
Finally, the report presents four guiding principles embodied within this emerging ecosystem, which we define as Open Sustainability Principles: Transparency and Trust, Traceable Decision-Making, Collaborative Innovation, and Localisation and Decentralisation. These principles provide the basis for collaborative sense-making, enable meaningful consensus – based on an accurate, shared understanding of the state of our planet – provide direction on how to best coordinate our choice-making, and build capacity for effective action.
We conclude that digital and sustainable transformation must converge as a digital public good if we are to achieve a safe and equitable corridor for people and the planet. Open sustainability principles can help governments, research institutes, nongovernmental organisations, and businesses move rapidly toward decarbonisation and better conserve natural resources and ecosystems."
"We propose several recommendations for building greater capacity and support for open source software in environmental sustainability:
Strengthen the interconnectivity and knowledge exchange of the identified open source communities.
Build capacity and increase the potential for real-world impact by connecting projects to local use cases.
Adapt and extend existing projects to underrepresented countries in the Global South.
Create incubators and other support programmes for open source in environmental sustainability, including dedicated funds that provide core funding for development and maintenance.
Develop better technical interfaces between platforms, data, models and open source tools across and within sectors to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.
Standardise environmental data exchange across different levels of government.
Close the knowledge gap on the environmental impact of state and industries.
Transform financial institutions through transparent and scientific decision-making for sustainable investments.
Apply an “Open Source First” criterion when providing funding for sustainable technologies.
Recognise the contributions of open source in advancing sustainable development on a global scale."