Open source and sustainability – where’s the gap?


People have been openly sharing data about the environment for over 150 years – thanks to Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in the mid-1800s, information, or “forecasts”, about weather fronts were wired across the country to warn people of storms heading their way.

Today, one of the biggest problems our society faces is climate change and the rapidly deteriorating environment and there are those that believe that the problem will be fixed (at least in part) by new technologies. Open source software continues to play a critical role in the development of new technologies and so it is surprising to read that there is a relative lack of open source projects relating to the environment and sustainability, as discussed in the Open Source in Environmental Sustainability Report by T Augspurger, E Malliaraki and J Hopkins published in 2023 (Report) and as documented in the Open Sustainable Technology project (and associated database) they launched with the protontypes community (Project).

The Report identified that at least half of environmental sustainability open source projects on Github were in data-rich fields, for example climate science and energy system modelling. From a technical perspective, the Report also found that the most popular coding languages were Python and R, which suggests that projects are focussing on analysis of large datasets and general statistical analysis.

Key takeaways

  • Increased regulation in the Sustainability and ESG sector may drive development of technologies to tackle the climate change issue, and open source software is likely to play a key role.
  • Developers should avoid non-standard open source licences to ensure that their code is used, modified and distributed as intended.

How does the open source community operate?

In brief, open source relies on the author of source code sharing it openly with other contributors under an open source licence and allowing them to use, modify and distribute the code (subject to certain restrictions, depending on the licence). This means that the code benefits from independent scrutiny and a variety of approaches to solve problems, with the different solutions being evaluated by the community. Open source already plays a key role in some of our most advanced and rapidly evolving technologies, from smartphones to cloud computing, which suggests that combined input from a variety of globally connected and locally based communities can be a very efficient way to develop new technology.

Why are there relatively few open source sustainability projects?

The sustainability and open source communities feel like a natural match, both striving for the ‘greater good’ through (often voluntary) community effort and contribution. The findings published in the Report found that the top 27 software projects hosted on Github are more highly rated by the community than all environmental sustainability open source projects combined and that these sustainability projects were relatively young compared to other projects in the open source ecosystem. These findings suggest that the use of open source is one of the most underutilised and underestimated climate change strategies available to help tackle the issue – so what is the barrier to collaboration?

There is no simple answer, but we anticipate, based on our analysis of the Report, that legal constraints and complications could be, at least part of, the underlying issue, as discussed below. From a software development perspective, there is the perceived downside that it may be difficult to benefit financially from open source, although the Report points to a study published by the European Commission suggesting that “open businesses” are able to grow and be financially sustainable.

Will regulation reduce the gap?

Whilst we anticipate that regulation in this sector is set to increase in the coming years, particularly in the EU with the implementation of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (as discussed in our recently published BioTech Review 2023), there is very little “black letter law” requiring most organisations to publish open and transparent data on their sustainability credentials and environmental impact, and so the driver to do so is currently more of a social obligation, rather than a legal requirement.

The Report identified that there is currently a sectorial imbalance with most environmental sustainability data exchange occurring within academia and government agencies even though corporations increasingly have environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies. This lack of open and transparent data exchange and the inequitable distribution of knowledge may impact the creation and ongoing viability of environmental sustainability open source projects.

However, as we anticipate regulation will increase, there may be more open data made widely available by both government agencies, academia and corporations, which may in turn drive more environmental sustainability open source projects.

What is the aim of the Report and what needs to happen next?

The key aim of the Report is “to create a vision and develop strategies to accelerate the use of open source in environmental sustainability”. So what needs to happen to achieve that?

From a legal perspective, a key factor is the licence under which the source code is distributed. The Report found that permissive licenses are the most popular for environmental and sustainability projects, with MIT being the most popular choice, used in just over a quarter of the projects reviewed. However, custom, non-standard or ‘crayon’ licences were almost equally as popular and the problem with these kinds of licences is that if the licence is written by a non-lawyer, it may not be interpreted as the author intended or anticipated.

In our opinion, these non-standard licences should be avoided by environmental sustainability open source projects, as organisations and other developers will likely be reluctant to work with open source code licenced under a custom licence. This is because it is often unclear how these licences operate, such licences will not be on a software developers pre-approved list of acceptable licence and it requires additional effort to interpret the legal rights and obligations under the licence prior to using or contributing to an open source project. Ideally, future projects would all be licenced under existing licences approved by the Open Source Initiative to attract more interest from a broader audience, encourage greater community involvement and provide legal certainty.

Why is this so important?

In summary, the Report seems to suggest that there is a desperate need for a free and open source system for global environmental sustainability reporting, a key feature of which would be to allow for publication of open, transparent and verifiable data for science based analysis and public scrutiny. Traceability is a key factor to reduce uncertainty and inequality in how data is interpreted and represented and is critical in preventing any potential for ‘greenwashing’.

The Report is a call to arms to the tech community and a reminder to the wider world of the value and importance of the open source community, which could well be part of the solution and play an important role in creating a more sustainable future.

Podcast: Open source – audit, valuation and deals

If you’d like to hear more on the topic of open source, then download episode ten of our technology law podcast, The Roadmap.

In this episode of The Roadmap, our technology lawyers Anneke Pol and Toby Crick, discuss open source software and highlight the importance of being conscious of what open source software your business uses, and – crucially – how it’s used.