As governments and environment agencies around the world gear up for the COP21 meet in Paris beginning later this month, the geospatial community’s expectations run high.
November 30, 2015, the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) begins in Paris. The stakes could not be higher at the event which is expected to be a major milestone in efforts to combat climate change. And that is also true for the geospatial community. The UN recognizes that there is a growing requirement for more accurate measuring of the changing planet, down to millimetres, and that geoinformation has become mandatory when it comes to achieving Sustainable Development Goals. And yet, there is no explicit role for space technologies in the official climate change draft agreement.
Twenty-three years after the signing of the Framework Convention, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, sea levels are rising, the hole in the ozone layer is expanding, polar ice sheets are melting, and natural disasters are increasing. All posing a grave threat to sustainable development in all countries. Avoiding the highly dangerous climate change will require sustained efforts and profound changes in the world’s energy systems, land-use patterns, and socio-economic development trajectories.
Geospatial data and information is absolutely essential to analyze and effectively plan for adaptation to climate change. In a world where space-based technologies are being used in almost every field, the issue of lack of awareness among decision-makers and representatives of the research and academic community with respect to space technology applications still exists.
The 2015 COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2 degree Celsius. The global agreement reached at Paris is expected to be a decisive turning point for the world’s efforts to fight climate change.
“What’s important about Conference of the Parties is that many citizens of the world are finally getting the message about the impact humans have on the Earth,” says Barbara Ryan, Secretariat Director of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). While the GEO is upstream of this policy debate and doesn’t have a direct voice or a role to play at COP, Ryan sees the organization wanting to make sure that all the member states of UN understand that earth observation and geospatial information can help all those decisions. “We must leverage that information regardless of the decisions that come out of COP. We need to get these technologies into policy and COP gives us an opportunity to step up and do something about that.”
“I am expecting great things from COP,” echoes Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson, Global Environment Facility (GEF), which administers the Least Developed Countries Fund (LCCF) and Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) established by the COP to the UNFCCC. Ishii expects a comprehensive, legally bound agreement as an outcome and wants more actions to be triggered on the ground for issues like deforestation and climate-smart agriculture. “COP 21 is an opportunity to create a multi-stakeholder platform for taking actions,” she adds. GEF was established on the eve of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, to help tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. Since then, it has provided over $14 billion in grants and mobilized in excess of $70 billion in additional financing for more than 4,000 projects.
Mistakes of the past
The geospatial community is also wary of not repeating past mistakes and sees the Paris summit as a major milestone for getting governments and companies to take serious actions around climate change. “We don’t want to repeat the same mistakes of Copenhagen. We want to fully support the European Union and member states, and make sure that we have all the information to make the right kind of negotiations so that good outcomes come out of COP21,” says Chris Steenmans, Head of Programme, ICT and Data Management, European Environment Agency (EEA). He hopes that the final agreement that comes out will ensure that global warming stays below the 2 degree Celsius level.
The EEA will not be there at Paris actively as a player, but is making sure that the EU has the right data and information available to ensure that all the targets that are put forth in the context of climate change can be achieved. “We have to make sure we — not only the European Commission but also the member states — have the right package for the negotiations that will be finalized at COP21.”
Craig Hanson, Global Director of Food, Forests & Water, World Resources Institute explains: “In Rio+20, we didn’t have initiatives like Global Forest Watch and now we do. I think we are on the cutting edge of a dramatic explosion of geospatial technology and this will play a major role in advancing the COP21 agenda.”
The United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM) Fifth Session in August made it really clear that forests, oceans and environment play a major role in sustainable development. Which is why at the summit in New York, member states expressed the need for objective, clear and reliable data access for achieving sustainable development goals. And next month in September, as the governments of the world and the UN General Assembly met in New York to solidify 17 SDGs, 169 targets and 304 proposal indicators to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, geospatial information found its rightful place in the UN agenda. But even then it doesn’t find any mention in the Climate Change draft for the Paris meet.
“There is no Plan B but to use geospatial information for all these aspects. In order to address these issues, we need an integrated approach and accurate data,” stresses Ishii. “Earth observation and geospatial information must play a leading role in measuring, monitoring and reporting of those sustainable development goals,” adds Ryan.
Part of the system
For several decades now satellite remote sensing and geographical information system (GIS) have helped study and understand better each and every aspect of our planet. Geospatial technologies that visualize and use information collected from ground, airborne and satellite platforms have proved to be a vital tool to examine the changes and to suggest adaptation and mitigation, locally, regionally and globally. Extracting large amounts of data developed from remote sensing sensors along with interoperability through latest computing and software techniques makes it easier to access the frontier zones of the earth system.
“It is critical that we have knowledge in the area of weather, climate and sea level change, and that an understanding of a global geodetic reference frame is applied to inform mitigation efforts and decision making for sustainable development,” says Rohan Richards, Principal Director in the National Spatial Data Management Division of the Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change.
Spatial information plays a key part in the fight against environmental degradation and runaway climate change. Satellites offer a unique way of gathering data on essential climate variables at the global level, which may be too difficult, too costly or impossible to gather using in-situ approaches. Such variables include atmospheric, terrestrial, and oceanic aspects.
“Geospatial doesn’t really need a mandate but what it does need is availability and free access. We have all seen the benefits of geospatial data when it comes to sustainable development,” says Craig Hanson, Global Director of Food, Forests & Water, World Resources Institute.
All eyes on Paris
There’s a lot of momentum building towards COP21. Countries are coming out with their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) as they are explaining the commitments they will be making towards addressing climate change.
In the current political agenda, environment is very low, not only in Europe but also at a global level. Steenmans believes “it is all about employment, poverty, wars, refugee crises… It is the role of governments and organizations like us to make citizens understand that environment is equally important. And there fore you need to have a coordinated approach.”
There is a need for a much greener world for everyone. The use of geospatial technology in mitigating climate change issues and challenges is gaining importance due to its information driven tools which would probably lead to smart decision making as desired by the policymakers at the national and international levels.
“Paris will be a major milestone for getting governments and companies to take serious actions around climate change,” says Hanson.
The climate community needs geospatial information in order to assess climate impacts, evaluate the risk that climate change is presenting, and develop and implement plans for adaptation. While it is true that the benefits of geospatial data are enormous when it comes to sustainable development, geospatial doesn’t really need a mandate. What it does need is availability and free access. Adaptation plans are happening now, and adaptation is crucial for the global community to reach the outcomes necessary.
COP21, after all, is our last chance to adopt a global agreement for a secure and safe climate.