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The world is a lot bigger than spatial industry, but we have a real role to play

Dr. Nathan Quadros, Research Program Manager (Rapid Spatial Analytics), CRCSI

The Pacific Islands project was one of the 16 winners of United Nations Momentum for Change Award at the COP21 meet. Tell us about the project, and why was it considered so innovative?

Most climate adaptation activities in the Pacific are not informed by the fundamental data required to identify the magnitude of, and communities at risk from, coastal flooding. Accurate 3D models of coastal areas and islands were captured to provide a fundamental input for inundation modelling. This, combined with the power of Google Maps and analytics, provided a platform which cut across all people to communicate sea level rise. Planners, communities, government officials and even ministers have sat down to use our visualization tools. It has reduced the burden on government GIS and mapping units, and gives people direct access to climate change information.

The 3D LiDAR models generated in this project provided the detail and accuracy the Pacific Islands need to visualize sea level rise scenarios at the island and village scale. Free, publicly available Web platforms were delivered to optimize the availability and access to sea level rise models to implement effective community engagement and to maximize the cross-government cooperation with respect to climate change mitigation.

People are genuinely excited by maps. The training using customized map tools is different and immediately engaging. We finished the training in Vanuatu at 4pm each day; however, all trainees continually stayed around till 6pm to engage with the tools before we turned off the lights.

I managed and designed the project on behalf of the Australian government who funded the LiDAR acquisition, GIS training and Web tools. The project was initiated in 2011, with a 2014 wrap-up. The first two years were consumed by initial in-country scoping missions and the LiDAR acquisition. The last year focussed on the training and data delivery.

CRCSI Program Manager Dr Nathan Quadros (left) and NGIS Australia’s Nathan Eaton at COP21, Paris

Which are the other agencies/ companies who were involved with this project? 

The Australian government’s Department of the Environment originally came up with the concept of acquiring LiDAR data in response to a request from Pacific Island countries through their National Action Plans. AAM, Geoscience Australia and GHD were all involved in other aspects of the project for acquiring the LiDAR data. Digital Globe assisted with the follow-on initiative of the Cyclone Pam Crisis Map, which was developed post Cyclone Pam in March 2015 for Vanuatu to assist in the recovery.

There is a general feeling that much of the climate initiatives have been toward energy concerns while issues like deforestation, urbanization and island nations do not get that much attention… 

One of the remarkable speeches for me at COP21 was attending the session with the leaders of the Pacific countries (also including Prince Albert of Monaco and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson). The message was that while other leaders had come and gone, all the Pacific Island leaders were at the conference till the end. These people recognize climate change as their major challenge, with these least emitting nations to be the first victims of climate change. The leaders of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau all spoke passionately about the need for a resolution.
Although the Islanders are one of the lowest emitters, they will be the first major victims of climate change. Already the islands are facing significant impacts. Just outside Nuku’alofa in Tonga, people are already living with water surrounding their houses in normal conditions. For these people, a small rise in sea level has a major impact on their livelihood. Initiatives like the Green Climate Fund go some way to helping vulnerable countries to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change. However, the Pacific Islanders are demanding that more be done by the international community to assist them in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Increasing the awareness of their needs will assist in drawing people to their cause.

What were the vibe and general discussions at COP21 and how is this different to previous COP conferences?

The feeling around COP21 was amazingly positive. Speaking to people who had been at previous COP conferences, the positive vibe was a substantial shift in people’s attitudes towards an agreement on climate change. The French handled the negotiations extremely well. I was impressed by the extreme hard work of all; with meetings commonly going on throughout the night.

COP21 was a massive operation — 50,000 people at the conference with so many halls, meeting rooms and booths. All the booths and stands were run by different countries or associations. Maps were common throughout the booths.
Another speech which made an impact on me was by Bertrand Piccard (inventor of the Solar Pulse plane). He summed up what a lot of other people had been saying — the talk about climate change has moved from ‘what it costs’, to how much we can make. Businesses are now seeing opportunities and government are seeing savings. In Piccard’s case, this is a plane which flies without fuel.

Seeing the other ‘Momentum for Change’ projects was very humbling. These people are making such a difference, especially to the poor. The project which stood out for me was the Fairphone — an environmentally and ethically sourced phone. You can also change the parts and upgrade it so that you don’t have to throw it away. There were also a few projects on solar for the poor, including cheap solar for households, and solar for pumping and heating water. Some of these projects are making a substantial difference to people’s lives in developing nations.

We hear about a lot of negativity in the news, but it is a pleasant relief when we can be part of something positive. When the World makes a decision for the better, it is a reminder of how much positivity there is in the world, and how if we work together we can make a difference to generations to come. The world is a lot bigger than our spatial industry, but we have a real role to play.