Green shoots from the grassroots at the 26th Conference of the Parties

By: Chris Merchant

On the opening two days of COP26, I was in Glasgow to raise awareness of the climate and environmental data freely available from satellite observations of Earth. While the news media focus on big political headlines from COP26, I was greatly impressed by many people I met who usually won’t make the “front page”.

I’m part of the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and lead a project within the European Space Agency’s climate programme. I took my place at a stand next to the Planetarium in the Glasgow Science Centre (GSC). The stand (figure 1) was created by Space for Climate which is a network of commercial, academic and public sector partners working together to maximise the use of Earth observations to benefit climate action.

Figure 1: The Space for Climate stand at COP26. Note the “heat map” from space over Glasgow and the model of the upcoming satellite mission BIOMASS.

One of the attractions was the touch sensitive globe where the curious could explore animations of climate data and case studies of their use. We were on hand to answer questions about what they could visualise (figure 2).

Figure 2: Discussing data animations on the touch-sensitive illuminated globe of the Earth

Many passers-by were interested to hear about Earth-from-space information and thought the data relevant to their interests. Meanwhile, I had a fascinating time discovering what their interests were. I learned a lot as they enthused about their actions related to climate change. Here are some of the stories I heard (anonymised) from some remarkable people.

An employee of a large food-packaging business explained the difficulty presented to an environmentally conscious business by complex supply chains. They want their paper and card to be sourced from sustainably managed timber. Their major customers in turn increasingly demand this. The necessary chain of information is not necessarily easy to prove, and we discussed space observations as a way of validating statements about where timber was harvested from.

The director of a planetarium (not the GSC’s) talked to me about getting up-to-date data and visualisations of the climate status of planet Earth to include in their programme, “Turning the telescopes to point downward” as he put it. Data from NCEO members can definitely help him with public communication on how the Earth is changing.

I had more than one conversation about pensions, to my surprise. And not from anyone trying to sell me one! Pension schemes are huge investors, and decarbonisation of society will be influenced by their investments. The parents of one impressive teenager related to me how their son ended up in a pension board meeting directly lobbying for a more climate-friendly investment strategy. Another delegate explained that “greening my pension” is an effective strategy for reducing my carbon footprint. And it could also be lucrative, since many sustainable investments have given better returns than general funds in recent years. (Disclaimer: this does not constitute financial advice.)

The south American lady who explained to me her business hugely reducing waste from women’s sanitary products was very impressive. She faces resistance to change, as seems to be a common experience of pioneers. But she palpably gained encouragement from meeting people at COP who appreciated her innovations to reduce everyday resource consumption.

I mention only in passing the economist helping businesses assess finance strategies in the light of climate change, the non-executive director of a start-up aiming to build “the best batteries in the world” in a carbon-neutral factory in England, and the aspiring restorer of Cumbrian peatlands (which can draw down and store carbon dioxide from the air).

I hope that gives some idea of how varied and inspiring the delegates I met were, actively working at the grassroots of climate action. The political outcomes of COP26 may hasten or hinder their progress, but it is these delegates whom I met, and countless others like them, who will drive the practical transition to the low-carbon future we need.

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