Inside COP28 with the UK Space Agency

Momin Ashraf (pictured right), a first-year student on our part-time MSc in Sustainable Urban Development, attended the COP28 conference in Dubai, as part of the UK Space Agency team. He recounts his experience and observations of the event.

Hi Momin! Please can you introduce yourself and tell us about your background?

Hi! I'm Momin Ashraf, and I'm thrilled to share my recent adventure as a part of the UK Space Agency team at COP28. Serving as one of the three early career professionals, I supported our stand by discussing with visitors the rapidly growing and flourishing climate data provided by sectors in the UK space industry. This experience was special not only because it was my first COP but also held an extra layer of significance as it took place in Dubai – the very city where I was born and raised.

I have a background in Human Geography and am currently enrolled on the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development. I have professional experience working with geospatial and satellite data in diverse fields such as agriculture, urban planning, extractive industries, and environmental management. As part of Satellite Applications Catapult's International development and humanitarian team, we leverage satellite technology for conflict and disaster monitoring across the Middle East, Central, and North Africa using cutting-edge machine learning techniques to drive informed decision-making. To see more of what we do, visit our exciting StoryMap.

What was the lead-up to the event like, given the press circulating at the time?

I joined the UK Space Agency team on the third day of COP28, so I virtually tracked the initial days through social media and news updates. I felt a sense of unease due to reports of contentious statements about fossil fuels and the significant presence of oil and gas lobbyists at COP. As a first-timer at COP, uncertainty loomed about what to expect. Would visitors to our stand show interest in climate change? Would people engage with discussions about earth observation technology? In discussions with colleagues and friends, there appeared to be a subtle sense that resolving the climate crisis might be beyond reach.

So, what was your experience once you were there?

The initial uncertainty that accompanied me vanished not upon reaching the venue, but rather during the metro ride. With every passing station, the number of individuals wearing COP28 passes steadily increased, creating a vibrant and enthusiastic atmosphere within the train carriage. The electric energy was palpable as people from diverse corners of the globe and various industries engaged in animated conversations and shared insights on newly agreed commitments. What stood out was the genuine interest individuals expressed in the space sector, eagerly wanting to learn about my past projects that intersected with their business interests.

Once we arrived at COP, this experience became even more pronounced. The UK Space Agency stand was located in the green zone within the technology and innovation hub. We had incredibly busy days, with some attracting over a hundred people, ranging from professionals to curious individuals from the general public. What I found particularly enjoyable was engaging in conversations about satellite imagery in the context of new announcements arising from the blue zone, such as commitments to the loss and damage fund, decarbonization pledges, or positive strides in addressing climate issues related to food and agriculture. We had a 3D monitor called a puffer touch which is a great tool for swiftly opening and exploring satellite-derived datasets and case studies, facilitating meaningful discussions. It was truly fulfilling to witness people's excitement as they discovered long-term and high-resolution data specific to their areas of interest. Their enthusiasm for satellite technology was contagious and reinforced the significance of our work in making such valuable resources accessible and understandable to a broader audience.

A personal highlight for me was presenting our work to a class of Sixth Form students from my old high school. It was particularly rewarding to witness a surge of interest among the geography students as they realised that a career in the space industry with a geography degree was not only possible but also within their reach.

We were able to take some time to explore the COP venue. I spent the majority of this time at the humanitarian hub. This was a small room dedicated to networking and hosted talks set up by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Here, I engaged in conversations with founders of climate and humanitarian start-ups, company directors, and city mayors. A predominant theme in these discussions was the emphasis on bolstering local resilience in our urban centres. The pivotal role of data emerged as a central topic, highlighting geospatial and satellite technology as a key, consistent source that could address various issues in the pursuit of sustainable urban development. However, a noticeable gap was evident. There was clearly a disconnect between the remarkable work being carried out in the space industry and the practical application of this valuable data to those who need it.

Lastly, can you tell us your main takeaways from the event?

The main lessons learned from COP28 indicate that the space industry must improve its efforts in advertising and disseminating our work to the general public and industries that can make the most use of it. It is concerning that professionals in the finance industry, particularly those involved in climate-related/nature-related financial discourse (TNFD/TCFD) projects, had little awareness of how satellite imagery could benefit them. Despite significant progress within this industry, it appears that this information has not extended beyond our relatively small community.

COP28 has left me feeling energized and motivated for the new year. Prior to the conference, I perceived the climate crisis as a problem too late to be solved. However, after engaging with numerous committed individuals presenting innovative solutions, I now have a newfound motivation.

My goal for COP29, which I am sure is shared by many in our community within the space industry, is to have satellite data and technology spoken as common knowledge, rather than being perceived as a distant concept.

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Published 8 January 2024