COP27’s bureaucratic agenda was a sign of progress – next year it must translate data into targets

Gillian Garside-Wight
23 January, 23

Controversy is never too far from the The United Nations Climate Change Conferences, and COP27 was no different. The last minute negotiations to secure a global ‘loss and damage fund’ from the richest countries  – and the event’s choice of sponsors – drew the most column inches. However, even the agenda drew critical attention, largely for the comparatively little time allocated to tech.

Celebrity spotters at this year’s summit would also have been sorely disappointed; there was no keynote from Sir David Attenborough, and no impromptu appearance by Greta Thunberg. Instead we ended up with hours upon hours of talk and wrangling over the nuances of what actually constitutes ‘low emissions energy’.

However, what some might view as an exercise in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and legal doublethink, is actually a positive sign. This is how real change happens – it’s boring for good reason, because the devil really is in the details.

That’s why exotic or still out-of-reach solutions like orbiting solar farms and fusion power weren’t on the agenda. Instead, delegates were debating real world solutions that can have an impact in the near-term, rather than resting their hopes on silver bullets.

And a key part of this pragmatic work is leveraging the technology already in place to gain sustainability insights and data – which in turn will help drive positive change and develop the frameworks to nudge populations towards net zero.

And make no mistake, data will be fundamental, particularly when developing successful public-private partnerships to reach informed decisions on targets and timeframes.

Without the right data, we will simply not have the means to qualify solutions, or understand where, when and how to innovate. It doesn’t matter which sector, or which particular climate challenge we consider, if we can’t measure it, we can’t improve it. Without adequate data, it also becomes harder to secure the significant investment needed to drive change.

So although we’re on the right track, it’s still disappointing that progress has been slow when it comes to using and setting measurable targets, something that was first outlined at the 2015 Paris Agreement and was one of the aims put forward for COP26 last year. If we don’t use finite data precisely to set realistic and achievable targets, then any efforts are based upon pie-in-the-sky guesswork. At this stage, that would be more than irresponsible.

So, it’s fair that we haven’t rushed in when defining targets, but we simply cannot afford to procrastinate any longer. This means we need to change our thinking and behaviours at next year’s COP28. This next event absolutely must use data to drive the agenda, set priorities and define practical next steps.

Radical action needs trusted data

There are already useful examples of where we have got data use right. Only in recent years, for instance, have people begun thinking seriously about issues such as food provenance or food miles in relation to sustainability.

Coupled with the supply of accurate data and backed by legislation, accurate information has made it on to packaging. The result is consumers are better able to make (data) informed food choices.

In other examples, however, we witness the potential for meaningful progress being scuppered by poor data. For instance, Coca-Cola may have ensured its bottles are fully recyclable, but that does not mean that there is an adequate global recycling infrastructure in place in all the countries where Coca-Cola products are sold.

Coca-Cola produces 200,000 bottles every minute, yet there is no way to measure what is actually recycled (yet), leaving recycling rates ambiguous and based on guesswork. This approach dilutes targets across every sector. At a planetary level, it could mean we don’t have as long left as we think to hit net zero and reduce global temperatures. Accurate data really does matter.

There is yet some hope on the horizon, however. Some governments are pushing towards data-led approaches, for instance EPR obligations in place across several countries – EPR comes into force from 2024 in the UK and will make a circular economy a much more tangible proposition.

These are the sort of data-informed initiatives at a national level that we need to inspire global action at COP28. The energy crisis has brought the value of cold, hard data home to consumers across Europe as we keep a closer eye on our smart meters. We now need a comparable wake-up call to the international community and, actually, it’s up to national governments and big business to take the lead given the pace of change at COP has been frustratingly glacial. 

We can’t afford further delays. So it is now imperative we use data to reveal the true scale of the problem and set unambiguous targets that can hold governments and businesses to account. Get this right, and it really should spur us into more radical and meaningful action. But get it wrong, and we’ll be working blind – the consequences of which could be catastrophic.

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