Researcher Blog: COP26, The North-West, Innovation and Climate Change

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A selfie taken by a smiling Iman Hussain with four other people in front of a stylised image representation of the Earth

PhD researcher Iman Hussain reflects on his experience taking part in a COP26 panel, discussing the impact of climate change in the North-West region.

Less than two weeks ago I was on my way to COP26, an international gathering of politicians, innovators and leaders to communicate and discuss how we can combat the rising threat of climate change. Split into two - a public focused “Green Zone” and a government focused “Blue Zone”, with further civil society events taking place too - COP aims to address the biggest concerns relating to the climate emergency.

The Green Zone, taking place along the Glasgow docks at the Science Centre, was packed with a diverse array of faces with one thing in common – an interest in green solutions.

Here are a few of my thoughts and takeaways on the event, the day and the panel I took part in.

What the cop?

To begin, it’s common for society to refer to the climate crisis as a “debate”, but that’s not the case. Through decades long research and data collected we can certainly say it’s a climate reality. And whilst it’s common amongst leaders to assume that technology can be a magic wand to solve the problems of today with minimal impact and changes, that’s not always the case.

The North-West Presents: Talking about my Generation

The panel I took part in, ‘The North-West Presents: Talking about my Generation’, was all about understanding the North-West's unique exposure to climate change, expertise in upcoming technologies and history in the industrial revolution. Chaired by journalist Paul Mason and with panellists Kate Thompson (University of Liverpool), Eleanor Lewis (University of Chester) and David Parkin (Hynet NW), it set the stage for a fantastic, cross-discipline, multi-generational conversation about how the North-West can position itself as a centre for innovation in the green sphere.

The North-West was the heart of the industrial revolution, the centre of the UK manufacturing and mining industry and its future in the green economy remains bright – but to harness that future requires adequate planning and funding. Lancashire, Cumbria and other areas of the North-West have been affected more and more with extreme weather such as flooding and intense storms. The intersection of climate change’s effects and potential solutions really highlights the NW region.

We had a brilliant discussion covering topics such as consumption, consumer trends and the idealisation of and over reliance on new technology to solve simple problems. The panel was livestreamed to thousands and is available here.

The discussion included the specifics of our research areas with Kate referring to her work on solid state batteries powering tomorrow and Eleanor’s knowledge of industrial decarbonisation. My focus was on the public health effects of pollution, specifically indoor air quality.

We spend 90% of our time indoors and the rising levels of pollution outdoors correlates to unhealthier and detrimental indoor conditions. My PhD research centres around using smart sensors to detect and monitor indoor air quality and coordinate building infrastructure (heating, cooling and ventilation) to manage conditions more efficiently. Understanding the air around us and more efficient control of heating and cooling is the foundation of creating cleaner and healthier spaces and decarbonising building stock across the world. The technology that NAQTS and I are working towards has ground-breaking potential; using coordinated smart sensors could decrease carbon emissions of the average building by up to 10%.

My research would not be possible without the funding and organisation supplied by the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation and its close relationship with my partner company - National Air Quality Testing Services - and my research partners at Lancaster University.

The panel continued with us being joined by youth counsellors and the metro mayors of the North-West, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham. They reiterated our points on the importance of empowering and engaging the youth as the foundation of our green future.

Both Steve and Andy agreed that we need to move away from London-centric green policy and that a green future requires a level of regional autonomy to account for the unique challenges faced by different areas across the UK.

Innovate, captivate, participate

To conclude, any tech-driven solution must be done through understanding a problem and with stakeholder guidance.

We can’t expect society to make greener decisions unless they know the benefits and have sustainable alternatives. A poignant example, highlighted by Steve Rotherham, was the state of rail infrastructure in the North. Despite MerseyRail making headway in getting people out of cars and into active travel, regional governments still depend on infrastructure from the capital including HS2.

Andy Burnham summarised the approach to a green future with three keywords; Innovate, captivate and participate.

There's always a risk when talking about something as serious and as life threating as climate change that people go away with a feeling of helplessness and anxiety - but we’re starting to see positive changes in the right direction. The overall outlook of the crowds from the Green Zone was positive, with a feel of progress and innovation echoing across the diverse groups of guests.

As researchers we have a vital role to play, engaging with businesses and wider society to find solutions and enabling ideas to turn into practice.

We might not be travelling as fast as we should or innovating at the fastest pace available and there is certainly a lot more that everyone (companies, politicians, people of privilege and in power) can do; but sharing the stage with such an inspiring group of people does give me hope for the future.

Author biography

Iman Hussain is a graduate researcher working with National Air Quality Testing Services, through the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation at Lancaster University. His PhD aims to understand how advanced sensors can be used to balance air quality, energy usage and stakeholder requirements. He aims to create healthier indoor spaces and to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment. He previously worked for IBM, CapGemini and Highways England using technology for green solutions.

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