Leaders in Silicon Valley refer to the willingness to take on ambitious and seemingly impossible challenges as “moonshot thinking”, inspired by man’s first moon-landing within a decade of setting the goal. This kind of thinking has led to the Internet, driverless cars, and rockets that will eventually take us to Mars. At Aclima, we apply Earthshot thinking to develop bold technologies that address the planetary scale challenge of global pollution and climate change. Earlier this month, we were invited to speak about Earthshot thinking at the United Nations event “Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Agenda”, where the focus was on solutions that serve our planet and people. Aclima was honored to participate in this event.
Convened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York by the 71st President of the General Assembly, the event highlighted areas where governments, international organizations, the private sector, and other stakeholders can work together to advance solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. In a session titled “2020 as Opportunity: Achieving 2020 targets of SDGs and NDC ambitions”, leaders from the environment and sustainability industry spoke to the power of business and innovation as a means to achieve the 2020 targets. The panel included Veronique Hakim, International Association of Public Transport (UITP) representative and Interim Chairperson at the NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Lise Kingo, CEO and Executive Director of UN Global Compact, Helen Mountford, Director of New Climate Economy, May Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org, and Davida Herzl, CEO and Co-founder of Aclima.
While the 2020 targets pose challenges, the panel agreed that they also present major opportunities to advance smart development, connected cities and people, and have wide-ranging health and climate benefits. Hakim of NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority opened the session by speaking to public transportation as a tool for cities to reduce carbon emissions, and Mountford of New Climate Economy addressed Goal 7 as an opportunity for governments and businesses to scale up renewable energy. In her opening remarks, Kingo of UN Global Compact noted that the Paris Agreement is good for business and spoke about the ongoing “game-changing innovation” happening in the private sector. “What makes me really excited, however, is the unprecedented amount of game-changing innovation that takes place in this space — disruptive innovation that holds the potential to significantly accelerate sustainable development,” said Kingo.
Despite progress in introducing and advancing innovation and technology around the world, data designed to measure progress in achieving 2020 targets is lacking. At Aclima, we’re combining leading-edge air sensing technology, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence to take the real-time pulse of the invisible world around us. Our sensor networks measure sources of air pollution and climate change emissions affecting our planet and our health. During the panel discussion, Herzl spoke about the critical role of environmental data in informing health decisions, saying:
“These [air pollution] health effects create tremendous risk to the economy. When everyone is sick, when kids can’t go to school, and people can’t show up at work, it all puts a dent in local and national economies. It halts economic development and it creates business risk. Across the private sector, environmental risk is increasingly being understood as financial risk.”
Mountford concurred, noting that investors are increasingly viewing environmental risk as a financial risk and are moving more quickly to take climate action. 350.org’s Boeve called individual interventions, such as Aclima’s ability to visualize data and generate awareness about air pollution, a “game-changer” in terms of public engagement.
Following opening remarks, several respondents gave personal accounts with regard to climate change and human health issues. Lola Aforo, a respondent from Sierra Leone, spoke about the indoor air pollution effects of cookstoves on her population. “I was very touched and moved by Davida because she spoke about health concerns. It’s very personal for me and my country because a lot of people are not educated, women and children are suffering the most. We’re still using wood to cook,” Aforo stated. Speaking about the need to close the digital divide between industrialized and developing nations, Aforo said, “Any information that we can take back to them so they can know that it’s serious business and they need to take care of their health.”
According to the World Health Organization, 92% of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air, which disproportionately affects women and children. However, many areas lack air pollution measurement. Data from environmental sensor networks can fill in those gaps, and citizen science and data stories will be a crucial component of educating the public about the impacts of climate change on the environment and their health. Data that is accurate, reliable, and adds more insight where none previously existed is transforming the way we see our cities and ourselves in our environment.
The robust conversation also delved into how citizen science is going to play a more central role in the current political environment. Respondent Brian Helmuth, Professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy at Northeastern University, commented on the shift in citizen science engagement. “Following up on what Davida was saying, I completely agree that citizen science is the way forward with this. The appetite for measuring things locally has been a major shift we’ve seen lately as well. We have to have these global data sets to tell us the big picture, but ultimately it’s the [data] stories,” Helmuth said.
To address a global problem like climate change, we will need to act locally in our cities, adopt policies at the government level and adhere to the Paris Agreement, which 194 countries, accounting for 55% of the global carbon emissions, have signed to date. Thankfully, technology now makes it possible to measure our progress and to scale what’s working and adjust what’s not. Driving more than 75,000 miles with Street View measuring hyperlocal pollutants — from carbon dioxide and particulate matter, to methane and ozone — and collecting billions of data points about our indoor environment, we are on our way to building a Fitbit for the planet. California is our launchpad, but mapping the world in environmental data is our Earthshot.
For more, watch the full video from the session below.