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Is space the answer for the climate crisis?

Is space the answer for the climate crisis?

illustration of space satellite in the sky visible through trees

illustration of space satellite in the sky visible through trees

The COP26 summit raised the climate change issue to the top of the global political agenda. This is a significant focus for governments and businesses worldwide. But could the solutions lie beyond our world? 

National leaders met in Glasgow to discuss the future of space. A surprising British government agency offered a glimpse into an untapped sector that may have many answers. The UK Space Agency has announced several new climate-focused programmes. It is joined by its counterparts in other nations and universities. 

Space agencies already play a significant role in helping us better understand how the earth’s climate is actually changing. More than half of the data gathered annually by climatologists around world is collected via space-based satellites. For anybody to act, the information and data on global environmental change must be accurate and up to date. 

“Satellite data allows us to understand the world and how fast it’s changing – we can’t send people to measure the ice caps every 10 days, and we can’t measure in situ across all the oceans,” says Beth Greenaway, head of Earth observation and climate at the UK Space Agency. 

Political impact

Although the use of space-based satellites for monitoring and other instruments is relatively new, these changes in climate technology will have a significant effect on the policies that governments can pursue in order to reduce environmental destruction. 

“We didn’t have the space technology that we have now when we first started monitoring the climate,” explains Helen Brindley, a professor in Earth Observation at Imperial College London, whose work focuses on diagnosing climate impact. “The first observations – from almost a century ago – were subjective and just kind of involved looking at the sky. Then we moved to ground-based observation methods, then to monitoring using instruments, along with balloons.”

Satellite monitoring allows for the analysis of different sustainability outcomes at a finer level and allows for future investment in areas that could make the greatest impact on policies related to sustainability. 

We’re modelling not just what we’re doing to harm the planet, but also what we could do to potentially heal it

While space provides a new frontier for understanding the environment, ground-based observations and in situ monitoring of dryness and humidity levels – or specific greenhouse gas emissions – remain vital. “Space-based missions are measuring essentially the energy leaving Earth in some shape or form, and ground-based networks are crucial at actually measuring the quantity of what it is you’re interested in, even if those ground measurements can’t give you global coverage,” says Brindley. “It’s a completely synergistic approach.” 

Private sector role 

Public-private partnerships play a significant role in the space economy’s growth. Instrumentation and links to industry, academia, and private companies are a major part of the growing space economy. This is where innovative research can fuel new space-based mission ideas. 

MicroCarb, a joint venture between Thales and the UK Space Agency, is a joint venture. Announced in November, it will see satellites monitor carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, evaluating existing carbon sinks like forests and oceans to help understand how climate change policies can be better targeted. 

“It’s not a generic mission which is focused on global coverage, but it hones in on a particular set of data,” says Andrew Staniland, CEO of Thales Alenia Space in the UK. “We’re modelling not just what we’re doing to harm the planet, but also what we could do to potentially heal it.”

MicroCarb is one among several UK Space Agency initiatives. The first space-based observatory for climate change will be Traceable Radiometry underpinning Terrestrial or Helio Studies (TRUTHS). It will be primarily funded by the UK, but also aims to affect climate change globally. TRUTHS will be the first project to measure and test the calibration of all space-based instruments; this should ensure that even as instruments degrade, the data that governments receive to inform policies is as accurate as possible. 

Other UK Space Agency efforts include Biomass, which aims to build 3D imagery of all the Earth’s forests. While these missions work in different arenas and many won’t be fully operational for at least another decade, they will hopefully feed into each other in the long run. 

What’s next?

This ecosystem is dependent on international collaboration. Although a Chinese satellite mission may have a different focus than MicroCarb’s, the data and information collected by both can be combined to generate new investment and opportunities. MicroCarb is a joint venture between the UK and French space agencies, while TRUTHS builds on data collected by NASA’s instruments around the atmosphere. 

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“What’s important is that the data can be interoperable, that it can actually talk to each other,” explains Greenaway.  “No one person, or company, or government could measure everything on Earth, but the critical thing is that the data is trustable.” 

The agency is hoping to “inspire the next generation of people working on this technology to come into the space sector,” adds Greenway. New issues arise with the growth of the sector. For example, it is difficult to determine if the data collected can be trusted or how long projects can last. There are also questions over the potential for ‘space junk’, with satellites further polluting our atmosphere. 

No one person, or company, or government could measure everything on Earth

These challenges are very real. Still, there’s growing excitement and enthusiasm in the public and private sector about the possibilities for the rapidly expanding space technology ecosystem, as governments around the world return from COP26 with significant climate-related ambitions. 

“We’ve been a bit reactive in the way we do things, and we’re expecting to see a lot of investment in this area after COP26,” says Staniland. Microcarb will allow the more active governments to hold their Paris Agreement counterparts to account, he adds. 

“But in order to do that, the first step is to measure the change, so that eventually we can act.” 


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