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Does space hold the key to the climate crisis?

Space agencies around the world are investing in climate technologies, with the potential to transform government efforts. But there are challenges ahead

illustration of space satellite in the sky visible through trees

The COP26 summit elevated climate change on the global political agenda, with the issue now a major focus for governments and businesses internationally. But could the solutions lie beyond our world? 

As national leaders gathered in Glasgow, an unlikely British government agency provided a glimpse into a relatively untapped sector that may hold many of the answers: space. The UK Space Agency has announced a spate of new climate-focused space programmes, joined by its counterparts in other countries and several universities. 

Space agencies already play a significant role in helping us better understand how the earth’s climate is actually changing. For example, more than half of the data gathered by climatologists around the world annually is collected through 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

The use of space-based satellites and monitoring instruments is a relatively recent development, but these changes in climate technology will have a significant impact on the policies that governments can pursue to mitigate the effects of 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 makes it possible to understand different sustainability outcomes on a more granular level, and to calibrate potential future investment where it could make the most difference to policies around 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 are a significant part of the growing space economy. Private companies are heavily involved in providing instrumentation and links to industry and academia, where exciting research can fuel new space-based missions. 

MicroCarb is a joint venture between the UK Space Agency and other leading names in the private sector, namely Thales. 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 of several UK Space Agency initiatives in this area. Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial and Helio Studies (TRUTHS) will be the first space-based climate observatory, driven primarily by the UK but with the hope of affecting climate change internationally. 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 relies on international collaboration. While a Chinese satellite mission will naturally have a different focus than MicroCarb, for example, the data and information gathered by both can be used together to drive 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. 

“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. The growth of the sector also creates new issues: for example, establishing if the data collected is trustworthy, or how long projects can be expected to endure. 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

Such 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.”