April 30, 2021
Looking to climate science from space-based systems

This article is part of a special report Climate science from space, published at EURACTIV.


Why should we debate climate science from a space-based perspective

This is a question that should concern all of us because of the unprecedented times we are living in. Dealing with uncertainty, risk and ignorance about the future, which the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 so promptly came to warn us about, is becoming a changing factor of all modern societies and the best we can pass on to future generations. It requires learning more, with more solidarity and intergenerational debate, understanding respect for others, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, or sexual orientations. 

Manuel Heitor is the Portuguese Minister for Science, technology and Higher Education.

But it also definitely requires we all understand three basic issues, including: i) new knowledge to effectively address the challenges of green transition making use of the opportunities driven by digital transitions across all disciplinary areas; ii) institutional innovation, across our current institutional landscape and diversified stakeholders, building the necessary economic resilience, but also addressing the social context and, above all, the inequalities that persist across our societies; and iii) guarantee new observation methods making use of low-orbit satellite systems, which are needed to better guide our common future and to better understand and act on our common living pathways and their ecological impacts.

Deepening this problem is increasingly relevant as this new coronavirus has passed from animals to humans and although this process is far from known, we know that zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, have been increasing due to the pressure that our societies and their economic development exercise in nature. It is a clear manifestation of the unbalanced influence of human beings on Earth, which is also expressed through climate change (e.g., Human Development Report, 2020, UNDP, 15th December). The eventual scientific demonstration of these relations with the pandemic with which we now live requires more knowledge to be able to ask more accurate and difficult questions and better understand the risks we run, as well as to evolve in this new geological era of the “Anthropocene”.

Looking to climate science from space-based systems and technology rely on continuous developments on Earth Observation systems and their integration with advanced information systems, including the increased use of artificial intelligence together with massive data sets about our living pathways and their ecological impacts. But it also depends on the way we face increasingly emerging scientific challenges to look at outer space and better understand Space Weather as a unique and advanced way to forecast climate change on Earth.

I focus this note on Earth Observation (EO) because the downstream market in Europe is undergoing important changes in business models with strong trends towards the systemic integration with advanced data systems, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Near Real-Time (NRT) applications, cloud computing and integrated solutions to improve the value of data analytics.

As a future evolution of the Copernicus space component beyond the above missions, priority should be given to the need to incorporate and make fully available in the existing Copernicus program new types of data with a higher spatial and temporal resolution and a wider spectral resolution, such that the challenge imposed by the new trends in EO (Artificial Intelligence, cloud computing, near real-time applications) can be fulfilled and the downstream market segment can develop new applications for the benefit of the European citizens and taking all the potential to foster economic growth and high skill job creation.

It is under this context, that the current free and open Copernicus data policy should, in addition, be addressed in a broader context evolving towards a system of higher resolution data generation. A large number of spatial applications of Earth Observation require very high geometric resolution data, below 1 meter (cartography, urban and territory cadastre, urban planning, precision agriculture, security, intelligence, among others). The generation of this type of data by a new generation of Sentinel satellites, complementary to the High Priority Candidate Missions, or by teaming with other public or private European collaborative missions (as well as its incorporation into the Copernicus open and free data policy), shall foster the convergence of EO and AI, with due respect to security issues, to enable disruption in the space sector with the creation of new EO products and markets and important economic growth which directly translates in benefits for the European citizens.

The impact of the emerging European New Green Deal on turning Europe into the world´s first climate-neutral continent is a challenge that can only be achieved with the support of a sophisticated system to observe and act on our environment (atmosphere, land, oceans). Copernicus program is a unique asset to support this challenge. The development of innovative new services, including CO2 monitoring to protect citizen´s health from environmental degradation and pollution, as well as addressing air and water quality, are of paramount importance for the people, the regions and the economy. However, a CO2-only-focus approach would be detrimental. As an example, the preservation of adequate levels of biodiversity is absolutely critical, even with low CO2 emissions. Indeed, some European regions are experiencing a strong reduction in insect biodiversity and this has chain-reaction consequences beyond our current understanding which reach beyond the direct impacts on the food chain and on citizen´s health from environmental degradation and pollution.

The “Digital Twin Earth” concept emerging in Europe may represent a very relevant, innovative and important objective towards the triple transition to green, digital and increased European sovereignty, promoting resilient economies and industries across Europe. It requires the creation of a high precision digital model of the Earth to visualize, monitor and forecast natural and human activity on the planet aimed to support sustainable development and adequately monitor and act on climate change and therefore to include Earth Observation, but equally other elements such as communication.

Within Europe, a number of opportunities and challenges present themselves. Space is seeing an evolution towards cost reduction, commercialization, more flexibility and agility, as well as more spin-in innovation including AI. It is also important to foster the creation and development of innovative SME’s in this “New Space” domain, either in the area of small micro or nanosatellites or in the field of private small launcher development, among many other elements associated with “New Space”. Stimulate links between space and non-space across Europe, foster space-related entrepreneurship and economic growth and strengthen a coherent European space policy with the optimization of the EU-ESA relationship – to make use of the instruments that both provide to the development of Europe and the Member States – are key challenges for space in Europe.