Satellites provide a unique opportunity to observe Earth

Satellites provide a unique opportunity to observe Earth

SHARE
Dr. V. Liebig, Director, ESA’s Earth Observation Programs
Dr. V. Liebig, Director, ESA’s Earth Observation Programs

There’s a need for a much greener world for everyone. What are the steps that ESA is taking to achieve the much talked about climate change and sustainable development goals?

The biggest threat on a global scale is the transition of natural landscapes — global change at a rate we have never seen before. Forests or other natural habitats are being threatened by deforestation, expanding cities and by conversion to fields for agriculture. Oceans are being subject to pollution and overfishing, and coastal areas suffer under the pressure of overpopulation and the expansion of fish and shrimp farms. The air we breathe is being contaminated across the world by industries and power plants as well as from heating systems and traffic. These and many other aspects of our changing planet can be observed from our vantage point in space.

Satellites provide a unique opportunity to observe the Earth and its environment in great detail. They give us a global view on a regular basis of more or less every remote region on our planet. They deliver independent information daily and provide measurements that are not available with any other technology. This enables us to better understand what is happening on Earth and allows scientists to quantify geophysical processes. Counter measure can only be put in place if we have a thorough understanding of what is going on.

How are geospatial data and technologies helping in achieving sustainable development goals?

According to studies, several indicators benchmarking the progress toward sustainable development goals depend on geospatial information. When we look at new energy sources, satellites deliver a great part of this information as just mentioned. Satellites can also support other area such as food security, the protection of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. They also provide data that help us to understand and predict climate change, and to help mitigate and adapt to its effects.

One of the key issues is the management of energy production. A lot has been done in the past years to produce renewable energy based on wind, solar and hydropower, geothermal and others. Our satellites provide information by helping to identify potential locations for power plants by, for example, providing long-term cloud information for solar power and by delivering data on wave height, ocean currents and average wind direction and speed for off-shore wind parks. We provide updates on snow cover that, combined with meteorological data, allow the short-term potential of hydropower to be predicted. There are many other examples. These help in the operation and planning of renewable energy plants on both large and local scales.

ESA Plays an important role in support of the Global Climate Observing System. GCOS is responsible for defining and supporting the provision of the critical observations needed by the UNFCC, the World Climate Research Program, the IPCC and others

What are your thoughts on the COP21 climate change agreement?

Primarily, ESA is an observer, but, of course, we also use our presence at Paris to promote the technologies we develop to a wider audience of users, scientists and decision-makers. We also had the chance to talk to potential new users who are currently not aware of the possibilities offered, and we had the possibility to discuss critical issues with experts from a wide range of application areas. This is done in workshops and meetings held during the COP that were hosted by us or by other institutions including the World Bank, the European Commission, for example, and also by national institutions from around the world.

ESA also plays an important role in support of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS). GCOS is responsible for defining and supporting the provision of the critical observations needed by the UNFCCC, the World Climate Research Program, the IPCC and others. It reports directly to the UNFCCC twice a year. ESA’s Climate Change Initiative is an important program in helping to deliver over 20 of the Essential Climate Variables defined by GCOS, out of a total of about 50. From our point of view, Paris was certainly a great success. ESA is very much involved in the dialogue between space agencies and GCOS, and chairs the group of space agencies worldwide focussed on climate data delivery.
Concerning the results of the meeting, I personally think that the fact that a resolution has been ratified by all states after over 25 years of discussions is a big step forward. However, it is only the first step on a long journey — we now need to start actions. ESA is ready to provide the information needed to take these actions wherever we can.

Even though the UN has recognized the role of space technologies and geoinformation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the official climate change draft agreement doesn’t define any explicit role for these technologies. What are your views?

Any prediction model used to give recommendations draw on long-term data records that are largely based on satellite measurements. Even though the technologies are not mentioned explicitly, nobody questions the need for satellite data to provide long-term observations of ozone concentration, sea-level change, ice extent, air pollution and changes in land cover, for example. Satellites are the only way of getting long-term and regular observations on a global scale for monitoring and for modelling the climate.

As a very tangible action related to climate change data, ESA has launched an initiative to create better long-term data records. The Climate Change Initiative will deliver harmonized information about a wide range of essential climate variables based on satellite data going back into the early days of space technology in the 1980s. Once completed, this will be a unique dataset providing at least 30 years of information on sea-level change, sea- and land-surface temperatures, air quality, nitrogen oxides and ozone concentration, amongst many others.

Dr. Volker Liebig (right) and Laura Tuck, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development, sign an agreement on using information from Earth observation satellites  in support of sustainable development at the Paris COP21 Climate Change Summit
Dr. Volker Liebig (right) and Laura Tuck, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development, sign an agreement on using information from Earth observation satellites  in support of sustainable development at the Paris COP21 Climate Change Summit

Rio+20 declarations recommended the employment of new geospatial technologies, satellite remote sensing, geographic information systems and global positioning systems for comprehensive worldwide assessment of environmental conditions and the monitoring of their dynamics. How of much of it is being implemented and what more is expected viz a viz geospatial technology?

The European Copernicus program, run by the EC and ESA, will feature exactly this information based on space and in situ data. Copernicus will deliver a wide range of data and services operationally, which will lead to further use of space data and a long-term perspective of ESA building satellites specifically for this purpose. Copernicus will also provide a sound commercial basis for new business ideas, especially in the down-stream sector, further strengthening the use of geospatial information.
So far, we have been doing activities to demonstrate the usefulness of Earth observation-based environmental information at two different scales: local/regional and global.

The local/regional activities focus on the needs of very specific projects (60+) being implemented by the main International Development Banks (World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development) in developing countries around the world. For this purpose, a wide variety of different types of information is being looked at for a whole range of issues. This includes climate resilience, urban development, water management, coastal erosion, forest management, natural hazards and risk assessment, just to name some of the most important ones.

Global activities address the main International Environmental Conventions in their efforts to develop global Earth observation datasets and approaches that could help countries in their national assessment and reporting. Examples include the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

For the UNCCD, we work closely with the secretariat to define global solutions to monitor and report on the status and trends of the conditions of their lands. For the CBD, we are involved in a collaborative international effort with other space and UN agencies to develop the Essential Biodiversity Variables derived from satellite observations. ESA has also led space agencies in a project through the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) to support the World Bank and others in the implementation of REDD+ for the reduction of deforestation worldwide. This important project relies on the use of satellite data to provide routine, validated data on forest stocks to enable developing countries to be supported through funding from the World Bank in return for maintaining the integrity of their forests.