Outer space has given us a unique, global point of view that allows us to understand the global nature of events that many of us can witness from our backyards. Satellites allow us to recognize the similarities between weather events like typhoons, cyclones or hurricanes, to track their evolution and to forecast their path and destination. In a similar fashion, the unique view from outer space allows to understand manifestations of climate change such as sea-level rise in coastal areas or glacier melting in the Himalayas, the Andes and the Alps. It allows us to become aware of the fact that forest fires are not events that take place in isolated places, but that they are regular different months of the year in different parts of the world. Satellites allow us to measure gas concentrations in the atmosphere which are linked to emissions and other processes that are the root of climate change.
The stakes could not be higher
As leaders of all countries around the world met in Paris during the COP21, they were well aware that our planet is warming to dangerous levels. Three out of four humanitarian disasters are now climate-related and are wiping out decades of development gains as economic losses continue to increase. As climate change manifests itself in weather phenomena like the sea-level rise, glacier melting, warming temperatures, the poor and vulnerable people, including small farmers, fishing communities and indigenous population are the hardest hit. It is little wonder then that since 2009 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been talking of climate change as “the defining challenge of our times,” urging decision makers to seal the deal to protect our planet.
In recent years, we have witnessed how very powerful typhoons are battering the Philippines and how very strong hurricanes and blizzards are impacting the East coast of the United States, while droughts devastate regions of Africa, Latin America, and parts of the United States. Livelihoods, particularly those on which many vulnerable communities depend worldwide, including subsistence agriculture, are experiencing the relentless effects of climate change. Therefore, it is encouraging that the Paris agreement on climate change has made explicit reference to the need to address these critical issues related to vulnerable communities and their livelihoods.
The sense of urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been recognized by leaders attending COP21 as a way to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Systematic observations are essential to assess how well countries are controlling greenhouse gas emissions as a way to reach these targets. And such systematic observations will be even more essential in the decades to come, as parties to the climate change convention agreed in Paris that instead of forcing all nations to work together to achieve a peak in emissions in one specific year, there is a need recognize the fact that developing countries may require a longer time than developed countries to peak their emissions considering their efforts to achieve sustainable development and to eradicate poverty.
Space will be pivotal in this battle
“Space can, and will inevitably, be pivotal in curtailing global warming through the use of remote sensing technologies from space,” says Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). With the mission to promote the use of space for the benefit of humankind, UNOOSA continues to stress the view that space-based information is absolutely essential for policy-makers and governments worldwide, who have the shared responsibility to act and legislate for climate change mitigation.
Satellites offer a unique way of observing several of the essential climate variables at the global level which may be too difficult or costly to observe from the ground. Such variables cover the atmospheric domain (e.g. air temperature, precipitation, cloud properties, wind speed and direction, greenhouse gas concentrations); the oceanic domain ( sea surface temperature, sea level); and the terrestrial domain, (e.g. glaciers and ice caps, land cover including vegetation type, the fraction of absorbed photosynthetically active radiation (fAPAR), leaf area index (LAI), fire disturbance and soil moisture). Satellite information can also be used to monitor variables that help societies to adapt better to the realities of climate change and to quantify losses and damages associated with climate change.
Despite advances in observational capacity, gaps still exist, particularly in developing countries, where ensuring long-term observations remains a challenge. In this context, it is important to become aware of several facts:
Not all climate information needs under the convention are met; There are large geographical areas for which in-situ observations and measurements are not available, for example large areas in Africa; There is a need for support to digitalize historic data; There is a need to ensure sustained long-term operation of essential in-situ networks.
How UN-SPIDER can help Sendai,
Japan, after the tsunami on March 11, 2011, based on TerraSAR-X radar images.
Inundated areas appear in blue,debris in magenta and affected infrastructure in cyan blue
As the leaders and decision makers met in Paris, they understood the need to strengthen scientific knowledge, including through systematic observations. In the decades to come we hope that the involved parties will dedicate sustained resources to improve the continuity, the spatial resolution and the temporal sampling of earth observations. Such allocation of resources will allow experts from the space and the climate change communities to provide improved policy-relevant advice to decision makers on the basis of sound measurements. Equally important is for leaders and decision makers to become aware of critical issues that need to be addressed as a way to ensure that the goals and targets established in the Paris climate change agreement are met by the second half of this century:
There are still challenges in ensuring long-term observations. Any improvements, such as by placing instruments to measure greenhouse gas emissions on the International Space Station, would benefit the work under the Convention;
New sets of observation requirements will be required to support adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage;
Resources and efforts need to be maintained and improved, particularly on behalf of developing countries, to support systematic observations and to contribute to the calibration of data generated using satellite sensors;
It is imperative to better liaise with the implementation bodies, including in the identification of the negotiating items under which systematic observations are required and to provide relevant information to stakeholders and regional hubs, and to the systematic observation community.
Satellite images of Aceh province, Indonesia, one week after the tsunami,
in January 2005 (left), and 10 years later in December 2014 (right)
From the point of view of the UN-SPIDER program of UNOOSA, it is important to take note that COP21 agreement that emerged has been interlocked with the recently launched sustainable development goals and with the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction. Of particular importance is an explicit mention in the Paris agreement for the parties to cooperate and support the efforts in tasks such as early warning, emergency preparedness and comprehensive risk assessment and management. The agreements on climate change, sustainable development and disaster risk reduction are the basis for the global development agenda for the next decades and should lead to improved resilience as proposed. Along these lines, UN-SPIDER is convinced that international cooperation is a necessary driver to bring the growing numbers of benefits derived from space science and technology applications to both developing and developed countries so as to contribute to disaster risk management and emergency response efforts.
UN-SPIDER is dedicated to promoting the use of earth observation in several of the indicators to be used to track efforts by countries around the world that will be used to monitor and assess how well countries are achieving the goals and targets stipulated in agreement. The organization will also promote the use of space-based data to generate policy-relevant advice regarding options for adaptation as a way to reduce losses and damages triggered by hydro-meteorological phenomena and sea-level rise. In the area of disaster risk reduction and emergency response, UN-SPIDER will contribute to the efforts laid down in COP21 in the area of early warning taking note of the launch of the Climate Risk Early Warning Systems (CREWS). CREWS is expected to contribute to one of the seven targets that was established in the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction and focuses on increasing the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems. In a parallel fashion, UN-SPIDER will continue to provide technical advisory support to civil protection agencies worldwide in the areas of disaster preparedness and disaster risk assessment.
In the context of the global development agenda, UNOOSA will be organizing the UNISPACE +50 Conference in 2018, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. UNISPACE+50 will be an important milestone that will review the current status and chart the future role of the space community at a time when actors, both governmental and non-governmental, are increasingly getting involved in ventures to explore space and carry out space activities for the benefit of all humanity.