Space tech and AI could be game changers for the environment

satellite smallThis post is by Dr Ben Caldecott, director of the Oxford Sustainable Finance Programme at the University of Oxford and a trustee of Green Alliance.

A new generation of tiny satellites are flying overhead in lower earth orbit taking high resolution images of every point on planet earth every single day. These constellations, the largest of which currently consists of over 150 CubeSats (at 10cm x 10cm x 30cm in size), allows us to see planetary-scale change on a daily basis.

Combined with artificial intelligence, which automatically scans and interprets this vast amount of visual data, insights are being unlocked into what is happening on the ground (and sea), and unprecedented capabilities are becoming available. These technologies enable new ways of doing things that can help governments, regulators, companies, investors and civil society to tackle a wide variety of environmental challenges around the world.

And we are only at the beginning of our understanding of how it can be used. In the meantime, the underlying technologies keep getting better and better, and cheaper and cheaper. Higher resolutions, smaller and lighter instruments, lower launch costs (think SpaceX), more processing power and new algorithms mean that, year after year, these capabilities are improving.

Four ways earth observation can help our environment
What could this mean for those working to understand and solve the world’s great environmental challenges and what might it mean for efforts in the UK?

First, it can help us to better understand causes, impacts and solutions. The geospatial data and analysis enabled by these technologies allow us to (re)examine a vast range of hypotheses with big implications for almost every academic discipline in the social and physical sciences. We can see the scale of the problem, how it is changing, what is working and what is not.

Second, it enables us to generate insights into the behaviours of individuals, and the activities of companies and governments, without any of these actors necessarily wanting to share this information. This is a big deal for better assurance and enforcement. From monitoring deforestation and illegal fishing through to identifying illegal pollution discharges and seeing whether companies are reporting accurate information.

Third, it can allow us to understand the risks and impacts that companies and investments are having on the environment. These capabilities will allow us to upend the current information asymmetries that exist between companies and their investors, and between financial institutions and their regulators. Instead of voluntary disclosures filtered through corporates trying to spin what they do, we can see what they are actually doing and in near real time, not many months (or years) after the fact.

Fourth, these technologies can enable new approaches to pay for ecosystem services. As we can see positive environmental outcomes being delivered on the ground, we can unlock payments to farmers and land managers. When combined with secure and transparent distributed ledgers this could help to realise much more effective and widely applicable payment schemes.

The UK is uniquely placed to exploit the opportunities
The UK has a lot to offer. There are very few countries that bring together substantial and cutting edge capabilities in earth observation and space, data science and artificial intelligence, financial services and sustainability. These are exactly the fields needed to realise the opportunities created by these technologies.

Specifically, UK policy makers might consider the following opportunities:

  • Independently, or with like-minded countries, we could create new CubeSat constellations for earth observation. These could focus on critically important ‘missions’, such as a new constellation focused on point source greenhouse gas emissions monitoring from space. From conversations I have had with industry and research we have done at Oxford, this looks entirely achievable within a decade.
  • We could use the next generation of earth observation to support a wide range of domestic and international policy priorities. For example, to monitor progress under the 25 year environment plan and to generate effective results-based payments under the forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme. We could also use it to support terrestrial and marine protected area enforcement around the world.
  • As geospatial data and analysis has huge applications for the physical and social sciences, we could ensure that more research funding is focused on ensuring UK universities are global leaders in the application of such data, as well as in its collection. That will allow UK institutions to shape future areas and fields of research.

These are just some ideas and there are many more possibilities. The fact is that we have entered an age of ubiquitous information and ultra-transparency. This new technology creates exactly the kind of game changing capabilities we need in the fight against climate change and other global environmental challenges. We can and should deploy them.

This Thursday evening, 31 January, Green Alliance’s annual debate in central London will hear from Will Marshall, CEO of Planet Labs, the world’s largest operator of satellites, with presentations about how this technology is being applied, followed by a debate about implications and policy needs. Contact Elena Perez if you are interested in attending.

[Photograph taken by Koichi Wakata of JAZA, via NASA’s Flickr. It shows the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD), in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, as NanoRacks deploys a set of Planet Labs Doves.]

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