The role of space programmes in energy and development


Climate, Energy & Natural Resources

Picture of Josef Aschbacher
Josef Aschbacher

Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA)

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.

Developing and emerging economies face a complex challenge when it comes to their energy infrastructure: they must meet the needs of growing populations that still lack access to basic services like water and electricity but – the climate crisis front and centre – they must also be part of the solution by answering the global climate emergency through innovative efforts to ensure a low-carbon future.

The Paris Agreement, which will officially enter into force in 2020, asks that each country contribute to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Setting it in motion requires collaborative efforts in the field of social, technological and financial innovations as well as the strong commercial development and application of solutions. In this regards, Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, and while the number of people without access to electricity fell to below 1 billion in 2017, there is still a long way to go.

In September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened the Climate Action Summit to mobilise political leaders, economic actors, and climate activists around the implementation of the Paris Agreement. With only ten years left to achieve the SDGs, and national governments offering less-than-inspiring solutions to a global crisis, Friends of Europe has brought together some of the key actors from the private sector, think tanks, development agencies, and supranational organisations, to highlight some of the stories of progress on the provision of clean sources of electricity, and the effect it has had on living conditions in a number of economies.

Articles in this discussion paper are published online on a weekly basis, beginning on the day of the United Nations Secretary-General Summit on Climate Action and ending at the time of COP 25 in Santiago. The articles, and the recommendations from the publication, aim to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve SDG 7 well before 2030, and inform the next EU mandate on actions to take. The European Green Deal has a duty to go beyond Europe, and help nations around the world to transition towards sustainable economic and energy growth.

In her agenda for Europe, President-elect Ursula von der Leyen committed to the overall implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. If one reads the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development from an energy-policy perspective, one thing is clear: urgent action to combat climate change and measures to dramatically reduce emissions must go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of universal access to modern energy. This must be achieved by 2030. Data from Earth observation satellites support all three lines of action.

20 years ago, the European Commission, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), devised the Copernicus programme to enable evidence-based policymaking and help meet EU policy targets, particularly with respect to climate change and environmental protection. Today, Earth’s observation satellites – including Europe’s Copernicus-dedicated satellites in particular – provide a myriad of observations that help monitor and document sea levels rises, the warming of ocean waters, the demise of the world’s ice and more.

Such information is known as ‘Essential Climate Variables’ – it informs the Assessment Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For example, 28 authors directly involved in the ESA’s climate change initiative contributed to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report in 2013, with 15 scientific papers quoted 60 times. They are expected to have a similar impact on the Sixth Assessment Report due in 2021.

The African Union has rightly seized the opportunity provided by the Copernicus free and open data policy

Data from the dedicated satellites built and operated through the Copernicus programme also provide observations of air quality. Combined with in situ observations and the predictive power of computer models, they benefit millions of Europeans through national air-quality forecasts and smartphone applications. Satellite observations also identify main shipping routes and make possible the estimation of air pollution emitted by marine transport worldwide. International financing institutions, such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank (ADB) increasingly use this type of information for their development projects, from the Philippines to Ethiopia to Bolivia.

The international community agrees that burning fossil fuels for energy is one of the principal causes of global climate change. With the threat of peak oil approaching, the use of renewable energies such as solar and wind power are growing worldwide. By 2020, a substantial amount of the EU’s energy supply should be provided by renewable sources. The Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service, for instance, provides information relevant to offshore wind farms, such as wind speed, wind fields, and wave size and frequency. These parameters are crucial in determining where wind energy can be generated in the most cost-effective way whilst reducing the risk of damage.

When it comes to generating solar energy, the Copernicus satellites can be used to monitor the highly variable cloud cover and aerosols that affect the availability of solar radiation. This allows for an assessment of Earth’s solar resources at a global scale and provides long-term time series of data at high spatial resolutions. Earth observation satellites also provide valuable information to energy grid operators to monitor the state and safety of electric power grids and pipelines.

Von der Leyen has stressed the need to go further and faster if Europe wants to be carbon neutral by 2050. One must be able to monitor greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide and methane, but also fine particles and black carbon, at the city scale and not only in Europe, where emission sources are well documented, but all around the world. Take the case of Africa, where the population is expected to grow by 800mn inhabitants by 2050 – 600mn of which will be in cities. The African Union has rightly seized the opportunity provided by the Copernicus free and open data policy. Creative local entrepreneurs are developing smartphone-based apps that rely on Copernicus data. The impact of new oil and gas extraction sites must be monitored, as well as new trade routes that are emerging as a result of the fragile Arctic environment becoming less ice-bound.

In order to meet these emerging requirements, new types of satellites are being proposed in the frame of the EU Space Programme

Land-use, notably forests, will play a key role in carbon capture. Careful decisions in the energy mix must be informed, e.g. balancing the possible expansion of biofuel crops against the need to maintain forests and to feed the growing global human population. If we are serious about de-carbonising our societies, then the global carbon cycle must be much better understood, and here we need more data to advance science – and to understand global processes. These data are best provided by satellites in orbit around the Earth.

Access to commodities such as electricity must be ensured everywhere, including in developing countries, where satellite-based observations are often the most readily available source of geospatial information. Development projects funded by international institutions such as the World Bank or the ADB, increasingly use Earth observation data for measuring, among other things, environmental change owing to the development of new hydropower plants. This is made possible thanks to the open and free access data policy of Copernicus, fully in line with the EU distinctive approach to open diplomacy and multilateralism.

In order to meet these emerging requirements, new types of satellites are being proposed in the frame of the EU Space Programme and the next financial cycle. They will all support the EU’s leading role in climate policies, they will all contribute to the objectives set by the energy union and climate action regulation, and they will all maintain Europe’s leadership in Earth observation.

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