Satellites usher in a new era of environmental transparency


Satellites looking at Earth from orbit help keep governments and businesses must be accountable for their environmental impacts.

Why is this important: Environmental agreements are difficult to enforce without independently verified data. But satellites – thanks to advances in computing – can help easily monitor deforestation, illegal fishing, pollution, and other environmental issues, helping to measure whether governments are meeting their goals.

  • “We are going to live in a period of radical climate transparency,” said Andrew Zolli, vice president of global impact initiatives at satellite company Planet.

Driving the news: Earth monitoring projects are getting cheaper access to a wealth of satellite data, and governments are taking note – using this information to detain businesses and other governments responsible for bad behavior.

  • A new project called Flaring Monitor – exclusively shared with Axios – uses a fully automated process to track flares emitted by companies burning additional natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide and methane in the process.
  • A study published last year used satellite data to find patterns in fishing vessels that could be signs of forced labor at sea, a proof of concept that could one day lead to tools that would help stop them quickly. illegal labor practices.
  • The Andean Amazon Monitoring by Amazon Conservation is able to monitor deforestation and illegal mining in parts of the Amazon in near real time, sending alerts to local governments who can then stop this illegal activity.

The big picture: Today, thanks to satellite data, scientists are moving from measuring how much carbon dioxide accumulates in the air to determining exactly where it comes from.

  • A new project, called ClimateTRACE, which brings together Al Gore, think tank RMI, Transition Zero, Watt Time and others is expected to go live later this year and, if successful, could mark the start of a new era in climate diplomacy.
  • Their goal is to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to process satellites imagery to produce more accurate estimates of carbon emissions at the national and facility level, which can be used when negotiating climate agreements and targets.

Enlarge: Different types of satellite data can also work in concert with each other, giving users a better idea of ​​what exactly is going on.

  • HawkEye 360, for example, is able to warn imaging satellites for photos of various points of interest if they detect radio frequency signals – from illegal ships, for example – that merit closer inspection.
  • Flaring Monitor uses data from the planet and NASA to determine the amount of flaring for individual companies.
  • “It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, the world is heating up’, but it’s another to be able to show how this impacts humanity,” John Serafini, CEO of HawkEye 360, told Axios .

What to watch: Earth observation satellites combined with advanced computing could help financial markets better incentivize environmental protection.

  • Currently, markets treat pollutants like carbon dioxide and harmful activities like deforestation as priceless externalities.
  • According to Zolli, the combination of satellite observations, better data processing and other tools will lead to the creation of new indicators, a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average for the planet.
  • Just like Amazon, the company is constantly valued by the markets, so too is the actual Amazon rainforest, made possible by satellite data, Zollis said.
  • This could change capital allocation and government policies in ways that help protect the fishery and the climate, what he calls a “more air-conditioned version of capitalism.”

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