12 mins read 04 Aug 2023

Space industry can help in the fight against climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today, with its devastating impacts being felt globally. Art Cotterell discusses not only the important role the space industry and Earth Observation technologies can play in helping Australia and the world be climate-ready, but the need to better communicate this message so that when the general public, decision-makers and the next generation workforce think of space, climate action is front and centre. 

Bushfire smoke in Canberra from the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires. Credit: iStock/Daniiielc.

Helping to fight fires from the recent Canadian wildfires to the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires. Improving agricultural practices and crop output. Mapping changing tidal patterns for better fishing. Tracking illegal deforestation in the Amazon. What all these have in common is a dependence on timely and reliable earth observation (EO) data from satellites.

“Space for climate action” was a key message from the recent inaugural Global Space Conference on Climate Change (GLOC) in Oslo, Norway. 

Hosted by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) and the Norwegian Space Agency (NOSA), GLOC brought together over 600 participants from 45 countries spanning the private sector, government, civil society and academia – all who want to shift perceptions about the role the space industry can play in creating a climate-ready world.

“Why care about space when we have enough problems on Earth?” is a common and understandable refrain. Yet what happens up there has direct relevance to what happens down here on Earth. As GLOC highlighted, it is less about the rockets and more about communicating the critical technology on-board that has real-world applications to benefit humanity. The lessons from GLOC may also potentially benefit the Australian space ecosystem.

Space agencies for climate change

The carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the air during the peaks of the Australian bushfires 2019-2020, available on the interactive NASA-ESA-JAXA Earth Observing Dashboard. High CO levels contribute to breathing issues during fires.

“Most of you all think of NASA as a space agency and as an aviation agency. It’s also a climate agency” remarked NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on a visit to Australia earlier this year. This critical coupling of the space industry with global efforts to combat climate change is a message GLOC also wants to mainstream beyond the space ecosystem.

Without space technology, humanity’s ability to be climate-ready is considerably curtailed. One way that space agencies can take on this dual role of climate agencies is by making Earth Observation (EO) data available, accessible and applicable to real-world scenarios.

EO data refers to imagery and information collected about the Earth’s land, waterways and atmosphere via remote sensing techniques aboard satellites. EO data monitors changes to, what NASA calls the vital signs of the planet: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, global temperature, sea levels, polar ice cap coverage and ocean warming, among other indicators.

International cooperation, public-private partnerships and working across government portfolios were common themes at GLOC for space agencies seeking to demonstrate and increase their ability to support climate action. Key examples from GLOC were:

Earth Observing Dashboard – a collaboration among the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA, providing an easy-to-use, open platform to better understand environmental changes by location. Awarded the “Space for Climate Protection Award” at GLOC, the dashboard emerged during the pandemic and used EO data to monitor the impact lockdowns had on transportation, trade and the environment.

Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) Satellite Data Program – NICFI’s aim is to save rainforests and prevent deforestation by making EO data available on-the-ground. Funded by the Norwegian Government, NICFI purchases EO imagery of forest regions from the private sector and makes it freely available. NICFI has bilateral partnerships with countries with the largest forest coverage and provides funding to civil society to support the use of EO data.

Space Tech helping Australia be climate-ready

A before-and-after image showing the extent of the flooding in Kempsey, New South Wales in 2021, captured by radar data from the European Union’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite. Credit: European Space Agency.

While representatives from the Australian Space Agency (ASA) or domestic space industry were absent from the list of GLOC key speakers, ASA Head, Enrico Palermo, has repeatedly spoken of the role of space in responding to climate change and disaster preparedness. 

In South Australia – the home of multiple space start-ups – Deputy Premier Susan Close has also previously encouraged the domestic space ecosystem to look more at the possibility of using space technology in climate mitigation efforts.

Winyama, an Indigenous-owned and operated geospatial business, is leading a SmartSat CRC First Nations Earth Observation project to “create a set of evidence-based recommendations for current use and future [EO] capabilities and training that could best serve Indigenous communities”. Winyama Founder and Managing Director, Andrew Dowding, a Ngarluma man, has spoken on how Indigenous communities can be at the “forefront” of using EO data.

Space technology – especially EO data from satellites – is crucial to Australia’s ability to be climate-ready. When NSW was hit by record-breaking floods in 2021, EO data from the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites was crucial to emergency response planning and damage assessment. Geoscience Australia was able to gain rapid access to EO data thanks to the activation of a little-known international charter: Space and Major Disasters and the European Union’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service. The 2019-2020 bushfires also saw Australia turn to international partners, Japan and South Korea, for EO data.

The ASA has since released an Earth Observation from Space Roadmap 2021-2030 that offers a strategic approach to accessing reliable, timely and secure EO data. The Roadmap highlights the benefits of EO for natural disaster responses; the importance of international cooperation and industry partnerships; and “ensuring Australia’s continued leadership role in promoting efficient use and dissemination of critical operational EO data in the Indo-Pacific”.

Recognition of the link between space technology and climate change was also on display at the Quad Leaders’ Summit 2023. The Quad is, relevantly, “working to expand Indo-Pacific countries’ access to and utilisation of Earth Observation data and other space-based tools to address the climate crisis, support the sustainable use of oceans and marine resources, and consult on the sustainable use of outer space”. The Quad expressed a commitment to the “open sharing” of EO data to respond to the climate crisis; a sentiment from GLOC too.

As the 2011 floods and 2019-2020 bushfires highlight, Australia relies on international cooperation to meet our EO data needs. And as the Roadmap outlines, Australia does not have its own satellite EO capabilities. In the 2022/23 Budget, funding was announced for a National Space Mission for Earth Observation (NSMEO), so that over time Australia would have its own satellite EO capabilities through the design, development and implementation of four satellites. Funding for NSMEO was cut in June 2023 as part of “budget repair” efforts, so Australia will need to “continue to rely on international partners who currently provide crucial [EO] data”.

Less rockets, more storytelling

Flooding in Lismore, New South Wales. Rapid access to EO data from the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites assisted with emergency response and damage assessment. Credit: iStock/davidf.

The learnings from GLOC may benefit the Australian space ecosystem as well. After all, despite all the initiatives in Australia that demonstrate the value add of the space industry – particularly through EO data and analytics – to the climate crisis, is there enough widespread public awareness of the role space technology plays in climate action? If not, how can these perceptions be shifted? These are questions worth considering. 

At GLOC, a panel on communicating about the benefits of space for climate action, asked “can the global space industry tell our story better?” The answer was a resounding “yes”.

Part of the “how” is the need to bring in more “storytelling” and the human component, recommended Dr Emma Gatti, Editor in Chief for SpaceWatch.Global. Rather than starting with photos or words about a rocket or a satellite, a need exists to start with what issue on the ground the technology or EO data is helping with, then work backwards to the technology itself.

Similarly, Aravind Ravichandran, Founder of TerraWatch Space, a communication and advisory firm on EO, discussed how media releases and slide decks from the space industry can sometimes focus 80% on the technology and 20% on the value add to humanity. The recommendation was made to flip this narrative: start with the human story.

Need for EO data to be available and accessible

A roadside fire danger warning sign. Credit: iStock/hidesy.

Another part of the “how” is the need to make EO data timely, reliable, relevant and accessible to the plethora of end users – that is, local communities experiencing the effects of climate change to policy and decision-makers to emergency management personnel. This means better apps, platforms and interpretative analytics that sit on top of the data.

Recognition of EO data overload and lack of “digestability” of the data was a central theme of GLOC. To achieve this, GLOC highlighted the need to listen to the voices of local communities to understand the environmental challenges being faced on-the-ground; whether and how EO data can help; the type of data needed to identify gaps; the way in which it is collected; and questions of equity and accessibility. No “one size fits all” solution is possible.

When talking about local communities and EO data, however, it is particularly critical to centre and listen to the voices of Indigenous communities. Worldwide, Indigenous communities are stewards of land that contains 80% of the globe’s biodiversity. Indigenous-led solutions centring Indigenous Knowledge (IK) are critical to climate action efforts.

The Group on Earth Observation (GEO) Indigenous Alliance is the sole global Indigenous-led network with a vision to “protect and conserve Indigenous Cultural Heritage by using [EO] science, data and technology to create a knowledge base that sustains the Earth we live on”. GEO Indigenous Alliance has been working in partnership with NICFI on better supporting Indigenous-led innovation, use and access of EO by and for Indigenous communities. 

Recruiting a purpose-driven space workforce

Credit: iStock/Peopleimages.

Attracting people with the necessary skills and experience to realise the promise and possibilities of space is critical, and also part of the need to shift the messaging about what the space industry does, and which voices are heard.

The ASA alone aims to triple the size of the domestic space industry and generate an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030 with these figures substantially higher for the global workforce.

GLOC canvassed how the messaging that the space industry not only cares about, but acts on, climate change is critical to recruitment and retention. As representatives from the Space Generation Advisory Council, an organisation with a membership of 25,000 plus students and young professionals from 160 countries, conveyed: young people care about climate change and sustainability, and this informs career choices.

To attract the next generation or people looking for a purpose-driven career change, the space industry may need to do a better job of conveying the critical role space technologies play in helping with climate change. Yet this is only part of the answer, with calls for the space industry to make diversity and inclusivity a priority to attract a future workforce.

Where to Next?

With climate change contributing to the intensity and prevalence of extreme weather events, humanity’s reliance on space technology such as EO data will continue to grow. 

A key challenge for the space industry is to better convey the message to the general public, decision-makers and the next-generation workforce that space is about taking climate action. 

Perhaps, as GLOC canvassed, this means less rocket imagery, and more storytelling about how onboard technology benefits local communities responding to the climate crisis. These learnings from GLOC may also assist the Australian space sector. 

With the recent announcement that Adelaide has been successful in its bid to host the second Advancing Earth Observation Forum in 2024, this could be but one upcoming opportunity to publicly convey the message of space for climate action. The plan by Earth Observation Australia to establish an EO for Climate Working Group is another positive step.

This is more than a re-branding exercise. By shifting perceptions and talking more beyond the space ecosystem, this may increase support for the space industry and bring together interdisciplinary, innovative ways of thinking on space for climate action.

This also means being guided by local communities on the ground, listening to how climate change is impacting and then working backwards to space-based technological support such as EO. Critically, this involves centering and listening to Indigenous communities throughout the globe, with the Indigenous-led GEO Indigenous Alliance an important example.

International cooperation, private-public partnerships and commercial initiatives also have a role to play in making EO data available, accessible and applicable to on-the-ground scenarios. 

Space is not the whole answer to the climate crisis or one of its root causes. Rather, space can be one of the important tools used in humanity’s efforts to be climate-ready.

Let’s shift perceptions so that when people think of space, climate action is front and centre.


Art Cotterell

Art is an experienced researcher and adviser on policy and strategy and an admitted lawyer in the ACT, with a career spanning government, peak bodies, the courts and academia. Currently, they are completing a PhD on the intersection of outer space and intellectual property laws through The University of Adelaide. Art’s focus is on utilising legal, regulatory and policy frameworks to best support the R&D and commercialisation of space technology to benefit humanity on Earth and in space. Art has also recently established TransLunar, an initiative to bring together and raise the profile of trans and gender-diverse people in the space ecosystem. This article represents the author’s own views and was undertaken in the author’s own time as part of their PhD candidature at The University of Adelaide.