Satellite Data’s Role in the Fight Against Climate Change
Satellites provide an invaluable, bird's-eye view of planet Earth. But how—and how quickly—will the data materialize into meaningful actions?
Carbon Mapper’s footage of bright red methane plumes scattered across a grayish-violet backdrop look like angry canker sores from a distance.
But the aerial footage, taken from 10,000 ft above ground, offers exactly the kind of visual evidence that Riley Duren, the chief executive officer of Carbon Mapper, hopes that US policymakers will pay attention to when considering the role satellite communications can play in mitigating climate change. The nonprofit organization, formed as a public/private partnership between the state of California, satellite provider Planet, and NASA, uses satellite technology to track methane leaks and CO2 point-source emissions.
“Oil and gas companies that have reviewed our data indicate that at least half of the methane super emitters that were detected are the result of leaks and malfunctions that were previously unknown,” he told policymakers during an 18 May virtual congressional hearing on climate change, hosted by the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “The idea here is that a high-fidelity low constellation of satellites could offer daily facility-scale methane monitoring over key regions globally to alert operators and regulators of leaks for more timely and cost-effective repairs.”
Data such as these, he added, could help regulators and organizations capture the low-hanging fruit by highlighting emission leaks that ground operators might otherwise miss—and not a moment too soon.
“We don’t have time as a species for false starts or monolithic approaches,” Duren told policymakers who attended the hearing.
Duren’s cries for change echo across the satellite industry—from university laboratories to the virtual boardroom meetings of Fortune 500 organizations. All signs indicate that the 2020s could mark a real turning point when the satellite industry, government, academia, investors, and corporate behemoths must come together to collaborate on real-world, climate-change solutions.
In the months since President Joe Biden was inaugurated, climate change has re-emerged as a national priority, between the US rejoining of the Paris Agreement and the White House’s goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030. Biden’s budget request to Congress includes a proposal to increase the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to a record-setting $6.9 billion for the fiscal year 2022.
The commercial satellite industry is uniquely positioned to help facilitate these goals through Earth observation (EO) satellites, data technologies such as remote sensors, and real-time analysis that can tell, for example, which energy providers emit the most CO2 or how quickly Arctic ice is melting in Greenland.
But executing these goals— nd minimizing, or slowing, the effects of climate change—goes beyond launching EO satellites into low-Earth orbit and collecting images that tell a story. Stakeholders must address multiple financial, communications, policy, and technology barriers to make a meaningful global impact.