May 11, 2021 - Science

Satellites are ushering in a new era of environmental accountability

Illustration of a magnifying glass magnifying part of blurring earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Satellites gazing down at Earth from orbit are helping hold governments and corporations accountable for their environmental impacts.

Why it matters: Environmental agreements are hard to enforce without independently verified data. But satellites — with advances in computing — can help monitor deforestation, illegal fishing, pollution and other environmental problems with ease, helping to measure whether governments are hitting their targets.

  • "We are going to have a time of radical climate transparency," said Andrew Zolli, VP of global impact initiatives at the satellite company Planet.

Driving the news: Earth-monitoring projects are getting a boost from cheaper access to a wealth of satellite data, and governments are taking note — using that information to hold companies and other governments accountable 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 off extra natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide and some 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 one day could lead to tools that would help stop illegal labor practices quickly.
  • The Amazon Conservation's Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project is able to monitor deforestation and illegal mining in certain parts of the Amazon in near real time, sending alerts to local governments that can then stop that illegal activity.

The big picture: Today, thanks to satellite data, scientists are moving from measuring how much carbon dioxide is building up in the air to pinpointing exactly where it's coming from.

  • A new project called Climate TRACE, which brings together Al Gore, think tank RMI, TransitionZero, WattTime and others, is set to go live later this year and, if successful, may mark the beginning of a new era in climate diplomacy.
  • Their aim is to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to process satellite imagery in ways that produce more exact national and facility-level estimates of carbon emissions that can be used when negotiating climate agreements and goals.

Zoom in: Different types of satellite data can also work in concert with one another, giving users a better idea of exactly what's going on.

  • HawkEye 360, for example, is able to tip off imaging satellites to get photos of various points of interest if it detects radio frequency signals — from illegal shipping vessels, for example — that merit closer inspection.
  • Flaring Monitor uses Planet and NASA data to track down how much individual companies are flaring.
  • "It's one thing to say, 'Hey the world's warming up,' but it's another to be able to showcase the way in which that impacts humanity," John Serafini, CEO of HawkEye 360, told Axios.

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

  • Currently, markets treat pollutants like carbon dioxide and harmful activities like deforestation as unpriced externalities.
  • According to Zolli, the combination of satellite observations, improved data processing and other tools will lead to the creation of new indicators, a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average for the planet.
  • Just as Amazon the company is constantly priced by the markets, so too might the actual Amazon rainforest, made possible by satellite data, Zolli said.
  • This could shift the allocation of capital and government policies in ways that help protect fisheries and the climate, which he calls a "more climate-informed version of capitalism."
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