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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."

Go deeper

Satellite images show historic drought's impact on Colorado River in 1 year

From left; Satellite images of Boulder Harbor Launch Ramp at Lake Mead in Boulder City, Nevada, on May 18, 2020, and on July 17 this year. Photo: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Newly released satellite images of the Colorado River and Lake Mead in Nevada show the impact the historic drought has had on the region in just one year.

The big picture: The nation's largest reservoir by volume is at its lowest level since being filled after the Hoover Dam's completion in the 1930s — prompting the federal government to this week for the first time declare a water shortage for Lake Mead. The Hoover Dam has been operating below its maximum capacity all summer, and it may drop further.

Brazil's health minister tests positive for COVID during UN summit in N.Y.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga in Brasilia, Brazil, in May. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Brazil's Health Minister Marcelo Queirog has tested positive for COVID-19 while in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), he confirmed Tuesday night.

Why it matters: Hours earlier, Queirog had accompanied Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the UNGA. The Biden administration expressed concern last week that the gathering of world leaders could become a coronavirus "superspreader event."

Trump sues New York Times and his niece over tax report

Former President Trump hosting a boxing match in Hollywood, Florida on Sept. 11. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Trump filed a $100 million lawsuit against the New York Times and his niece Mary Trump on Tuesday over the news outlet's reporting on his tax records, the Daily Beast first reported.

Details: The suit, filed in New York's Dutchess County, alleges NYT journalists "engaged in an insidious plot to obtain confidential and highly-sensitive records" and that they "convinced" Mary Trump to "smuggle records out of her attorney's office and turn them over to The Times."