Beyond satellites’ role in national security, their specific contribution to addressing climate, energy and health security has become increasingly acknowledged in recent times.
According to the 2022 World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, climate action failure, environmental failure, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, infectious diseases and natural resource crises are amongst the most impactful and relevant threats nowadays, whose likelihood has been rapidly increasing over the years. One element which connects all the above risks is the instrumentality of outer space capabilities and resources in their monitorisation and mitigation.
When it comes to climate change and energy, COP27 concluded on 20 November 2022 with a decision to establish and operationalise a fund to compensate vulnerable nations for “loss and damage” from climate-induced disasters, with the Secretary General being clear that we are in a “battle for our lives”.
COP27 also delivered a package of decisions that reaffirmed countries’ commitment to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to strengthen action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Among others, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan reiterates the importance of science for effective climate action and policymaking, the need for “low-emission and renewable energy, just energy transition partnerships and other cooperative actions”, the need to ensure sustainable finance, and the central role of early warning and climate information services. In this respect, the document on the implementation of a Global Observing System recognised the vital importance of robust Earth observation systems and related long-term data records, whilst a USD 3.1 billion plan was announced to ensure everyone on the planet is protected by early warning systems within the next five years.
In addition, several announcements were made at COP27, including the launch of a package of 25 new collaborative actions in five key areas under the Breakthrough Agenda and the launch of the Global Shield Financing Facility by V20 and G7 to provide funding to countries suffering climate disasters. A new five-year work programme to promote technology solutions in developing countries was also launched.
In November 2022, UNOOSA and the UK Space Agency also released a report on the use of space technology to support climate action at the global level.
In Africa, the Second Continental Report on the Implementation of Agenda 2063, published in February 2022, reiterated the role of outer space in the continent’s development in all fields, including climate forecasting, disaster management, defence and security. The document expressly mentions the strengthening of the African Earth Observation (EO) System to improve management of the environment.
In the EU, resilience to climate change is a security concern expressly addressed in the Strategic Compass for security and defence, which notes that climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters impact the security landscape (as noted also in the Concept for an Integrated Approach on Climate Change and Security), with the document further mentioning the goal of implementing the Climate Change and Defence Roadmap by the end of 2023. Energy dependency and coercion targeting the EU’s energy security are also expressly referred to.
With a view to responding to climate change challenges, and following the 2019 Green Deal, a set of actions were recently approved, including, among others, the EU Communication on Stepping up Europe’s 2030 climate ambition, the EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change and the European Climate Law, with the following associated funding mechanisms: the European Green Deal Investment Plan and the Just Transition Mechanism. The role of satellites and the EU space programme in meeting EU goals in this respect, including for monitoring capabilities, is expressly addressed in some of these documents.
A specific approach to sustainable finance is also a strategic commitment of the EU, as established in the Strategy for Financing the Transition to a Sustainable Economy. In this respect, and following the Action Plan on Financing Sustainable Growth from 2018 (which had already defined the building blocks for a sustainable financial framework, i.e., a classification system or taxonomy of sustainable activities; a disclosure framework for financial and non-financial companies; and investment tools, including benchmarks and standards such as for green bonds), the Strategy identifies additional actions needed for the financial system to successfully support the transition towards a sustainable economy. These include additional regulatory frameworks, labels for financial instruments and ESG benchmarks, possible supporting tools for green retail loans and green mortgages, and the integration of sustainable finance data in EU data spaces. In this scope, the 2021 Communication on “EU Taxonomy, Corporate Sustainability Reporting, Sustainability Preferences and Fiduciary Duties: Directing finance towards the European Green Deal” builds upon the measures taken so far on sustainable finance and indicates additional measures to be approved, including on taxonomy, reporting of sustainability information, and the assessment, by insurance and investment advisers, of clients’ sustainability preferences. Satellites can play a central role for ESG purposes, namely for meeting and showing compliance with ESG requirements (e.g. by providing scientific evidence on the environmental sustainability of an economic activity).
Energy challenges and security of supply have emerged as central topics in the EU, particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine, which has accelerated the need for EU energy autonomy and renewable energy / low-carbon fuels, as well as a resurgence of nuclear energy and gas – we recall, in this respect, the decision to allow nuclear and natural gas to be labelled as sustainable or climate-friendly investments.
The increasing digitalisation of the energy system is expressly identified in the EU Strategy for Energy System Integration as a means to enhance forecasting, remote monitoring and the management of distributed generation, as well as improvement of asset optimisation, including the on-site use of self-generation. At the same time, the EU Energy Digitalisation Action Plan sets out a roadmap to achieve a “digitalised, green and resilient” energy system as a means to address the EU’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, tackle the climate crisis and ensure affordable access to energy for all. Smart grids are also an EU priority, as indicated in the updated TEN-E Regulation.
Most relevant is security of supply: with a view to ensuring that the risks of disruption to the energy supply within the EU energy market are mitigated by phasing out the EU’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels, and in light of the specific circumstances now in place, the REPowerEU Plan (2022) was approved by the EC, putting forward a set of additional actions to save energy, diversify supplies, quickly substitute fossil fuels by accelerating the EU’s clean energy transition, and carry out smarter investments and reforms. Among others, the REPowerEU Plan expresses the EC’s commitment to intensify work on the supply of critical raw materials, in particular by reinforcing the EU’s monitoring capacity regarding the supply of diverse critical raw materials. Investment in hydrogen, as indicated in the EU Hydrogen Strategy (2020), is also a key priority to achieve the European Green Deal and Europe’s clean energy transition, with two main proposals currently under discussion, and a EU Hydrogen Bank to be proposed.
Satellites can play a central role in all of the above, including for emissions monitoring and the digitalisation of the sector. Indeed, recent legislation acknowledges the role of satellites in this respect: for instance, Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2022/996 on rules to verify sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions saving criteria expressly acknowledges the possibility of resorting to high quality satellite images to carry out audits that provide the same level of assurance provided by an on-site audit.
A Proposal for a Regulation on methane emissions reduction in the energy sector is also currently under discussion, following the EU’s Strategy to reduce methane emissions, where the role of satellites for detection purposes is expressly mentioned.
As regards health, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to international efforts to conclude an International Pandemic Treaty, foreseen to be adopted in 2024. The role of satellites for health purposes has been expressly acknowledged at the UN level: for instance, COPUOS recently approved a draft resolution on space and global health (submitted to UNGA) encouraging Member States to facilitate the effective use of space-based technologies in support of global health, including telemedicine solutions and other emerging technologies; to promote open data-sharing policies and participatory approaches to developing and improving access to all geospatial information relevant to global health, including remote sensing and Earth observation data, whenever possible; to advance their efforts related to the geotagging of all assets relevant to health systems, including health information systems; and to conduct appropriate drills and exercises to benchmark their operational preparedness and response capacities and capabilities for the appropriate use of space technologies in responding to global health events. We note, in addition, the decision to establish the Space and Global Health Platform and the Space and Global Health Network, upon the recommendations made by the Working Group on Space and Global Health, with a view to promoting effective collaboration on space and global health issues among Member States and United Nations system entities, in particular the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
In the EU, the Strategic Compass also addresses global health crises and their “far-reaching geopolitical implications”, noting the importance of ensuring resilience against pandemics and increased ability to respond to them.
In this scope, new legislation on cross-border health threats and to ensure the supply of medical countermeasures in case of public health emergencies was put forward following the pandemic, covering also epidemiological surveillance and monitoring; early warning and response systems; response coordination; supply monitoring and demand, and joint procurement of, medicinal products, medical devices and others (with HERA – Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority – having been set up). This legislation expressly refers to space-enabled technologies (including for contact tracing), a topic already addressed in the Communication “Building a European Health Union: Reinforcing the EU’s resilience for cross-border health threats”. The EU4Health Programme, which provides funding for the period 2021-2027 to improve the availability and affordability of medicinal products, medical devices and crisis-relevant products, and to tackle cross-border health threats, also mentions space-based technologies (with this Programme being implemented by the newly established European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA)).
The proposal for the European Health Data Space (EHDS) was also put forward, as an ecosystem comprised of rules, common standards and practices, infrastructures and a governance framework, aimed at facilitating individuals’ access to their health data – thus improving healthcare cross-borders – and the use of health data for research and innovation.
In all the above, outer space plays an instrumental role in ensuring environmental, energy and health security.