The UK must maximise the potential of satellite data to help the world meet climate change goals, according to a new report ahead of COP26.

Co-authored by a University of Glasgow professor, the COP26 Universities Network paper identifies Earth observation (EO) satellites as a critical tool to monitor the causes and effects of climate change.

It sets out the opportunities and areas for improvement with EO ahead of the climate change conference which will be hosted in Glasgow in November, alongside opportunities to harness the satellite data to improve climate security and achieve the United Nations (UN) Sustainability Development Goals.

EO refers to global observations of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere by satellites. The data they generate is used to monitor and assess the pace of climate change and its impacts across the whole planet.

The satellites also capture information that helps ensure nations are meeting goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming, as brokered in The Paris Agreement in 2015.

Additionally, the technology is used to inform emergency services of environmental disasters, ranging from floods to landslides, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires.
In contributing to ‘The role of space-based Earth observations in achieving climate security’, professor Marian Scott from the University of Glasgow’s School of Mathematics and Statistics drew on her experience studying global water quality through Earth observation.
She said: “Earth observation, when combined with in-situ and sensor data, is extremely powerful, allowing us observe environmental changes over space and time in unprecedented detail even in remote parts of the globe. Archives of historical satellite data are powerful resources when combined with advanced analytics to help us understand what is changing in our natural environment, and how quickly. 
“The NERC funded Globolakes project, for example, set out to understand changes in water quality in a thousand lakes around the world. Historical satellite images of the lakes helped us to build a time-lapse series of images of the lakes taken at monthly intervals without sending teams of scientists to often hard-to-reach locations. Identifying lakes which behave similarly over time will help us identify the rates and drivers of change, including climate and global warming.
She added: “Another project, part of the UKRI-NERC  Digital Environment initiative, is using satellite data from European and Japanese space agency satellites to better understand soil moisture and water resources. Those data can help farmers make more informed decisions on when to withdraw water from rivers to irrigate their crops.
“In both these projects, we have developed data fusion methodology to combine the different data streams and improve our intelligence about spatial and temporal variability in the environment.  Both projects also indicate the importance of access to satellite data and that such data are truly international.  Another very important aspect of these projects is their collaborative and multi-disciplinary nature – working together with local communities and other scientists brings huge benefits to the science and the impacts achieved.”
The report identifies three key focus areas to ensure EO is fit for purpose and optimised:

  • Capacity building is essential. As an environmental science leader, the UK can, and should, contribute to capacity building in EO technology, methodologies and skills in support of nations not yet positioned to exploit EO effectively within the Paris Agreement process. This should include expanded provision of education and training in EO science and climate nationally and internationally via, for example, Official Development Assistance (ODA) programmes.
  • International cooperation and coordination are needed between the space agencies, national funding bodies, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and entities such as the Group on Earth Observation and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to achieve full and appropriate use of EO data and ensure the resources are free to use and tailored to stakeholder needs. 
  • Trans-national funding. A mechanism to fund such cooperation at an international level does not exist, but this will be critical in maximising the full potential of EO data and technology.

Lead author of the briefing Jonathan Bamber, professor of physical geography at the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences and its Cabot Institute for the Environment, said: “Earth observation satellites are our eyes on the planet. Without them we would be virtually blind to the magnitude and timing of climate change and to human interference with the fragile ecosystems that we all depend on.”

The COP26 Universities Network is a group of over 55 UK-based universities and research centres established in 2020 working together to ‘raise ambition for tangible outcomes’ from the UN COP26 Climate Change Conference.