Emerging Technology for Space: Space-Enabled Net-Zero by 2050

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In the fourth edition of the Emerging Technology for Space webinar series, hosted by Satellite Applications Catapult and the University of Glasgow, we covered the topic of Space-Enabled Net-Zero by 2050 in the first of a two-part series. This webinar was focused on the aspects of Space-Based Monitoring and Data Science. The webinar brought together experts from both academia, industry, and government to explore some of the latest research and discuss some of the opportunities, challenges, and impacts surrounding this topic.

The webinar began with an opening from Amanda Campbell, Head of Net Zero at the Satellite Applications Catapult. Amanda set the context by defining what we mean by Net Zero, which is the condition when the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specific period. To limit global warming to 1.5°C, this should be halfway complete by 2030 and fully achieved by 2050. Approximately 60% of essential climate variables (ECVs) are measured from Space, hence playing a large role in driving policy by providing unbiased evidence to inform decision makers. However, the role of satellites is bigger than this: Earth observation can be used to monitor climate change, as described above; communications satellites can enable data sharing and increased efficiencies; navigation satellites can help us understand the role of value chains in GHG emissions and to increase efficiencies. Therefore, it is critical that satellites play a roll in every sector and their role is evolving.

Talks on Monitoring and Data Science

Dr Clement Albergel, Climate Applications Scientist at ESA (ECSAT), gave an overview of the ESA Climate Change Initiative (CCI) whose main objective is to develop a global-scale robust, satellite-derived time series of key components of the climate system. As part of the Paris agreement, all parties agreed to a global stock take every five years, starting in 2023 to assess progress towards the agreement and also to report their GHG inventory every year (emissions and removal). However, there is little use of satellite data in this reporting. There is a need for satellite data to support the improvement of countries’ inventories, providing uniform and rapid measurements. ESA has supported Earth observation (EO) since 1977. The CCI is a coordinated R&D programme of 24 ECV projects, developing long-term global data records to track changes across the oceans, atmosphere, and land. Clement gave an overview of some specific CCI projects: Fire CCI aims to improve consistency, using better algorithms for both pre-processing and burned area detection while incorporating error characterisation, as approx. 25–35% of GHG emissions result from biomass burning; RECCAP-2 which supports and accelerates the analysis of regional carbon budgets based on the results of data-driven models and process-oriented Global Dynamic Vegetation Models. Finally, Clement touched on six upcoming Sentinel expansion missions and CO2M, Europe’s first operational CO­2 mission.

Next, from Prof. Hartmut Boesch (University of Leicester) we heard about GHG monitoring (CO2 and methane, CH4) from Space. The overriding message from Prof. Boesch was that we can only manage what we can measure. There are three main data sources that we can currently use to measure GHGs: JAXA GOSAT-2 (CO2 & CH4 observations), NASA OCO-2 (CO2 observations), and ESA TROPOMI (CH4 observations). These data records extend effectively more than 20 years and can be easily obtained. A key purpose of these satellites is that they contribute to global flux inversions – which can successfully be linked back to country- or sub-continent-scale fluxes and there are efforts to link these back to emissions. However, there are issues with these data sources when searching for GHG emission sources, as they have narrow swaths – essentially you are searching for a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, a first dedicated European mission, MicroCarb, will be launched at the end of 2023, which has a global focus but also offers a ‘City-Mode’ to map CO2 over cities with 2x2km resolution. On methane emissions from Space, we are more advanced compared to CO2 as anthropogenic signals are much stronger and biogenic signals are essentially simpler. Leveraging emerging hyperspectral imaging satellites with high resolutions, it is possible to obverse individual strong methane emission sources. Finally, linking back to ESA’s talk, Prof Boesch also reference the move to operational systems to support the Paris agreement and the CO2M missions which will be a game changer in monitoring CO2.

The fourth talk was given by Dr Ailsa Stroud (Defra) and covered the perspective of a key user of EO in government. The UK launched its Net Zero Strategy in October 2021, before COP26 in Glasgow, citing a heavy role for EO and noting that each sector has a responsibility for Net Zero. Defra is the Copernicus policy lead and will strive for the UK to be at the forefront of EO technology and know-how. Through Defra’s EO centre of excellence, a carbon storage and sequestration map has been developed for the whole of England and is updated on a regular basis. Dr Stroud stated that in the UK networks for monitoring GHGs are fewer than for air pollutants, though Defra is interested in using EO for air quality and GHGs together, e.g., for N2O which has a global warming potential of about 265 times greater than that of CO2 on a 100-year timescale, for ammonia which is a key agricultural emission, and fluorinated gases which have a global warming potential of about 17500 times greater than that of CO2 on a 100-year timescale. Furthermore, Defra have been investigating peatland mapping and burning of upland areas and Ailsa also covered their interests in EO for adaptation. Finally, Dr Stroud concluded by stating emerging areas of interest for Defra: illegal disposal of building waste, marine littering and large-scale plastic pollution, column concentrations to emissions validation, and EO in law and highlighted the need trust, inclusivity, a systems approach, and innovation to engage the public and legislation with EO data.

Next, Dr Cristian Rossi provided an overview of the detection and characterisation of pollutant assets with artificial intelligence (AI) and EO to prioritise green investments: the GeoAsset Framework. Firstly, Dr Rossi defined what we mean by Spatial Finance, which is the integration of geospatial data and analysis into financial theory and practise. The “sweet spot” of spatial finance is in providing observational data (e.g., on GHG emissions, air pollution, etc.) for business assets, which is called Asset Level Data (ALD). A challenge currently lies in the inhomogeneous and no standardised sustainability parameters that are released, and challenges with ESG reporting was explicitly detailed. Dr Rossi stated that this challenge can be supported with EO data whereby the relevance is providing a bottom-up understanding of risks, opportunities, and impacts driven by data that is: timely, comparable, neutral, and connecting the financial systems with the real economy. We are seeing an uptake in data analytics but there are several gaps in available ALD which was shown by a cross-comparison table of ALD availability and emissions levels. For the remainder of the talk, Dr Rossi focused on a major emitter with partial ALD availability, cement and steel production. This is the focus of the GeoAsset Framework, part of the Spatial Finance Initiative, within the UK’s Centre for Greening Finance & Investment (CGFI). This collaborative endeavour provides free global ALD for the cement, steel, and iron industries, but the plan is to add more assets over time. Dr Rossi detailed how deep learning was used to define these assets and produce the final dataset for cement production, which account for 90% of the global production capacity.

Finally, Liam Bell (CTO of Hypervine) presented about Climate TRACE, which is a global coalition created to collect and share GHG emissions from anthropogenic activities across all sectors, to facilitate climate action by all sectors. Using computer vision, they can understand the time varying predictors of GHG emissions and forecast facility level emissions data in a timely manner. Several computer vision data sources feed into an ensemble model for the emissions, including vapor plume detection, thermal infrared, column integrated N2O, etc. Once the facility level data has been collected across all sectors, it is aggregated up into an independent emissions inventory for every country hosted on the Climate TRACE website. This provides emissions data transparency based on third party data, overcomes the need for self-reporting, and allows for holding national governments to account.

During the Q&A session topics covered were on missing datatypes and which data can be produced but are not used, links between the activities outlined in the talks and data sharing initiatives, improving public trust, and discrepancies in the reporting of governments and the insights from the data. Finishing on a positive note, Defra stated that the EO sector has huge potential and they benefited from EO data which were not originally intended for their uses, so we can think wide on policy design and how to deliver on Net Zero. Furthermore, Hypervine stated that we’ve seen and overcome climate problems previously using satellite data (e.g., the hole the O-Zone) so we can use satellites to make measurements and human ingenuity will follow to create impactful policy to mitigate.


The webinar was a success, thank you to everyone that joined us and engaged with the speakers – we look forward to hosting more webinars soon. If you would like to suggest a topic for the next emerging space technologies webinar, please get in touch with us.

The previous session in our Emerging Technologies for Space Webinar series was focused on Space Sustainability for the Next Century. A follow-up blog post on the ‘Emerging Technology for Space: Space Sustainability for the Next Century’ webinar summarised the talks and discussion.