Protecting the earth from a space with all-seeing eyes

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Protecting the earth from a space with all-seeing eyes

It’s a level of monitoring that, until recently, was only a pipe dream for government agencies, researchers, and conservation organisations, as environmental degradation continued around them, seemingly immune to tighter laws and boots on the ground.

Such firms now share the space with huge public agencies like the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Europe’s multilateral space agency ESA, which once was the sole custodian of spacefaring.

Eco-Business spoke about these issues with Kevin Weil, president of product and business at Planet, a firm that has sent over 200 small satellites into space to photograph almost the entire world once a day.

The rapid advancement of satellite imaging technology could provide better data and more ammunition for environmental defenders to go after culprits. But not everyone can afford to buy satellite pictures — especially not the poorest, who may be the hardest hit by climate change.

Story Highlights

  • Governments on another continent may be checking images of local farms to see if they put cover crops during off seasons to reduce soil carbon emissions.

  • But commercial satellite imaging is now a US$2.6 billion industry that is set to grow almost three-fold by the end of the decade, according to analytics firm Allied Market Research. Orbital launches are becoming an increasingly accessible private venture, as aerospace firms shrink satellite payloads to the size of shoeboxes, allowing them to be deployed in swarms.

What are some of the new uses of satellite imagery in the fields of sustainability and climate change?
Fundamentally, it is about ground truth, about how the world is evolving. It is applicable to a whole bunch of different industries.

You can think about agriculture, where a farmer used to be walking in his fields to understand how the crops were growing or where there was blight. Now we can do that automatically through satellites. We can do it not just for one field, but for every field across the whole world.

Europe has the Common Agricultural Policy, that is incentivising farmers to grow crops more sustainably, through practices like cover cropping. A lot of European countries are using Planet’s data to automatically verify that farmers are following these sustainable best practices. Governments are automatically paying farms based on our data. We also have machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms that identify where roads and buildings are being built, to ensure that they are being built in a sustainable way.

Our technology can even be applied in the world of finance. We have forged a relationship with Moody’s, where they use our data to help them measure Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) best practices for financial institutions and businesses around the world. Do you have examples of when Planet’s satellite imagery has been used to successfully fight deforestation?
We work with Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI) to provide a dataset of the world’s tropical forests as a digital public good, free for researchers around the world. It covers basically every tropical forest in the world between 30 and negative 30 degrees of latitude.

This programme is now issuing 10 times the number of citations for illegal deforestation than they were previously. It is incredible what people are doing with the data. We also have a partnership with Mapbiomas, which is using the data and working with governments to penalise people who are deforesting illegally.

The data also creates a shared accountability. We are part of the Allen Coral Atlas, where we use our data to map corals everywhere in the world, including the type of corals on a reef. Having done that, about 10 companies have protected their marine coral areas since. It is not that these companies didn’t know they had corals in their space, but that now everyone else knew they are there, so suddenly there was accountability and the pressure to act. Even just having this data out there leads to action.

A common lament about climate mitigation is that not enough is being done. How does better satellite imagery help address this?
There is the common saying that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. Our satellite imagery gives people daily data about the Earth and how it is changing. That is the first step. One more thing that is really cool – in Brazil’s rainforests, deforestation is frequently caused by narcotics traffickers. They will build roads deep into the Amazon, and then they’ll clear a runway to transport drugs. If you can catch the deforestation as it begins, you can intercede and stop both deforestation and drug trafficking.