COP28: Leveraging next-generation satellite technology in the fight against climate change

The UAE’s constructive leadership of COP28 will consolidate its reputation as a responsible and forward-thinking nation

By Jamil Kawar

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Published: Mon 11 Dec 2023, 2:59 PM

Last updated: Mon 11 Dec 2023, 4:10 PM

‘This December, the eyes of the world will be upon the UAE as it hosts the 2023 edition of COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Hosting COP28 demonstrates the UAE's appetite for collaborating with other nations in solving humanity's most vital challenge. The COP28 presidency also provides the UAE with a platform to showcase its commitment to sustainability and its advances in renewable energy, green technologies, AI, and space technologies — domestic strengths that we expect to drive further investment and partnerships.

The UAE’s constructive leadership of COP28 will consolidate its reputation as a responsible and forward-thinking nation. More importantly, it will once again focus the world's attention on the practical steps that can be taken to reduce carbon emission and limit global warming. The programme for COP28 covers a range of themes that exemplify the breadth and depth of response needed to tackle climate change, such as finance, frontline communities, and inclusion. Here, I would like to discuss an element of a fourth thematic pillar: technology and innovation.

The role of SAR satellites in combating climate change

Recently, the 'new space' economy has gathered momentum worldwide and the exploration and exploitation of space has risen up the global agenda. Indeed, the UAE is playing a leading role in the new space economy, having launched an $820 million national space fund to support space initiatives.

These developments are important because a subset of new space technologies, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, will play a role in guiding the world's response to climate change.

SAR satellites work by reflecting powerful radar beams off the surface of the earth. Returning to the satellites, these beams help build an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground below. SAR satellites are smaller and less expensive than older satellites, so it's possible for operators to build more extensive networks at much lower costs. As they work using radar rather than light or images, SAR satellite constellations can provide persistent coverage of fast-breaking events on the ground in all weather conditions. These constellations enable scientists, governments, insurers, and public safety organisations to better understand the impact of climate change.

Key use cases for earth observation data

Broadly speaking, the continual, near-real-time earth observation data provided by SAR technology can be used in three ways. First, to provide intelligence to help emergency responders deal with natural disasters or counteract activities that are exacerbating the climate crisis. Second, to deliver the data needed for climate resilience measures to move from a 'response and recovery' approach to a 'predict and protect' approach. And third, to give insurers the data they need to measure exposure to systemic risk and improve pre-loss mitigation. Key use cases include:

  • Gathering near real-time flood and wildfire impact data to share with government agencies, including frontline emergency responders, to improve national response and recovery capabilities. The Australian federal government is already using SAR-derived earth observation data in just this way.
  • Detecting and monitoring deforestation. The destruction of forest ecosystems accounts for about 10 per cent of global CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. With its ability to penetrate clouds, SAR technology is often used for investigating tropical forests as they are under cloud cover for much of the time.
  • Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. SAR constellations can track methane leaks and other greenhouse gas emissions back to source, providing valuable information to regulators and environmental agencies.
  • Tracking changes in sea ice and permafrost conditions. Using SAR satellites, researchers can identify changes in sea and terrestrial ice formations in any region of interest, daily or even several times a day, helping them better understand the effects of climate change.
  • Providing insights for insurers. Given the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, many reinsurance carriers are reassessing their appetite for catastrophe risk. Earth observation data provides insights into which properties are most exposed and which buildings are more likely to be affected than others, allowing for more informed risk assessments.
  • Protecting the marine environment. For countries like the UAE that have large coastlines, SAR satellites can also be used to help protect the marine environment, such as by monitoring oil spills and clean up efforts and detecting illegal fishing activity (at day and night and in all weather conditions).

As part of its new space initiatives, the UAE is funding a remote sensing satellite constellation called 'Sirb' (Arabic for 'a flock of birds'). These and other such networks will prove to be a vital source of intelligence in the years ahead as nations and communities look to understand climate change, react to extreme events, and build long-term resiliency. Along with the many other initiatives, goals, and technologies that will be discussed at COP28, SAR technology gives us some grounds for hope.

— Jamil Kawar is the VP for space missions — MENA at ICEYE.

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