The space industry could be key to the UK taking a stand on climate change

Posted On: 
22nd July 2019

The Chair of UKspace writes ahead of a campaign launching shortly calling for a national space programme, backed by significant new funding because “the moment for the Government to act is now”.

An image of earth taken from aboard the International Space Station
Credit: 
PA

As climate change climbs the political agenda again, governments around the world are stepping up their responses and the UK that has taken a lead. As one of her last acts in Number 10, Theresa May laid down an historic commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But, as many have since pointed out, tougher targets are meaningless without new ideas and practical plans to deliver them. So where will these come from?

The sector of our economy that is best placed to help develop the ideas needed may be an unexpected one. Yet the UK’s space industry is already equipping policymakers with tools to help monitor and improve the environment as never before. If the next prime minister seizes on this, the UK could yet assume the position of world leader in action as well as words; an endeavour that will not just be a ‘nice thing to do’ – but would make serious gains for British jobs and industry.

In the UK, the satellite sector is already starting to show how we can drive down emissions from heavily-polluting transport, such as by smart routing of our shipping freight. It is also advancing pollution management, potentially allowing doctors to predict spikes in dangerous respiratory conditions like asthma, which kills three people in the UK every day. Already, the UK Space Agency’s ‘Space for Smarter Government’ Programme has demonstrated the feasibility of an “Air Quality Hotspot Mapper” which could help the NHS manage the health fallout of poor air quality.

On a global level, we are using this expertise to monitor forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, volcanoes, deserts, coast lines, ice caps, atmospheric changes and conditions such as the El Nino climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean, which has a global impact on weather patterns. Satellite technology can monitor crop health with data used to help increase food production by better targeting water and fertilisers. In the future, we should be able to assess whether countries are meeting carbon treaty commitments. 

The fact is that we only know about climate change because of the evidence collected by satellites.  And through data from satellites we can both better understand the science behind the changes to our environment and provide solutions.

Coupled with revolutionary new techniques in computing and artificial intelligence, satellites offer the potential to give policy-makers the ability to take very specific, but also very radical action to improve the environment. Applications include making flood prevention much more effective and positioning special vegetation ‘sinks’ to soak up carbon from the air.  Earth observation satellites recently identified 1.7bn hectares of land where trees could be planted, for example, which researchers showed could make the biggest and cheapest immediate impact on climate change. Data from new satellites can also provide effective tools to support urban planning.

With countries across the world increasingly hungry for these solutions, the worldwide market for them is vast and growing. The big opportunity Britain has is to lead the way in using satellite technology to tackle climate change. We already have a first class science base, world-leading universities and highly skilled technicians.  The UK space industry is developing serious potential, having trebled in size in real terms since 2000. But if we want to take on this opportunity to be a global leader, then action is urgently needed to retain and build our space capability in the UK, via a new national space programme.

The EU’s recent decision to exclude British companies from involvement in the Galileo satellite navigation programme threatens to leave the UK space industry at a severe disadvantage. UK firms will be overlooked for lucrative new global deals because they will no longer have access to the EU’s shared navigation system. Additional problems will arise if we leave the EU without a deal and are forced to stop collaborating on Copernicus, another EU earth observation programme.

The UK now needs to develop its home-grown sovereign capability in space even further. It is the only way to make the most of the enormous opportunities we have ahead of us. For this reason, UKspace, the space sector industry body that I chair, will soon launch a campaign calling for a national space programme, backed by significant new funding. This national programme would not only pave the way for the UK to be a world leader in the global challenge to reduce climate change, it would ensure we have the means at home to build all our own national security, defence and communications capabilities. It would sit alongside our investments in the European Space Agency which the UK helped to establish in 1975.  ESA, which is not part of the EU, will remain an important way to maintain our international supply chains across Europe after we exit the EU. 

It would mean a new industrial revolution right here in the UK, creating thousands of new green jobs spread across all our regions, while helping to deepen our trading relationships with partners outside Europe.

The moment for the Government to act is now. Increasing numbers of people are understandably seeing climate change as the biggest policy issue in the UK and politicians will soon have to answer questions about what happens next. For the next prime minister, the space industry has many of the answers.