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Innovation in Remote Sensing Technologies for accelerated Climate Action

March 15, 2021

By: Harald Friedl (Office of the High-Level Global Climate Action Champion), Barbara Ryan (WGIC), Harsha Vardhan Madiraju (WGIC), Gavin McCormick (WattTime / Climate TRACE partner), Lekha Sridhar (WattTime / Climate TRACE partner), Steven Ramage (GEO Secretariat) and Sara Venturini (GEO Secretariat)

Al Gore delivered the opening Keynote Address.

The virtual Forum on “Innovation in Remote Sensing Technologies for accelerated Climate Action” was held on 14 December 2020, as a joint initiative of the Office of the High-Level Global Climate Action Champion (UK), Climate TRACE, the World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC), and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Secretariat.

It was a great honour for the World Geospatial Industry Council to be partner and co-host of this Event. Among many others, it featured former Vice President Al Gore. He spoke on data engineering and modelling, shared in an integrated data platform. As he said, we can collaboratively and collectively build next generation monitoring solutions for planet earth.

Towards COP26

The co-hosts organized this event to drive action towards the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, and to contribute to the Race to Zero campaign aimed at mobilising a wide range of real economy actors, including businesses, cities, regions, investors, universities, committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 at the latest.

About 100 invitation-only participants from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors participated in this novel Forum. Harald Friedl, Office of the High-Level Global Climate Action Champion, served as the chairman of the event.

Al Gore

The keynote speech was given by Hon. Al Gore, former US Vice President, who highlighted the need to shift the focus to “how” to reduce GHG emissions, now that governments have made their pledges to implement the Paris Agreement and stabilise the global temperature increase to below 2 degrees C, and to move to a collaborative model involving Earth observations (EO) to help advance these objectives.

Al Gore suggested it is time for the climate conversation to shift to a very operational mindset: where are the emissions coming from, what is the fastest way to reduce them, and, for the impacts we are already experiencing, how do we better predict floods, heatwaves and other consequences of climate change? To do this right we need actionable data. According to Gore, the approach involves measuring, aggregating and visualising – and then attaching visualised data to liability metrics. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure” has become a bit of a cliché, but it is still true. Fortunately – reminded VP Al Gore – three recent technological developments have made it easier to generate the data we need.

First, satellites have come down greatly in cost, and increasingly more satellites are operated, including by the private sector. Second, other cost reductions range from land-based and sea-based emission sensors to mobility data, to power and commodities market data and much more. We now live awash in a world of big data. Lastly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning can process all this data, and those technologies have also become far cheaper, more accessible and more effective. It is easier than ever before to sift through vast quantities of data and extract the information that is most useful. The bottom line is that, thanks to countless hours of R&D investment both from space agencies and the private sector, we now have all of the pieces of the puzzle we need to monitor emissions and implement climate solutions faster, with more granularity, with more transparency and eventually with more certainty than ever before. The key is collaboration to assemble them all. VP Al Gore argued that data is always more effective when shared. When space-based and ground-based data streams are combined with the expertise and computer vision, data engineering, modelling and then ground-truthing of the data, organisations can produce more accurate data and information. Synergies already exist in many critical sectors, such as agriculture and flood management. Collectively we can build next-generation emission monitoring and climate solutions today, which would take decades for any one single organisation to provide alone. 

Opening remarks

The keynote speech was followed by opening remarks by Nigel Topping, High-Level Climate Action Champion, Gilberto Camara, GEO Secretariat Director, and Barbara Ryan, WGIC Executive Director.

Nigel Topping introduced the role of the Climate Action Champion in fostering broad public-private collaboration to encourage more ambitious GHG emission reductions, working in particular with front-runners. Acceleration is now being supported by favourable political tail winds for the first time, since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015. Mr Topping reminded that this event is part of the Race To Zero campaing intended to rally leadership and support from a wide range of actors for headline ambition on mitigation, but it is also to be seen in conjunction with the Race To Resilience campaign aimed to catalyse action to build resilience and help people adapt to the negative consequences of climate change, which the use of EO and remote sensing application could enhance. Besides high levels of ambition, we need exponential rates of improvement in addressing climate impacts which is only going to happen with technological breakthroughs in every sector. The kind of collaboration we are seeing at this Forum is going to be key to enable such breakthroughs.

Gilberto Camara echoed the words of previous speakers by saying that we are now living through a major technological breakthrough. We have data from the public and private sector, new technologies for data handling, and innovative techniques for engaging data. The challenge – said Dr Camara – is how to put this in the hands of people for action, and there is one additional crucial component to take into account. Most successful monitoring systems are built on transparency, where every data is public, and trust, where the system is co-designed with decision makers and society. Currently, there is so much technology and so little transparency. Transparency builds governance. It is only by ensuring transparency that policymakers will act, as transparency will hold them accountable. Dr Camara argued that the missing piece of the puzzle is the incentive system. The contribution of GEO is to find out what incentive system needs to be put in place so that this tremendous potential of new technologies is in fact used by governments to ensure a better, more resilient planet.

Barbara Ryan of the WGIC reinforced the concept that there are increasingly more data coming from the private sector and there are certainly value-added products and services built off government data that the private sector is supplying. “Countries have borders, EO don’t” – Ms Ryan reminded, and invited those who have some role across the entire ecosystem of EO to work together in this forum, being this one of the few, or the only one, with such a diverse audience.

Parallel Sessions

Introductory presentations by international experts opened the discussion over four parallel streams:

  • “New opportunities: Leveraging remote sensing technologies and innovations to support climate action” moderated by Steven Ramage, GEO Secretariat;
  • “What Governments need: What are the challenges and opportunities for Governments from a technology perspective, including developing and developed nations” moderated by Nigel Clifford, UK Geospatial Commission;
  • “New collaboration models: Advancing greater collaboration between public and private sector players” moderated by Alice Bunn, UK Space Agency;
  • “Incentivizing data sharing: Supporting data governance models to encourage data sharing for climate action” moderated by Kumar Navulur, Maxar Technologies and DigitalGlobe Foundation.

New opportunities

The discussion on “New opportunities” was opened by Will Marshall, Planet CEO, and Stephane Germain, GHGSat CEO. In this session, it was acknowledged that there remains much room for innovation from the private sector. There is also a need for large actors such as governments to continue to finance innovative initiatives both in the public and private sectors. It was recognized that a coalition of the willing is essential to move forward in reinforcing the value of EO tools and technologies for significant climate action.

What governments need





Joanna Post, Programme Management Officer for Research & Systematic Observation at the UNFCCC Secretariat, David Crisp, Senior Research Scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Committee on Earth Observations Satellites – Atmospheric Composition Virtual Constellation (CEOS AC-VC), and Shannon McDaniel, Director of Data Strategy at the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy opened the discussion on “What governments need”. In this session, it was acknowledged that there remains a lack of understanding of the value of EO, and its potential to monitor climate change and action by governments at all levels. There are a few examples of countries using EO data for some national GHG emissions reporting – but not yet for CO2 or CH4 – and as we move forward, there are opportunities for supporting countries with transparent reporting under the Paris Agreement using EO. However, it is important that there is a clear and consistent QA/QC and a bottom-up approach to support the EO-based measurements. EO can also support measuring collective progress in the Global Stocktake process by aggregating global EO information It was also agreed that there remains a need for capacity building for accurate reporting, especially in developing countries, and for those agencies that may not have the capability/capacity to sift and select data sources and models that are available. Lastly, it was noted that governments need EO not only for reporting on GHG emissions, but also for adaptation metrics as well as green financing mechanisms where even more complex measurements are involved.

New collaboration models

The discussion on “New collaboration models” was opened by Zhu Liu, Associate Professor at Tsinghua University and Carbon Monitor, and Manfredi Caltagirone, Programme Lead for the International Methane Emissions Observatory at UN Environment. The participants recognized the importance of the entire value- hain and agreed that if the commercial value of the enterprise is limited to data only, the greatest benefits of public/private investments may not be realized. Ground-truthing of space-based measurements was discussed as an essential data contribution that may be able to be procured from the private sector, particularly in regard to urban monitoring. Lastly, it was recognized that trust and integrity around the adoption of new technologies are important, and with strong partnerships, the public sector could serve as ‘early adopters’, and by doing so, could facilitate the introduction of new technologies in the marketplace.

Public-private cooperation will be essential for tracking a large fraction of the GHG emissions. The world’s space agencies are focusing on sensors that provide global coverage, with the sensitivities needed to quantify emissions from targets spanning large urban centers to the globe on weekly to monthly intervals. To reliably detect and quantify emission plumes from cities or uptake of CO2 by forest or crops, these sensors need unprecedented combination of precision, accuracy, resolution, and coverage. These systems therefore tend to be relatively large and expensive. Commercial organizations and NGOs have been focusing on high-resolution systems, designed to detect intense emissions from localized sources. These two sensor classes are completely complementary.

Incentivizing data sharing

The discussion on “Incentivizing data sharing” was opened by Gavin McCormick, Executive Director at WattTime/ Climate TRACE partner, and Rebecca Moore, Director at Google Earth Engine. Participants discussed the considerable difference in the availability of quality data in different countries. Many participants agreed that the best way to ensure data access everywhere is to train emissions-detecting models on ground truth data donated from countries and sub-national actors who are able and willing to share them; and then apply these models worldwide for everyone to access – using globally available datasets such as satellite imagery. Several participants agreed that many organizational business models do not involve generating data and such organizations can and often do share data freely; but that other organizations’ business models rely on generating valuable data and it is harder for these organizations to release data for free.

Net zero commitments

Following the summary of the parallel breakout discussion by the moderators, Tristram Walsh, Net Zero Researcher and Strategy Lead at the University of Oxford, was invited to give a guest speech from the perspective of tech young leaders. Mr Walsh noted that young people often feel disheartened by the lack of progress and ambition in climate action, and by the limited inclusion of youth representatives in high-level climate conversation where much of the real progress is being made. Ambition is scaling very rapidly: “enough” isn’t the only function of our current ambition, but other properties, such as its velocity and acceleration, also scale up very promisingly. Hence there is agreement that we need greater transparency and data accessibility in order to support the transition. In improving collaboration between young tech leaders, it is great to focus on the potential of new technologies but it is important to recognise the opportunities and risks of deployment. As an example, remote sensing AI has been used to improve agriculture practices, but it is still being used for the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. Technology is not inherently good or bad, so we need regulations to ensure that it is implemented well. But you can’t regulate what you don’t understand which is where the youth aspect comes in. It is crucial that youth leaders of the future are provided with the skills needed to tangibly deliver climate progress. Mr Walsh pointed out that collaboration is so important not just among young people but also generations and experience levels, and these new models should be adopted early on in professional careers, which universities are best placed to support.

Closing remarks

Barbara Ryan provided general conclusions from the event. Closing remarks were given by Al Gore and Nigel Topping, highlighting the emergence of global information commons.

Based on the inputs discussed at the Forum, the Co-Hosts will convene a follow-up conversation to explore with interested parties how private sector companies and/or space agencies creating new EO instruments and data could accelerate global progress on emissions measurement and climate action. With regard to support to countries, the Forum and partners will collaborate closely with the UNFCCC Secretariat on finding ways to support governments’ reporting, including through the mapping of existing remote sensing technologies for GHG emissions monitoring  across the public and private sectors, as well as supporting the Global Stocktake. With regard to non-state actors, the Forum identified the need for city-level solutions to monitor climate change and undertake action. Easily accessible data and easy to use systems are the key. It is agreed to further discuss these aspects with the Global Covenant of Mayors, C40, and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and create awareness on funding such initiatives.

While the messages coming out of this Forum will be collectively reinforced throughout the year, the Co-Hosts plan to organise a follow-up event at COP26 to present concrete outputs stemming from this unique public-private partnership for EO. If you are interested in collaborating on any of the above topics, we invite you to join us.