Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

How Scotland’s space industry can help create world-leading environmental policy – Alan Thompson

Before the current crisis, there was already a pressing need to tackle the environmental challenges faced by Scotland, the UK and the wider world. There was reason to hope we would rise to these challenges, although we also face many questions about how long it would take before we see any tangible results. So, if there are any positives from the state of lockdown in which we find ourselves, it is that we have time to think differently and create more coherent plans that will successfully navigate the post-Covid era.

This is where the Scottish space sector comes in. I firmly believe that the time is right for the industry to come together with a clear and detailed explanation of how it can lead the way in addressing, monitoring and managing these environmental challenges. The modern-day space sector does not yet have a widespread understanding across the general public, although high-profile events such as the recent SpaceX launch are helping to attract ever-greater attention. I believe that, over time, this understanding will grow, especially relating to how the space industry can help the UN achieve a number of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The below graphic, produced by Luke Deamer at the University of Surrey, details the different components of the space industry and which SDGs they can help realise.  

Figure a : Deamer, L.R., 2020. Potential Sustainability Impacts of Space Companies relative to the UN Sustainable Development Goals [Pending Publication]

However, growing that understanding is a medium to longer-term aspiration. We need to act now to support environmental decision-making and the reason we need to do so is simple. This prolonged period of citizens in Scotland staying at home has created a period of time during which there has been minimal impact from humans on our environment.

We know that in the last few weeks, the planet has become cleaner, and that there are reduced levels of pollutants, nitrogen monoxide and other emissions[1]. Goldman Sachs has said it expects 2020 to witness the largest decline of CO2 emissions on record, falling by at least 5.4% across the globe. Pollution monitoring satellites from both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China.

This “control” period of severely restricted human activity needs to be captured as quickly and as comprehensively as possible. It can help inform government policy in a number of key areas, not least in measuring the likely environmental impact of any future easing or tightening of restrictions.

How can we practically achieve this? The answer is satellites. We already have companies in Scotland that can use satellites to receive data and extract conclusions about the environment, although the launch locations for these satellites is usually in places such as the USA or New Zealand.

There is an opportunity for Scotland to follow suit and deliver satellites into low earth orbit (LEO), something I believe we are on track to do by end of 2022/23. If we can achieve that target, Scotland would be a leader in Europe, so we must not lose momentum. The recently-established Scottish Space Leadership Council (SSLC) will be an increasingly important player, for both the industry’s long-term growth and for our aim of capturing this key environmental data as soon as we can.

On this issue, we see four clear steps to creating a long-lasting, productive system.

Firstly, as mentioned above, we need to capture the data, starting from the beginning of lockdown to the present. This will enable us to detail the key aspects of environmental improvement that we have seen since the end of March.

Second, we should share these findings with leading environmental experts in Scotland, which they can use to validate their own data, feed into their research and identify priority actions.  

Third, we then begin a dialogue between the environmental community and the space sector, with a view to working out how these priorities can be best addressed, what resource is currently available and what will require additional investment.

Finally, we can create a new environment action plan, based upon better informed data from satellites in space and driven by a renewed co-operation between the Scottish space industry, government and environmental leaders. 

The challenges and the terrible human cost of Covid-19 are all too apparent. There are also, however, opportunities to do things differently and do them better. This is one of those opportunities and it is one that we must seize.

Alan Thompson is Director, Government Affairs, Skyrora May 2020
Skyrora is a member of the Scottish Space Leadership Council