Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 101

Supplementary submission from UKspace



  This supplementary submission is offered by UKspace to address what it perceived as a gap in the evidence to the Inquiry on the subject of climate change and the critical role satellites play, and the role of UK space policy in helping to build a long-term, truly global monitoring system.


  Climate Change has never enjoyed a higher media or political profile in the UK. The Climate Change Bill proposes a legally binding framework that will bring efforts to tackle climate change into every home and business in the country. However, efforts to reduce national and global carbon footprints also point to an urgent need for a stepchange in our approach to environmental monitoring. Without a global, long-term monitoring system, the UK's new climate change targets will not be effectively policed and their impact will not be fully known.

The importance of Environmental Monitoring

  Our understanding of climate change rests on our understanding of many critical components in our global ecosystem, and how they interact to cause changes in global climate. While the science community is now settled on the reality of global change, we still do not know how these key "tipping points" will change, and when. These key indicators (see image) include desertification in sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation and droughts in the Amazon, changes in the ozone layer, the Greenland ice sheet, salinity valves in the world's oceans, methane emissions from the defrosting Siberian tundra, etc.

  The importance of environmental monitoring is well recognised. The Chancellor has spoken about the need for "having the best observation system and information on how the climate will change". April 2006, Mozambique The Stern Review highlighted the need for continued "high quality climate information" to monitor the effects of mitigation and to guide adaptation strategies. Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, has recently said: "There is no doubt that satellites, often designed and built in the UK, play a critical role in evaluating man's impact on the environment". And both the 2005 G8 Summit (Gleneagles Communiqué 2005, Action Plan, Para 34) and the Prime Minister's Natural Hazards Working Group highlight the continued importance of earth observation in tackling climate change and natural disasters.

The role of satellites in monitoring climate change

  Satellites are the best way of monitoring gradual change on a global scale. Specifically, satellites are often the best, and sometimes the only way of monitoring the most important environmental "tipping points" linked to climate change. In addition, much environmental monitoring is gradually shifting from local, land-based monitoring to global monitoring from space to provide global and continuous monitoring that simply is not available from the ground. Examples of satellite based monitoring include:

Tracking CO2 from forest fires

  Rising temperatures are causing more forest fires, already the cause of 25% of all CO2 emissions. Temperatures in Siberia, home to half the carbon in the world's forests, rose by 3 degrees in the last 40 years. Every year, 3.5 million hectares go up in flames in central Siberia alone. Mediterranean Europe loses another 0.5 million hectares and Africa loses almost the entire savannah south of the rainforests annually. Satellites can pinpoint active fires and their smoke plumes and precisely measure their impact by tracking "burn scars" visible from orbit. Satellites including the European Space Agency's Envisat and the UK built Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) are enabling UK scientists at NERC to calculate how much carbon is released into the atmosphere every year by forest fires and improving response efforts.

Improving predictions of hurricanes

  Climate change scientists have long predicted more frequent and more extreme hurricanes due to rising sea-surface temperatures. Hurricanes can occur when temperatures exceed 26 degrees, and a 0.5 degree rise in temperatures produces a 3% increase in wind speed. 2005 was the most active and violent year for tropical storms in the Atlantic since records began in the 19th century.

  Sea-surface temperatures are being monitored by the AATSR instrument, designed and built by Astrium in the UK, on board the environmental satellite Envisat. Scientists at Leicester University use this data to create the most comprehensive map of the world's sea surface temperatures.

Monitoring our oceans

  Sea levels are predicted to rise by up to 90 centimetres this century. 13 of the world's 15 largest cities are on the coast, and 300 million people live less than 1 metre above sea level. Europe's Envisat satellite is providing data on sea levels that are accurate to within a few millimetres.

  Climate models suggest major ocean currents will change. NERC's £20 million Rapid Climate Change Programme is using satellite data to help monitor the North Atlantic's most important current—the Atlantic Conveyor Belt.

  Scientists estimate that Arctic sea ice could disappear in summer months by 2060. Without this white coat, planet Earth will absorb more heat. The UK-led Cryosat II satellite will measure ice sheet and sea ice thickness in unprecedented detail.

The Way Ahead—a Global Health Check for Planet Earth

  Currently, monitoring requirements are driven by immediate policy needs and environmental and humanitarian crises. This piecemeal, reactive approach has resulted in many gaps and gaps in the continuity of key datasets. However, there is an increasing recognition of the need for a comprehensive, long-term global environmental monitoring system.

  Internationally, the need for the global solution is recognised through GEOSS—to which the UK was politically committed at Gleneagles. The European component of GEOSS is called GMES—Global Monitoring for Environment and Security—which will ensure long-term provision of environmental information, in particular, addressing climate change needs.

What does this mean for the UK?

  There are strategic, economic and social benefits arising from participation in GMES. Economically, PWC estimates that socio-economic benefits to Europe and the UK from GMES are estimated at approximately €90 billion over 25 years with 80% attributable to climate change. In terms of the environmental and policy benefits, full UK participation will ensure the system properly meets climate change needs and allows UK climate change scientists to help shape the global monitoring system.

  International cooperation provides the only affordable way of monitoring our global climate. As the Stern Review warns, nations must avoid the temptation of "free riding" in the hope that other nations will shoulder the burden. GMES is the only global monitoring system in town.

GMES—The Next Steps

  The decision point for the next Phase of the ESA-led space infrastructure programme will be made in September 2007. The eventual success of the programme relies on full participation of all major European partners, especially for the UK in the area of atmospheric monitoring which is crucial to understanding climate change.

March 2007

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