Written Evidence Submitted by Planet
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the Science & Technology Committee’s inquiry into a new UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure.
We are delighted that the Committee is focusing on the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, not least through international partnerships. We are particularly glad that the Committee is specifically including, within the remit of this inquiry, applications for Earth Observation, including climate change.
Planet is the only Earth Observation organisation capable of imaging the entire landmass of the earth every day. With over 200 satellites in orbit today (the largest fleet of earth-imaging satellites in history by more than a factor of 10), Planet is the world leader in Earth Observation making change visible, accessible, and actionable. Planet generates 3 million images a day, storing on average 1800 images of every single place on earth – the most comprehensive Earth Observation dataset ever created.
Based in San Francisco, Planet was co-founded by its CEO, Will Marshall, a British national who studied at Oxford and Leicester Universities before working for NASA. The company has a number of key staff located in the UK, including its Chief Revenue Officer.
Planet’s supply chain includes a number of UK based companies, most notably Goonhilly Earth Station which Planet has used to downlink data since it started commercial operations in 2014. A growing number of UK based companies use the company’s data to create derived products and services across a number of market sectors (in particular Agriculture and Security) which they sell both domestically and internationally.
Planet has worked over the past year with the Welsh Government to prove how Earth Observation data can be used to enact the Sustainable Farming Incentive (which replaces the EU Common Agricultural Policy) and to manage and restore the natural environment through the Living Wales project.
Planet is proud to support International Universities including a growing number in the UK including University of Leicester, Aberystwyth University and Oxford University. Every 21 hours a new academic paper is published that is based on Planet data.
Planet is mission-led company with a history of partnering with Nation States and philanthropic organisations to deliver data as a public good, supporting causes that positively impact climate, conservation, and humanitarian efforts.
As the Committee will be aware, Climate change is real and it is already happening. With the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere projected to maintain an average 411 parts per million (ppm) throughout 2019, there is a long way to go before the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement are met.
To put this into context: atmospheric CO2 hovered around 280 ppm before the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1750 – the 46 per cent increase since then is the main cause of global warming. Reliable temperature records began in 1850 and our world is now about one degree Celsius hotter than in the “pre-industrial” period. The Paris Agreement focuses on keeping the global temperature rise in this century to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius – to avoid “severe, widespread and irreversible” climate change effects.
But, if current trends continue, the world is likely to pass the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark between 2030 and 2052 unless it finds a way to reach net zero emissions.
Utility of Earth Observation
In a recent policy paper supported by 70 UK-based universities and research institutions, Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences and its Cabot Institute for the Environment, states: “Earth Observation satellites are our eyes on the planet. Without them we would be virtually blind to the magnitude and timing of climate change and to human interference with the fragile ecosystems that we all depend on.”
Earth Observation data is being employed to develop global stocktake estimates and to assess the pace of climate change and its impacts, and can provide near-instantaneous information over almost all parts of the earth system. Earth Observation data is therefore invaluable in a wide range of applications relevant to climate policy, assessing progress towards Paris goals and verification of national declarations on carbon budgets.
Moreover, Earth Observation data is critical to measuring the Sustainable Development Goals. Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, acknowledged “the relevance of counting with the contribution of Planet to measure 13 of the 17 Goals through Earth Observation data, made available through global daily satellite imagery to national statistical offices, United Nations entities and global partnerships such as the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data”.
Planet is at the forefront of Earth Observation efforts to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss:
i. Norway’s International Climate and Forests Initiative
In September 2020, the Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment awarded an international contract to Planet, with partners KSAT and Airbus, to provide universal access to high-resolution satellite monitoring of the tropics in support of efforts to stop deforestation and save the world’s tropical forests.
Through this programme, Planet and its partners bring new technologies and transparency to advance the mission of Norway’s International Climate and Forests Initiative (NICFI). Users can access Planet’s high-resolution, analysis-ready mosaics of the world’s tropics in order to help reduce and reverse the loss of tropical forests, combat climate change, conserve biodiversity, and facilitate sustainable development.
The data is used for a number of projects including, but not limited to:
● Advance scientific research about the world’s tropical forests and the critical services they provide.
● Implement and improve policies for sustainable forest management and land use in developing tropical forest countries and jurisdictions.
● Increase transparency and accountability in the tropics.
● Protect and improve the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in tropical forest countries.
● Innovate solutions towards reducing pressure on forests from global commodities and financial markets
ii. Allen Coral Atlas
To accelerate the targeted intervention approach to global coral conservation, Planet partnered with Paul G. Allen Philanthropies and a consortium of renowned coral conservation and remote-sensing scientists from the Carnegie Institution for Science, University of Queensland, and the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology to map the entirety of the world’s shallow-water coral reefs in unprecedented detail, and to monitor them for change.
The initiative uses a combination of advanced global satellite imagery, field verification, and machine learning analytics to form a dedicated global coral observatory that will empower new kinds of coral conservation interventions and new basic science.
The Allen Coral Atlas uses Planet data to map all of the world’s coral reefs, monitoring them for change, and making the resulting data a global public good. Planet delivers the Atlas in partnership with Vulcan, Arizona State University, University of Queensland and National Geographic.
It provides the highest resolution, up-to-date global image of the world’s coral reefs ever captured, and the first to show the composition and structure of five important reefs located throughout the world: Moorea in French Polynesia; Lighthouse Reef in Belize; West Hawaii Island; Kurimunjawa in Indonesia; and Heron Island, on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, with more to come.
Beginning with Planet’s 3 meter resolution satellite imagery, Atlas partners at the University of Queensland (UQ), Carnegie Institute for Science, and Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology used advanced analytics to further analyze and validate Planet’s imagery and produce derivative maps that capture extraordinary details like reef depth and water color and distinguish between benthic microalgae, coral bommies, coral and algae, land, rock, sand, and rubble.
With this new level of timeliness and detail, conservationists, governments and local communities can plan more precisely and effectively target conservation and restoration interventions. To ensure maximum impact, the assets of the Atlas will be freely licensed for non-commercial scientific and conservation uses.
iii. Carbon Mapper
Planet is the commercial and technology partner for Carbon Mapper, a new nonprofit organisation, which in April this year announced a pioneering program to help improve understanding of and accelerate reductions in global methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
In addition, the Carbon Mapper consortium has announced its plan to deploy a ground-breaking hyperspectral satellite constellation with the ability to pinpoint, quantify and track point-source methane and CO2 emissions.
Working in partnership with the State of California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL), the University of Arizona, Arizona State University (ASU), High Tide Foundation and RMI, Carbon Mapper provide more complete, precise, and timely measurement of point source methane and CO2 source level emissions as well as 25+ other environmental indicators.
Carbon Mapper, in collaboration with California’s Air Resources Board (CARB), is also developing a public portal to make the data available for use by industry, governments, and private citizens to improve greenhouse gas accounting, expedite repair of leaks, support disaster response, and improve environmental resilience.
Ultimately, Carbon Mapper will help fill gaps in the emerging global ecosystem of methane and CO2 monitoring systems by delivering data that’s timely, actionable and accessible for science-based decision making - greatly expanding both methane and CO2 emissions transparency for decision makers and civil society.
For the Committee’s inquiry into a new UK Space Strategy and UK Satellite Infrastructure, Planet has three broad recommendations for the Government.
1) Take advantage of the clear leadership opportunity for climate action through space
The Government’s Integrated Review, “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” (March 2021) recognises the importance of space as a tool for tackling climate change, stating that “space will be a domain of increasing opportunity, as the application of new technologies in space enables new possibilities – from commercial opportunities to international development and climate action.” The Integrated Review also notes the leadership role the UK needs to take in space to serve the country’s strategic interests.
Particularly during its Presidency of COP, the Government now has a global leadership platform to champion and maximise the utility of Space through Earth Observation. In so doing, the Government has the unique opportunity, on the run-up to COP-26, to embrace the technological utility of Earth Observation. In so doing, the Government can lead the world in effectively opening up Space as a new frontier in the battle against climate change and biodiversity loss.
2) Fully leverage Earth Observation as a tool for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss
As noted in this paper, Earth Observation provides a uniquely powerful tool for tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. The ability of Earth Observation to monitor the whole earth and provide measurements every day is unprecedented in comparison to any other technology or methodology, in-situ or aerial.
Earth Observation data is collected on all scales from global, national to regional and local. It also includes remote areas, hard to be reached by humans, that can have huge importance for ecosystems. For instance, Planet’s satellite images have recently enabled scientists to monitor the collapse of the last intact Arctic ice sheet, capturing the split of an 80 km2 bloc taking place between the 30 and 31 July 2020.
The unique and timely information provided by Earth Observation supports a transparent approach to decision-making. Whether spatial data is used to analyse agriculture, forestry, soil degradation and marine protection or for development monitoring, it can allow policymakers to make evidence-based decisions.
Furthermore, Earth Observation data is available at significantly lower cost than ground-based monitoring and reduces the need for frequency of surveys, respondent burden and other costs needed for informed decision making.
However, Earth Observation data is not being used as efficiently and effectively around the world as it should be, denying the full potential of the data to support efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. The Government should ensure that it is fully exploiting Earth Observation data – by recognising its utility in policymaking; accessing the best-in-class data gathered by private entities; making appropriate, long-term investments; and ensuring that its procurement processes are efficient.
3) Build out the UK’s strengths in downstream services such as Big Data and AI
As a recent Policy Exchange report states, the UK’s strengths in Science and Technology constitute a ‘Green Unique Selling Point’ for the country, describing the sector as an area where “the UK can make an outsized contribution to global action on climate change whilst also benefiting people at home.”
The Global AI Index, which provides a global ranking of countries, based on Artificial Intelligence investment, innovation and implementation, ranks the UK third behind the US and China.  Furthermore, the Government’s Integrated Review states that “we will be recognised as a Science and Tech Superpower, remaining at least third in the world in relevant performance measures for scientific research and innovation, and having established a leading edge in critical areas such as artificial intelligence.”
Earth Observation generates massive amounts of data. As noted earlier in this submission, Planet’s 200 satellites generate 3 million images a day, storing on average 1800 images of every single place on earth.
Through partnerships with companies like Planet, UK-based NGOs, academic and industrial partners – such as Blue Marine Foundation (London); GeoAsset, Spatial Finance Initiative (Oxford University and Space Applications Catapult); METEOR programme (University of Leicester); Commonsensing (SA Catapult, UK Space Agency) – could play a critical role in helping to make Earth Observation data accessible, and actionable.
In so doing, partnerships of this kind can help build out Earth Observation downstream services as a valuable part of the UK space economy.
Planet would be happy to give oral evidence to the Committee or provide further information if helpful.