Squaring Space and Climate Action

How does increasing space technology, and the developing space industry, square with protection of the natural world and the fight against climate change? Are space and climate action totally incompatible?

A recent British Foreign Policy Group event on the future of foreign policy in space raised the pertinent  question of how the development of space technologies and the space industry fit into the climate change debate.

Harriet Brettle, Head of Business Analysis at Astroscale, pointed out that we take space for granted and don’t appreciate the extent to which it’s already influencing our lives – in terms of the technology that relies on space. She also pointed out that space is ‘like any other environment on earth… and we need to look at how the space industry can move to a more sustainable future.’

Debris in space is a major facet of orbital sustainability, which is one of Astroscale’s core aims. Their homepage states that: ‘just as society is dealing with issues of pollution of our land and oceans, we also have to address the growing amount of debris polluting space. There are now millions of pieces of debris posing a threat to our orbital highway, and these uncontrolled hazards can cause potential damage to the many active satellites that are providing daily benefits to society. 

If we don’t start addressing the issue of space debris now we will endanger active satellites and the benefits they bring us here on Earth.’

As space technology develops, we are bound to see another phase of industrialisation, though to what extent this will exacerbate the issue of climate change remains to be seen. Certainly, the space sector is developing against the backdrop of huge fear over climate inaction – and new technologies will be developed in an atmosphere of increasing regulation focussed on protecting the environment, and a world in which the Socially Responsible Company is becoming increasingly common. 

Beyond that,  there’s real scope for space technologies to benefit the environment and save energy. Already, satellite-based systems are being utilised to reduce the CO2 emissions of vehicles – and weather satellites are making it easier for solar cells to produce more energy. 

For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently helped French company Leosphere improve their product (wind measurement equipment) and maximise the amount of electricity that could be harnessed from new wind turbines. According to the ESA website, the instrument can measure wind speed and direction from the ground up to heights of 200 metres – massively increasing the efficiency of turbines.

A recent article in the Independent called for a new Industrial Revolution – in space – to help tackle climate change. Graham Peters writes: “The ever-increasing accuracy of satellite imagery means that emergency services and fire response teams are already capable of deploying at a faster rate than ever before. Within the next decade the various technologies will be developed further and there could be numerous job opportunities in the field of real-time natural disaster hotspot monitoring.” 

Peters is right that the space industry is the unsung hero of attempts to tackle the climate crisis – certainly, space and climate action are not entirely separate. Properly investing in the sector, as the UK government is indicating it intends to (and the private sector is very much doing), could be instrumental – not only in developing improved technologies to deliver a better quality of life, but in allowing economies to grow without inflicting greater damage to the environment. 


Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.