Space technology could help us fight climate change

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission’s Executive Vice-President presents a special address at the 12th European Space Conference discussing how space technology can fight climate change.

On the 21-22 January 2020, the 12th European Space Conference, ‘New Decade, Global Ambitions: Growth, Climate, Security & Defence’, was held in Brussels. At the conference, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Margrethe Vestager presented a special address on a Europe fit for the Digital age, in which Innovation News Network was in attendance.

Vestager began her address with a reference to the Danish TV show ‘Borgen’: “A few years ago, […] an episode [aired] that was all about the government choosing a new European Commissioner. With a nod to the famous tagline of the movie Alien, it was titled “In Brussels, no one can hear you scream.” The idea, of course, was to suggest that Brussels, like space, is so distant from people’s everyday experience that nothing that goes on there really makes a difference. But my five years here in Brussels, as a European Commissioner, have proved beyond all doubt that this just isn’t true. Because Brussels – or rather, the European part of our democracy, when working synchronised with business, national governments and civil society – plays a vital part in Europe’s success.

“I am looking very much forward to these new responsibilities. I am looking forward to getting to know you and to learn a lot. I am looking forward to achieving jointly what is in the title of the conference: it is a new decade; we have global ambitions. What I know though is that space is endlessly fascinating. Secondly, whatever is in space is relevant here on the planet and thirdly, that it takes money. Even with these three elements, there are still a number of things we need to do to.

Therefore, [it is] important that you come together and build networks […] to have the conditions and support that the innovative companies in Europe need to start, to thrive, to develop, to scale up and to have a global impact. We can support hugely ambitious projects, like the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus earth observation programme. We can defend a level playing field here in Europe and across the world – we can work together to help European industry as a whole to innovate, grow and reach its potential because we have not fulfilled our potential, we have more to do and we can do better.”

The importance of space technology in combating climate change

Following this, Vestager went onto address the success of the European space industry: “It is probably true that a few other industries hold so much potential or will play a more strategic role than Europe’s space industry because the truth about space, just like the truth about European democracy, is that it has a deep effect on our everyday lives. The satellites that orbit hundreds or thousands of kilometres above our heads can contribute to our lives in very direct ways.

“The story of Europe’s space industry is a story of success, [and is] one of the many things we can be proud of and use as an encouragement for other industries as well.  It is a story of innovative and world-beating companies, and of thousands of valuable jobs. It is an industry that is worth [approximately] €50bn and that employs more than 200,000 people and yet, even that only scratches the surface of the importance of the space industry. [This is] because an even larger part of our economy (as much as 10%) uses data and services from systems in space. Europe’s space assets allow us to act in a strategic and autonomous way. You know that a thousand times better than I do, but we should spread the message so that more people could be aware and appreciate what we have achieved together. Services from Galileo can guide us quickly and efficiently to new places. EGNOS provides a resource that can keep the crew and passengers of planes safe during landing. Copernicus supports predictions of climate and weather patterns. In emergencies, like the fires that have torn through Australia, we can rely on its data to follow the intensity of those fires, and their effect on air quality.

“Even that is just a hint of the importance that space will have in the decade ahead because technology based in space will play a vital role in building new services and help fight climate change.  To make Europe achieve the strategic goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, we’ll have to make use of all the capabilities we have – not just here on earth, but also in space. Copernicus can help us to measure pollution performances transparently and consistently. Galileo and EGNOS can help us cut pollution, by showing us the most direct and fuel-efficient routes, or helping farmers to use only the amount of fertiliser they need.

“This green transition will be happening at the same time as a second, digital transformation, which will change the way that almost every industry works. […] Here again, technology based in space will help us get the most from digital technology here on the ground. The huge amounts of data that Copernicus provides can offer the raw material for training Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. Galileo can help to guide connected cars, and to support the Internet of Things (IoT).”

Grasping Europe’s opportunities

Next, Vestager went on to discuss the importance of supporting the Europe’s space industry: “What this means for us in Europe, and for the European space industry at large, is a huge set of opportunities for the decade ahead. And we start that decade in a very strong position to grasp those opportunities, and to make a successful space industry one of the foundations of European leadership. Here in Europe, we have some of the world’s very best and most competitive satellite makers, which already capture a third of the open world markets. We have leading satellite communication companies. We have thousands of businesses (including start-ups and many SMEs) that use data from space to provide innovative services here on earth. The Copernicus Academy focusses on research and training to provide the next generation of researchers and entrepreneurs with suitable skills.

This decade of new and valuable uses of space technology and data can be, and should be, a European decade. It will be a central part of my work as Executive Vice-President to make sure we give Europe’s space industry the attention and support it needs to make that happen.

“Part of that, of course, will be about money. We have to continue to develop and improve Europe’s space infrastructure, like Copernicus and Galileo. We have to make sure that money is there to support work on new ideas and new technologies – technologies in space, but also new products or services that make use of satellite data. That’s why it’s enormously important that the EU’s next seven-year budget makes the money available that we need for new investments, through programmes like Horizon Europe and InvestEU, the Space Programme and the Digital Europe programme. We also need to do all we can to help start-ups and SMEs throughout Europe to grow and compete in world markets. If you have excellent service, the size does not matter. With excellent data, ambition and support from European space community, you can get a head start at the world market. We need to build on the support which the space regulation, as well as the Copernicus and Galileo programmes, offer to smaller European businesses. We need to help those businesses find the advice and the money that turns great ideas into world-beating products.

“We need to make sure that those brilliant ideas also have a chance to succeed in the real world. So they can reach their potential, to lay the foundation of Europe’s industrial success in the decade ahead and to make valuable new services available that people will appreciate. We have to support the level playing field that allows the best ideas to win through, no matter where in Europe they come from, or how big the company that invented them. That means having effective competition in Europe [and] giving ourselves the tools that we need, to make sure foreign state ownership and subsidies don’t deny European businesses a fair chance to compete on world markets.”

Defence and space: finding synergies

“In all of this work, we need to be constantly on the lookout for ways to bring our different policies together, to achieve something that is more than the different parts. That brings me to another strategic European industry: that of defence. There are a whole lot of ways that we can get more for our money, by making use of the links between defence and space industry. Not, of course, by militarising space but by recognising that these industries share many challenges – and their needs, when it comes to tackling those issues, are very similar. Emerging technologies are changing our working models, in areas like cyber-defence and artificial intelligence, and in this digital age, the same technology increasingly has both military and civilian purposes.

“We’ve seen, for example, how satellite navigation can help armies operate – and also help us find a better route to the shops. We’ve seen technologies originally developed for military purposes, such as lasers or micro-waves, used to boost everyday applications, both on earth and space. Our Galileo Public Regulated Service provides intelligence that can be used by both civilian and defence authorities. And some of the challenges and threats are shared too – like the risks of interference, or collisions with space debris, that can threaten both commercial and military satellites. We can work together, between EU institutions, national governments and across civil and military operators, to make the very best use of our capabilities – the way that we’re doing with the EU’s satellite communication initiative, GOVSATCOM. We can make use of the data we collect, helps to produce new and better services that enhance all our lives. and we can make the most of the European Defence Fund, to finance space research or capability development.”

Conclusion

To conclude her special address, Vestager reflected on the successful development of the satellite programmes: “There is no such thing as “out there”. It is right here. It is not something far removed from our daily concerns. It is right here. Space technology is an essential part of our lives and it is the best argument to ask the taxpayers to fund it. It is not something out there. It is critical for our everyday life and for our security. This is equally important for all of us. I hope with all the potential and all the achievements represented in this room that we can be a common team to achieve this together.

“To have the funds for the investments needed, to make the best of the data available, and to promote what we have achieved. Because Europeans need to know what we can achieve when we do it together. What we have achieved with the satellite programmes, with the specific benefits for this planet, is one of the things that travels so easily among people. Because space is indefinitely fascinating. What is in space works here and everyone knows that if you wish to achieve something, you need to fund it.”

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