Today, at her State of the Union address before the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, proposed a new target of a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The current target is a 40% reduction. With such ambitious goals ahead for Europe, understanding how greenhouse gases end up in the atmosphere and the intricacies of the carbon cycle is essential – something that satellites observing Earth can help provide.
Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the economic issues that ensue, President von der Leyen linked the pandemic to our fragile world, “A virus a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand exposed how delicate life can be. It brought into sharper focus the planetary fragility that we see every day through melting glaciers, burning forests and now through global pandemics.”
She highlighted that although normal life effectively froze during lockdown, the planet has continued to suffer the consequences of climate change, and that the urgency to act is paramount.
Referring to the European Green Deal, the blueprint for transformation, President von der Leyen said, “At the heart of it, is our mission to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and we need to go faster and do things better. The European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%.”
Commenting on the address, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher, said, “This new target is indeed ambitious, but climate change is here, it’s real and it’s scary.
“While ESA doesn’t set policy, the wealth of information that is readily available from satellites provides the facts on our changing world – essential information for decision-making.
“Monitoring change is clearly important, but satellites also provide data to understand specific aspects of how Earth works as a system, such as the carbon cycle, which is key to unravelling intricate feedback loops and assessing eventual risks.
“Looking to the future and the need to directly monitor greenhouse gas emissions, Europe’s Copernicus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Monitoring mission will discriminate emissions through human activity, and will be key to tracking efforts to decarbonise Europe.”
When thinking of the causes of climate change, one tends naturally to think of industrial plants pumping harmful gases into the atmosphere, congested roads and the decimation of tropical rainforest to make way for agriculture such as cattle farming.
While this is certainly true, actions such as these have far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate warming effect of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
For example, less obvious and difficult to measure directly, is the release of methane to the atmosphere from the thawing of permafrost.
Permafrost holds carbon-based remains of vegetation and animals that froze before decomposition could set in. Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds almost double the amount of carbon than is currently in the atmosphere.
Permafrost is one of the ‘essential climate variables’ defined by the Global Climate Observing System. Through ESA’s Climate Change Initiative, temperature data along with information on vegetation and snow cover that have been collected over decades are gathered to determine trends and to understand more about how permafrost fits into the climate system.
ESA’s Climate Change Initiative collects and provides a wide range of stable, long-term, satellite-based essential climate variable data products derived from multiple satellite datasets, through international collaboration – not only key to understanding the changes taking place through climate change, but essential for climate policy.
Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet so it’s no surprise that they play a key role in our climate. But what may come as more of a surprise is that over the last 50 years, oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat in the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gases from human activity. They also further help cool the planet by drawing down about a third of human-related carbon dioxide emissions – but this isn’t necessarily good news.
Scientists discovered this fact using information from satellite missions such as ESA’s SMOS, the Eumetsat MetOp series and Copernicus Sentinel-3, which offer measurements of salinity, surface wind speeds and sea-surface temperature.
The problem is that increasing temperatures of ocean waters is leading to sea-level rise through a phenomenon known as thermal expansion and continental ice melt. And the more carbon dioxide that dissolves into the oceans, the more it leads to ocean acidification – a serious environmental problem that makes it difficult for some marine life to survive.
Satellites such as the Copernicus Sentinel-2 are used to track changes in vegetation and land use – another factor contributing to climate change and habitat loss. ESA’s upcoming Biomass mission will be able to determine the amount of biomass and carbon stored in forests.
These are just a few examples of how information from satellites is vital to putting the pieces of the climate jigsaw together.
Europe is extremely well-placed to monitor and study our changing world, particularly through the European Commission’s Copernicus programme – the biggest environmental monitoring programme in the world. As part of the programme, ESA develops and builds the satellite missions that provide key data for numerous environmental services, including its Climate Change Service.
Coming back to the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery, which was also one of the main subjects of President von der Leyen’s speech, ESA has been instrumental in developing the Rapid Action on Coronavirus Dashboard and the ESA, NASA, JAXA Dashboard.