Story | 28 May, 2021

Space Lens for Transformational Change

By Ning Li - SpaceX has made numerous eyebrow-raising headlines in the past 10-15 years - that does not look likely to change.

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Photo: Pixabay

In January, Scientific America reported that it might have broken the U.S National Environmental Policy Act through the Starlinks project. The growth and success of SpaceX, a revolutionary company, is naturally exposed to both doubt and criticism. Still, none can deny its achievements and the transformational change it has brought to the development of space technology and services.

Transformational change is not only expected to occur in the commercial world. It has also become a buzzword in the non-profit sector. UNDP’s report defines it as the process whereby positive development results are achieved and sustained over time by institutionalising policies, programmes and projects within national strategies.”

Now, when it comes to global environmental protection in the past 100 years, a transformational change can be traced back to the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, which marked the beginning of a new era that recognises environmental issues as a global concern. Since then, we have seen a rapid development of a new branch of law: the environmental one.  It aims to ensure a safe and sustained human development, without undue cost to nature. Another transformational push came in 1992 with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and the resulting Rio Declaration with its 27 principles. Some of these principles became recognised legal principles and procedures, translated into national laws and regulations, which substantively contribute to effective environmental governance globally.

The number of international, supranational, national and subnational environmental laws and regulations has proliferated in the past few decades. ECOLEX-the gateway to environmental law has a record of over 2100 treaties and over 156,000 national legislation concerning the environment. Indeed, basic legal frameworks for environmental conservation are in place, but their implementation is the bottleneck we need to surpass to achieve transformational change. This is also recognised in the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019. In this unprecedented report, which involved about 150 scientists and extensive review of approximately 15,000 publications, five overarching types of management interventions or levers for transformational changes were proposed. One of the “levers” is precisely to “improve implementation and enforcement of existing environmental policies and regulations.”

Effective implementation of environmental law has been supported by traditional approaches, such as awareness-raising, capacity building, dialogues, etc. In recent years, new technologies have been introduced and applied, such as the satellite monitoring. Earth observation technology has been used to monitor the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements such as the World Heritage Convention, the Convention of Biological Diversity, Ramsar Convention, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. International and some national courts have used satellite imagery as a supporting means of proof. New platforms such as the global fishing watch are taking advantage of the power of satellite technology to provide near real-life monitoring of global fishing operations. A missing point though seems to be a link between geospatial information and policy and legal information. A bridge that could integrate separate sectors, bringing us the long-awaited transformational change by assisting environmental governance decision-makers.

It is encouraging to see that one initiative is making its way to create a truly integrated system combining both domains. enviroLENS,  a Horizon 2020 innovation project funded by the European Commission, aims to demonstrate and promote the use of Earth Observation (EO) as direct evidence for environmental law compliance and enforcement. By using European satellite capacities, such as those provided by Copernicus, enviroLENS responds to the demands of the environmental legal sector in the context of evidence-based decision-making processes. It explores the technical potential to link satellite imagery, artificial intelligence, machine learning and law to develop cost-effective means for legal evidence collection and monitoring of compliance.

On one platform, enviroLENS will make three tools available for users: legislation discovery tool, exploration tool and alert and monitoring tool.  The legislation discovery tool allows user to find relevant laws and regulations concerning a specific geographic area and issue. The exploration tool provides an overview of a situation by directly comparing earth observation data of two different timestamps in a user-friendly environment.  The alert and monitoring service will use the EU Copernicus capacities and will provide high-quality change detection information on land use and land cover for effective and efficient environmental protection.  Apart from the Copernicus capacities, the alert and monitoring service will integrate very high-resolution datasets, allowing for the detection of local events on a small scale. These tools are being tested in multiple use-cases for its prototype development, including: protection of a key bird habitat in Montenegro, deforestation and forest management in Armenia and Lamu Port construction in Kenya.

The success of enviroLENS might be seen as a small step when considering a transformational change for environmental compliance and implementation, but an important one to catalyse technological revolution that could lead to such a change at the end.

Seeing how SpaceX has rocked the space industry, we have a reason to believe that satellite technology, together with big data analysis, machine learning and other tools can help us observe and better protect the planet we live on. With committed will and joint actions, we shall be on the right track.   


Ning Li       Photo: Ning Li

WCEL Member Ning Li coordinated the programme portfolio development, resource mobilization and knowledge management at the IUCN Environmental Law Centre from 2008 to 2020, as the Programme Officer. Prior to that, Ms Li worked at the IUCN China and WWF China Representative Offices, in various positions and on a number of thematic areas, including species, water, and protected areas.