A recent report from British satellite communications company Inmarsat and Argentine consultancy Globant estimates the world could reach net zero up to ten years ahead of the 2050 target date if industries make the most of existing and emerging space-based satellite technology.
The research states that although satellites already save 2.5% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the technology holds the potential to fast-forward the net-zero transition. The analysis suggests that full adoption of currently available satellite technologies by 2030 would make it possible to achieve a 9% reduction in global emissions. With full adoption of nascent technologies, satellite technologies could cut global emissions by up to 18%.
Energy Monitor caught up with Jat Brainch, Inmarsat’s chief commercial and digital officer, to discuss the research and to find out how space technology can be used to help different industries decarbonise.
Can you elaborate on your estimates that satellite technology could speed up the net-zero transition by ten years?
The impact that this industry has on society and the planet is often taken for granted. I have got solar panels on my house, which helped me offset my astronomical energy bills, but the first solar panels were designed to help the International Space Station operate. You’ve also got GPS technology, which again has a huge impact in terms of routing of assets. Space has impacted how we live in a huge way, and this is the first report the sector has commissioned to think about our impacts on the planet and what more we can do.
Now, if you just took the technologies that satellites currently enable, they alone are delivering 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 reductions. Then, if technologies like smart meters and route planning – which stop people using energy in an inefficient way – were fully adopted, that would push that 1.5 billion tonnes to 5.5 billion tonnes. That’s where you get the 9% of emissions savings from full use of available technologies. However, you could add another 9% of emissions reductions from new technologies that we know are coming very soon.
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Part of the reason we commissioned the report is to say to governments and multilateral organisations, ‘Here’s what’s sitting right in front of you’. One of the objectives we have is to put these things on the table so they become part of the conversation. Because they also improve businesses: they drive down operating costs, they improve yields – all the things that businesses want to do. So, there’s a ready appetite to take them up.
We estimate that with the full adoption of satellite technologies, the world can hit net-zero emissions by 2040 rather than 2050. If you get the full 18% of those emissions reductions, we think a ten-year reduction in the net-zero time frame is doable. And even if you get half of it, that’s a material impact on the speed at which we can address some of these challenges.
Can you explain the methodology behind the research? Why should people believe these figures?
We didn’t play any games here. Globant is a respected independent organisation, and they work in the industry with the likes of the European Space Agency and other publicly accountable bodies that use and work with this data. And because they have that public scrutiny and they have an ongoing obligation to report, Globant has a history of making sure they can go back and prove their thinking. So, it’s not just a one-off set of stats; they have to prove them over time, and we’ve tested all their assumptions.
We’re calling for ongoing monitoring and reporting of all these data points to prove the case. We have a social responsibility mindset here at Inmarsat, which is rooted in our history of being a life-saving safety organisation. That’s how we started; we were non-profit originally, protecting lives at sea, and that’s still in our DNA today, 40 years on.
The report says that widespread adoption of existing satellite technologies by 2030 would lead to a 9% emissions reduction. What technologies fit into that bracket?
The 9% of available technology will be things like how you route across the mobility sector. Take maritime shipping, for example. There are global standards that maritime vessels have to meet to reduce their emissions as they go around the globe delivering goods and services. They need to demonstrate that their route planning is efficient. Now, if you have a satellite, you can track and monitor areas of congestion around ports to make sure you’re not sitting offshore with your engines running. You can also run fuel more efficiently depending on ocean conditions. We can monitor and manage all the tracking technologies that work on land, sea and air.
Another example is using air traffic control in a more sophisticated way via satellite technology to ensure that planes can land without having to circle airports. Scale that up to hundreds of thousands of flights and you can imagine the impact. The next-generation air traffic control systems that we’re developing with the European Space Agency, under the codename Iris, will start driving more efficiency using our global network of satellites. There are an awful lot of businesses globally – land, sea and air – that still don’t track, and the potential is there to be exploited.
We do a lot of industrial IoT (Internet of Things) to monitor crops. For example, we identified an irrigation issue in Brazil. When there was a problem on a farm, the answer would be to send someone out in a truck, for two days, to switch the irrigation system on or off. With advances in AI and the ongoing advances in satellite technology, you can do all that remotely. So, you save the emissions of an individual having to drive out, you reduce crop wastage and improve yield, and you help the nation grow. There’s a clear economic and social benefit, as well as an environmental benefit, that we can deliver through these solutions.
Can you expand on the type of technology that can reduce GHG emissions in the transport sector?
Take shipping: there’s a strong piece around vessel optimisation, which is about where you go, how much weight you carry, when you arrive into port, how long you have your engines on for, and what route is most efficient to get you from A to B. You want to shorten the time you’re doing things that drive up fuel consumption. Satellite technology and AI can help you plan that. Leaving all these small decisions to humans drives marginal inefficiencies.
How can satellite technology help decarbonise the oil and gas sector?
The classic example is reducing methane emissions. These oil and gas assets tend to be remote, very expensive and quite dangerous. So, the more asset management you can do from afar using satellites, the better. Satellites are the answer for a couple of reasons. First, terrestrial telephony has to follow where people are, so it only covers 10% of the Earth’s surface. There’s 90% of the Earth’s surface and space that isn’t covered by the equipment that we normally use for communication. That’s where satellites come in. Our satellites are positioned so high in space that with 14 or 15 operational satellites, we can cover the whole globe.
Now, by virtue of the fact that they're covering 90% of the planet, they'll go to these remote assets where the only other answer would be shipping people out and hoping they've got the skills to fix all the different possible outcomes of a gas leak. In all that time, there's a leak that's getting worse by the minute. With the advances of AI alongside satellite technology, you can send a signal back over the same satellite beam that takes corrective action.
So, it reduces the impact – in real time – reduces the risk to individuals and reduces the risk to the environment. You start getting a degree of efficiency that you could never get without that global coverage. Satellite technologies have already delivered a 10% reduction in methane leaks around the world.
What can be done to realise the full potential of satellite technology? What would you like to see come out of COP28?
The first thing is talking about it and continuing to measure the impact. We're going to measure all the impacts of the things we enable: how many more assets we are putting under remote management, and what that does to the carbon reduction – by business, by geography, by market, by government. With that data, we can go to COP28 and show the impact satellite technology can have on the net-zero transition.
This isn't something industry will push back on because it improves margins, sustainability and yields – all things industry cares about. They will be a willing partner, and then governments can lobby, incentivise and legislate for further adoption. We've already put the satellites up – this is about using them to their full potential. There aren’t many other sectors that can bring around an 18% global emissions reduction.