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Satellites’ Carbon Footprint? Smaller than You Might Think

The environmental cost of launching can be quickly offset by the data and insight they bring

By Paolo CuomoPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Top Story - May 2021
Satellites’ Carbon Footprint? Smaller than You Might Think
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In mid-March David Cabral, a leading insurtech thinker, posted this question on LinkedIn.

Is there a role for Space in ESG?

I’ve always been focused on the critical importance to our planet of the interaction of technology and sustainability (most recently through the SusTech2030 initiative). When you then wrap in an insurance innovation angle then you hit my trifecta.

David’s post continued as follows and tagged a number of experts and acquaintances.

We are working on an exciting proposition and the role of Space has generated very heated discussions!

The Positives:

Space supports solutions that can be used to improve aspects of our world. A growing number of organisations own a fleet of small satellites that use infrared or radar to look through cloud cover and collect data to generate immediate insights into commodities, business development and environmental change (the price of micro-satellites is below $100 and dozens can be released in low orbit with a single rocket launch). These insights can: 1) generate predictions in areas such as crop yields, oil prices, prosperity; and 2) identify risks for certain industries at a corporate or local level, such as how much pollution a company’s factories emit.

The Negatives:

Using rockets to launch satellites is considered a “dirty” business.

Do the positives outweigh the negatives……..? Frank feedback would be appreciated!

Having worked on-and-off on the topic of satellite imagery to support insurance claims since 2014 I was interested to see the replies. They soon flooded in as you can see if you go to the article. The parts that most stood out to me were about the low environmental impact of the launch and the plethora of examples of how satellite tech is supporting more sustainable ways of living.

How satellites are useful

Starting with the latter point: these begin with the obvious — GPS allows vehicles to find the fastest route to their destination. While fastest and most fuel-efficient are not synonymous, no one can doubt the emission reduction that comes from being directed straight to your destination, rather than having to drive around for the last five minutes looking for street names and house numbers. In a recent discussion with an ex-Amazon head of logistics, I learned the numbers were staggering in terms of how beneficial small tweaks can be.

Maybe less obvious to most spectators is the use of satellite in farming. With such a huge share of inputs (energy and water) going into agriculture any efficiency improvement can have a notable effect. Combine satellite data with onsite information such as via Google’s agritech moonshot (called Mineral) and you start to have a meaningful impact on waste and productivity.

A third area is of course the use of satellite (for decades now) to monitor and understand the Earth and — in theory — help us make decisions around how to keep things more sustainable. Many people would comment that the reaction to what these satellites have told us is inadequate. However, the more data we have, and the longer we can review the time-series then the more insight we can use once we do start to make meaningful enough changes.

For those in the insurtech space, the use of satellites to support rapid reviews of claims after events — both major catastrophe events and more localized incidents — both speeds up the claims handling (leading to social good) and can remove the need to fly experts halfway across the world simply to inspect a destroyed building.

Matthew Grant produced a recent InsTech London insurtech podcast about ICEYE covering this exact topic.

What is their carbon footprint?

Returning to the more novel point of the carbon footprint of a small satellite.

Charles Blanchet shared a link to an article where Elon is saying the carbon cost of a launch is offset by the use of just a few dozen Tesla cars. Bearing in mind that a single launch deploys multiple small satellites then it is clear (assuming you believe Elon’s maths) that from a carbon consideration of simply the launch there are minimal concerns.

Morten Pahle quite reasonably suggested a more thorough lifecycle assessment would need to be made. This habit of including only the most explicit marginal activities in measures is fine in most aspects of commercial life, but a major problem when it comes to emissions as it drives real misunderstanding and suboptimal decision making.

Has a through-lifecycle assessment of the environmental impact of the design, construction, launch and operation as well as deorbiting of a satellite or constellation of satellites been performed? It would be surprising if the launch itself were the major factor although it is the most visible one.

This lifecycle analysis also needs to include the end-of-life handling of satellites. In the case of microsats, the expectation is that most will burn up as they fall out of orbit at end of life, but with lower orbits filling us with smaller satellites and legacy junk, there is an increasing need to launch large clean-up satellites which in turn come with their own carbon footprint.

It seems clear that there is massive value for ESG from the data satellites produce, and my gut feel is this more than outweighs the environmental cost of launching them. However, as with all these topics, there is more complexity than the original question might suggest.

Join the discussion on the role of technology in supporting a sustainable future via SusTech2030.

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About the Creator

Paolo Cuomo

I right to share my insights and what I have learnt from others. This includes practical productivity ideas, especially around working from home for those used to the office.

I also cover technology in particular quantum computing!

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