As satellite observations have taken on expanded roles in responding to the provision of emergency assistance, the operation of compliance mechanisms, and the assessment of regime performance, the need to move beyond simple procedures to coordinate the activities of producers of Earth observation data has come into focus. Consider the following development in this context. In November 2014, Skytruth, Oceana, and Google announced the launch of Global Fishing Watch, a public tool utilizing SpaceQuest AIS data and algorithms developed by Analyze Corp to identify and display fishing activity worldwide.Footnote 8 Turning to hypothetical but entirely realistic scenarios, consider a case in which SpaceQuest, a private company, launches a satellite on a Russian rocket with the intention of deploying an AIS system to monitor compliance with the rules articulated in the IMO’s Polar Code for ships operating in polar waters and to provide relevant data to governments in the countries where the ships are registered or where there are ports the ships are likely to enter. Or, to take another example, consider a partnership in which the European Space Agency (ESA) joins forces with Australia to track and ultimately apprehend a vessel registered in Panama that is thought to be harvesting Patagonian toothfish illegally in waters subject to the management regime established under the terms of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
As these examples suggest, we are moving into a realm regarding the role of satellite observations in addressing environmental problems that takes us beyond the efforts of consortia of producers like GEO. We are now dealing with a complex mix of private companies, public agencies, and public/private partnerships. The private companies are interested in selling their services to a variety of users that may include academic, commercial, governmental, and non-governmental customers. This is certainly reasonable in principle, though it may require focused and careful efforts to iron out differences among participants regarding the proper division of labor between private sector actors (e.g., SpaceQuest or Google Earth) and public sector players like NASA, ESA, or JAXA and many other existing and emerging space agencies around the world.
Note also that the relevant partnerships may involve representatives of intergovernmental organizations responsible for administering international regimes, such as the IMO and the secretariat of CCAMLR. While the IMO does not have the capacity to operate Earth-observing satellites of its own, it does have the authority to make and interpret international rules pertaining to various aspects of the design, construction, and operation of commercial vessels. As the toothfish example suggests, there may be cases in which it is important to coordinate the efforts of providers of Earth observations not only with the activities of states (e.g., Australia) keen on improving compliance with international rules but also the responses of states (e.g., Panama) that may be less enthusiastic about the application of the rules to actors operating under their jurisdiction (e.g., vessels registered in Panama).
Another important observation regarding the roles of satellite observations in addressing large-scale environmental problems is that these roles are normally instrumental. As our taxonomy of roles indicates, we are concerned with matters like the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, the growth of marine dead zones, and the destruction of tropical forests. Satellite observations cannot solve these problems. But they can play a variety of supporting roles that are helpful to those responsible for coming to terms with these problems.
This makes it clear that there is a need for close cooperation between those seeking to implement or administer issue-specific regimes and those responsible for the operation of Earth-observing systems. It is possible, in principle, to launch satellites dedicated to the concerns of specific regimes and operated under the auspices of each regime. But arrangements of this sort are unlikely to become commonplace, for several reasons. Operating Earth-observing satellites requires material resources and trained personnel that are not available to most of those responsible for the administration of issue-specific regimes. There is no prospect that this will change in the foreseeable future. In addition, there are cases in which a satellite or a set of satellites can provide data responsive to the needs of two or more issue-specific regimes.
Under the circumstances, a key issue of governance will center on arrangements designed to ensure compatibility between the needs of the users of satellite observations and the activities of the providers of these data. Needed in this connection are what commentators on environmental governance call regime complexes (Oberthür and Stokke 2011). Such complexes are sets of institutional arrangements that deal with the same issues or with overlapping issues but that are not related to one another in a hierarchical manner. In such cases, it becomes important to work out, either formally or informally, a set of practices governing the interactions among the elements of the complexes.
There are examples of such arrangements that may offer insights to those concerned with the roles of Earth-observing systems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for instance, is a body operating under the auspices of WMO and UNEP (Agrawala 1998). It provides scientific assessments that feed into the work of the UNFCCC, but it is not subject to the authority of the COP of the UNFCCC. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) operates under the auspices of UNEP, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UNESCO (Díaz 2015). It provides scientific input in response to requests from decision-makers, especially those responsible for the administration of international governance systems like the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The situation regarding Earth-observing systems is more complex (see Chap. 16). But it is easy to identify some of the key issues arising in the relevant regime complexes. Consider the following examples.
At the center of these arrangements lie relationships between the providers and users of Earth observation data. It is therefore essential to consider the terms of trade between upstream providers and downstream users. Should Earth observations be supported by public funds and made available to all (or all certified) users on an open access basis? What is the role of private providers in such settings? Can users make contracts with providers to meet the needs of users on an ongoing basis under terms agreed upon for varying lengths of time? What are the incentives for providers to develop technological innovations that can improve the services they are able to supply to users of satellite observations?
Are there issues regarding the protection of privacy or proprietary information that need to be addressed in the production and dissemination of satellite observations that can help to solve environmental problems? With current satellite technology, it is possible to obtain images of activities occurring on the Earth’s surface with a very high resolution. Using Google Earth, for instance, it is possible to obtain detailed views of individual houses located on a particular street within a specific community. Additional technological advances will make it possible to reveal even more details regarding the activities of various actors. This is good news in some respects. For example, providers or disseminators of satellite images now say that they can identify fishing vessels even when they have their transponders turned off and determine whether they have nets in the water in violation of the rules governing specific areas or seasons.Footnote 9 But it may be feasible to place certain restrictions on the acquisition of satellite images in order to protect privacy, without diminishing the usefulness of the relevant data for the implementation of specific regimes. To take a concrete example, it is possible to determine whether a commercial vessel operating in polar waters has a certificate that is valid under the terms of the Polar Code without tracking the movements of the vessel continuously in real time and seeking to determine its cargo.
Should we be concerned about dangers relating to the misuse of Earth observation data for purposes that are unrelated to solving environmental problems? The same data, especially in the case of very high resolution data, can be used to address environmental problems and for military purposes. Today, not only do many countries have space programs, but very high resolution data are also openly available through the expanding global market. Many countries operating Earth observation satellites or that have private businesses operating satellites are aware of the risk of these data being used against their security interests. Therefore, in many cases, regulations are adopted to control the acquisition of very high-resolution satellite data. As experience in the realm of arms control makes clear, the danger that satellite observations will be misused for purposes that threaten national security is a real concern in all cases. Although this problem seems less serious when it comes to addressing large-scale environmental problems, it would be a mistake to assume that there is no reason to be alert to concerns of this sort.
Such issues concerning data rights, security, and privacy have been dealt with for decades through what is commonly called Earth observation data policy. As difficult as it is to tackle these problems effectively, the overall message of this section is that we need to consider a transition from a continuing concern with coordination to a new awareness of the need for governance in the use of satellite observations to help in solving environmental problems. The activities of groups like GEO and CEOS, which focus on coordination among producers of Earth observation data, will continue to be important; they may well become increasingly important. But it will be necessary to supplement these efforts with an appropriate set of rules and practices addressing issues that arise in interactions between producers and users and, more specifically, in the contributions of satellite observations to the work of a range of issue-specific regimes addressing atmospheric, marine, and terrestrial problems. As a preliminary response to this need, efforts are taking place around the world to demonstrate the socioeconomic benefits of Earth observations. Space agencies and governments are faced with increasing pressure to plan space programs on evidence-based studies of anticipated societal benefits from investments in Earth observation systems. Such efforts should have in view the transition they want to achieve, which is to reach a world where satellite observations provide the data and information that meet the needs of policymakers through a set of rules and institutions that allow this to happen. The key to moving from technology driven R&D to societal benefits depends on whether or not this transition happens.