Satellites support businesses working for sustainable development



Oil sands extraction
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Corporate Sustainable Development (CSD) - also referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility - is now at the heart of business practices. Earth Observation from space has the potential to provide a global and cost-effective way to objectively measure progress towards sustainability of business activities.

ESA has begun working with large multinational companies including Alcan, AMEC, Aon, B&Q, Lafarge, Shell, SUEZ Energy, and UPM - to integrate satellite data into CSD reporting practices across a wide variety of industrial sectors: Energy, Civil Engineering, Off-shore & On-shore Oil & Gas, Forestry, Forest products, Pulp & Paper, Aluminium and Cement production.

First championed by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the concept of sustainable development has since become a familiar and accepted part of our everyday lives, spurred on by its widespread adoption within the private sector. Leading companies know that CSD equals good business: continued economic growth becomes unsustainable if business practices contribute to environmental degradation.

Today's businesses aim to create wealth while also contributing to long-term quality of life and respect for the environment. Companies regularly issue environmental audits of their CSD activities and report on the 'triple bottom line' of economic, social and environmental impacts. Assessment methods are becoming standardised, with the Dow Jones Sustainability Index only one of several indices to track the industry CSD leaders.

Accurate and timely information on the state of the environment is needed to quantify sustainability, and ESA's Earth Observation Market Development (EOMD) Programme set up to build remote sensing business capacity - is responding to the needs of business by developing services to apply the new dimension of objective, wide-area and regularly-updated environmental information supplied by satellites.

EOMD is now starting six contracts to work on the application of Earth Observation to support CSD assessment, with more in preparation. All contracts involve partnering between a number of specialist value-adding companies and large corporate players. A positive sign of the industrial interest in these activities is the fact that some of the contracts are being led by the large corporate players themselves.

Towards sustainable energy production

"CSD is not just our business but our mission," says Tony Moens de Hase of Tractebel Engineering (SUEZ). Tractebel is prime contractor for a project to apply satellite data to CSD reporting for SUEZ hydropower plants in locations including Laos, Brazil and France. Also participating in this contract is Belgium-based Earth Observation value-adding companies Keyobs and Nadar, plus environmental consultancy firm CAP Conseil.

"SUEZ recognises it is working with some of the most important aspects of CSD including water, waste and energy. The company has been a pioneer in this area and has issued CSD reports for the last five years.

"So the objective of this study is to see how satellite data might be able to help us. I think that there are some aspects of the subject that we have to analyse with new tools, because the existing tools most companies are using are not always the most suitable ones. Earth Observation can give a better idea of the combined evolution of different aspects, providing a global view for better analysis. In the development of large dams the aspects of interest might include land fragmentation, land use, biodiversity, deforestation and population distribution."

Towards sustainable mining activities

Canada-based firm VIASAT Go-Technologie is running another project applying satellite measurements of sustainability to the field of mineral resource extraction, working with Canadian aluminium mining company Alcan and French cement aggregate and concrete company Groupe Lafarge.

A major part of both firms' operations concerns the development of mines and quarries around the world, with the potential to impact the local environment. Satellite imagery is being used to measure and regularly monitor the biodiversity at four active sites in Brazil, Guinea, Kenya and the United States.

"We think there is a lot of potential for remote sensing in this area," said Pierre Vincent of VIASAT Go-Technolgie. "We will focus a lot on the vegetation aspect: typically such operations remove part of the natural cover, so the local environment has to be restored during or after industrial activities to its previous state. Such activities take place across quite large areas, so with satellites we will better be able to monitor them as they take place.

"We would like to go further if possible, and combine remote sensing with other data sources to estimate the carbon captured through reforestation and related activities. There are not a lot of tools developed to measure that kind of stuff as yet, but it represents a new market in the future there will be that need."

Towards sustainable management of forests

Effective resource management is an increasingly business-critical issue for forestry, with global concern rising over deforestation and the impacts of unsustainable forest harvesting.

The range of stakeholders with an interest in how forests are managed is large: there are those that live in local communities as well as users of timber and forest-related services including tourism, recreation, and biomass burning. On a wider scale we are all stakeholders in forests, due to their role in moderating the human-caused increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Aon, a major UK based re-insurance company, is the prime contractor working with companies exploiting forest products including leading UK home improvement chain B&Q, South African forest product firm Global Forest Products and household cleaning manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser. Earth Observation value-adding companies Sarmap in Switzerland and Ambiental Technical Solutions are applying both optical and radar satellite imagery to sustainable management and forest protection, with certification being provided by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-profit organisation.

"We'll be examining the standards currently used in forest certification and looking at the way data is currently collected which is mostly in-situ," said Charles Eyre of Aon.

"We'll be assessing if the current sources of data are accurate, whether data frequency is sufficient and the transparency of data collection and one of the key issues is cost. We hope to cover both plantation forests as well as natural forests and look at how certification relates to the emerging market for forest eco-services."

A further contract led by Earth Observation value-adding company Definiens AG of Germany is examining CSD reporting in forestry for pulp and paper manufacture. Working with companies including UPM Forest CE and Bayerische Staatsforsten with a focus on test sites in Bavaria as well as the Czech Republic, the project will seek to use Earth Observation to improve sustainability in exploitation and logistics of timber.

In addition regularly updated information on large forest areas will be provided, so forest managers know how much wood will be available at any one time on a sustainable basis. Up-to-date maps of forests and conserved areas will also be compared with information from wood suppliers to prevent protected wood being utilised, risking damage to a company's hard-earned reputation.

Towards better management of water resources

Sustainability concerns extend also to water bodies: another project led by Germany-based AMEC Engineering is addressing this issue by utilising satellite sensors to assess water quality of freshwater bodies. Multispectral satellite sensors such as Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) can observe the colour of surface water as a means of deriving their environmental quality. Spain-based company STARLAB and Netherlands-based firm ARGOSS will process satellite images to retrieve key water quality parameters.

"In late 2000, AMEC set out to develop a CSD programme appropriate for our newly expanded global business and today it is a huge part of our business," said Tim Conley, Managing Director of AMEC's Earth & Environmental European operations. "What we are trying to do with this project is not just look at our impact on the environment in a negative way but track what positive contributions we are making to the environment."

"AMEC has a technology that it uses to minimise potentially harmful amounts of chlorophyll from blue-green algae in freshwater if too much gets in, then it can eat up all the oxygen and no fish or marine life can go on living in the water. However we can put aeration systems in place to prevent the development of low-oxygen conditions. Earth Observation will help support decision-making to operate this technology."

Towards clean extraction of Canadian oil sands

The Hatfield Group, an environmental consultancy firm based in Canada, will exploit satellite data to monitor CSD practices of Shell Canada related to the exploitation of oil sands located in rural Alberta province, estimated to be the largest known oil reserves in the world.

These bitumen-saturated sand deposits represent the equivalent of between 17 and 25 trillion (million million) oil barrels, although unlike conventional crude oil they need to be mined in situ rather than simply pumped to the surface and then specially treated before they can be transported via pipeline.

As global oil reserves dwindle, the cost of extracting Canada's oil sands has become feasible: one million barrels of oil are currently extracted daily and this figure has the potential to double in the next five to seven years. However this extraction should be carried out without damaging the Alberta landscape.

Hatfield is working with French Earth Observation specialist ACRI on applying satellite data to CSD practices and reporting in this sector, with industrial users being Shell Canada Ltd and affiliated company Albian Sands Energy Inc.

These trials will apply in particular to freshwater, biodiversity and forests in the Muskeg and Athabasca River basins, with the proposed services being developed envisaged as being sufficiently general to also have potential in other business markets, either for Shell or other multinational clients. The services will undergo independent audits by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Sustainability Asset Management Group for incorporation into sustainability indices including the Dow Jones.

"The dominant focus is using satellite data to help quantify habitat change in various ways, such as looking at habitat fragmentation," explained Tom Boivin of the Hatfield Group. "We will gather baseline information by getting satellite data from the present - or if available the past to understand how a habitat may be influenced by the oil sands operations.

"The habitat in that area is largely boreal forest and a fair amount of wetlands, which is a habitat type which can potentially be quite well monitored by using Earth Observation services such as radar sensors. Our partner companies Shell and Albian hope that things like optical and radar satellite imagery will provide better information more cost effectively than current methods of interpreting aerial photography with associated ground-truthing."

EOMD, ESA and sustainable development

ESA's EOMD Programme is aimed at strengthening European and Canadian capacities for the provision of geo-information services based mainly on Earth Observation data. To find out more about using Earth Observation for CSD assessment and reporting or further opportunities with EOMD, please eomd@esa.int.

Back in June 1992 the United Nations Earth Summit taking place in Rio, Brazil formally adopted Agenda 21, a global action plan for sustainable development. In August 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, renewed the goals of Agenda 21, and emphasised the special role that space-based systems can play in carrying them out.

These new activities within EOMD are designed to address the corporate and industrial aspects of sustainable development. As such, they complement other ESA activities, including the TIGER Initiative for sustainable water management in Africa and the activities within the Data User Element, which focus on institutional and government aspects of sustainable development.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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