2. Space as a provider of critical data and innovative applications

Over the last two decades, there have been considerable public and private investments in space-based earth observation systems. This includes large institutional programmes (e.g. the Copernicus earth observation programme managed by the European Union and the European Space Agency) and new-generation satellites supporting decade-long missions (e.g. US Landsat programme, currently in its fourth iteration of sensors, and Canada’s successive Radarsat missions).

Earth observation satellites gather information about our planet’s physical, chemical, and biological systems and make important contributions to civilian government services such as environmental and climate monitoring, natural resource management, disaster planning and response, etc. The number of applications addressing global challenges is increasing, but uptake in some communities dealing with these challenges remains slow in some cases. This can be linked to demand-side challenges, such as a lack of adequate connectivity or equipment, skilled personnel, or biases in the user community; but it may also be associated with the quality and nature of the observations themselves, lack of in situ validations, etc.

It is also important to note that space-based and surface-based observations are highly complementary. First, depending on variables and user needs, some requirements are best met from space (e.g. global coverage, high spatial resolution over large areas), while other variables may be more feasible to measure using surface-based or aerial sensors (e.g. surface pressure, fine-scale vertical resolution observations) (WMO, 2020[1]). For instance, in the envisaged operational carbon monitoring system backed by the World Meteorological Organization, the space-based component will provide global clear sky observations of greenhouse gas concentrations at high spatial resolution in cloud-free regions, while the surface-based component will provide data in persistently cloudy regions and at night, as well provide solid evidence to attribute anthropogenic emissions (WMO, 2020[1]). Second, surface-based observations are crucial for satellite data calibration and validation, and vice versa.

This chapter highlights recent trends demonstrating how space systems have become reliable data providers for addressing selected global challenges, but it will also mention some of their limitations and possible solutions to benefit further from these systems.

In numbers and particularly in mass, around half the earth observation satellites are publicly owned (as shown in Figure 2.1), but there is a growing number of commercial missions that first started emerging around 2000. The sector was boosted in the early 2010s by miniaturised technology and increased usage of standardised and off-the-shelf products (e.g. so-called microsatellites and nanosatellites, with a mass inferior to 100kg and 10kg, respectively, as described in Box 1.2. in Chapter 1) that considerably reduced satellite production and launch costs (OECD, 2014[2]).

As of late 2022, there were more than 1 000 operational earth observation and earth science satellites, mainly located in the low-earth (LEO) orbit (100km-2 000km altitude), but with some civilian and military government satellites in the geostationary (GEO) orbit at 35 786km altitude, in the medium-earth orbit (between the low-earth and geostationary orbits) and elliptical orbits. Satellites in elliptical orbits have a low perigee (the point of the orbit nearest to Earth) and a higher than geostationary apogee (the point farthest from Earth), giving them longer dwell time at specific points when approaching and descending from the apogee, which can be used for covering polar areas, for instance.

The latest 15-year period has been characterised by the introduction and continuation of government legacy programmes. But over the same period, there have been several interesting changes in the geographic and public/private composition of earth observation satellites in orbit.

  • The longest-running government earth observation programme is the US Landsat programme, which launched its first satellite, Landsat-1, in 1972, and 2023 has Landsat-8 and -9 in orbit. The European Union, in close co-operation with the European Space Agency, started the deployment of the Copernicus programme in 2014, with the launch of Sentinel-1. Other long-running legacy programmes include the Canadian Radarsat Constellation and the French Spot satellites.

  • More than half of all earth observation satellites are now commercially operated. Among these 574 satellites listed as commercial, two-thirds, or 67%, of commercial earth observation satellites are US-operated, and the great majority are nanosatellites. The biggest operators (in terms of numbers) are US firms Planet and Spire. It is important to note that nanosatellites do not have the same lifetime or instrument performance as higher-mass satellites, although great progress has been made.

  • In terms of leading countries and regions, according to the data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, satellites from the People’s Republic of China [hereafter China] account for some 36% of all civilian government-led missions (although some of these may also be dual-use with the military) in 2022, followed by the United States, Japan, the European Space Agency and the Russian Federation [hereafter ‘Russia’] (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2023[3]). In the last decade, China has vastly improved its earth observation capabilities, including for instance its Gaofen high-resolution satellites (first launched in 2013), Fengyun meteorological satellites, Haiyang ocean observing satellites, etc. Other countries are also expanding their activities.

There are currently some 180 operational civilian unilateral and multilateral missions to monitor the environment and climate, with another 158 in various stages of planning, as recorded by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) (2023[4]). Figure 2.2 shows the number of civilian earth observation missions by economy (or region, when counting the numerous European missions).

The United States participates in the highest number of multilateral missions, followed by China and programmes funded by the European Space Agency, the European Commission and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). These missions collect data on the atmosphere (97% of current observations); land (76%); ocean (26%); snow and ice (26%); and gravity and magnetic fields (12%) (CEOS, 2023[4]). Box 2.1 gives more insights on the international co-ordination of space-based weather observations.

As for national and regional developments, NASA is working on its Earth System Observatory, a USD 2.5 billion programme covering five missions over the next decade. In Europe, the European Commission renewed its commitment to the Copernicus programme with EUR 5.6 billion in funding. Six Copernicus “expansion” missions (Sentinels 7 to 12) are being studied. China is driving the development of a virtual BRICS remote-sensing satellite constellation, consisting of satellites from Brazil, Russia, India and China (ISRO, 2023[5]).

Earth observation instruments include for instance active and passive sensors for imagery, atmospheric chemistry and data collection, as further described in Table 2.1. Passive sensors collect radiation emitted or reflected by the Earth, while active sensors send signals and detect their echo. Several of these instruments are frequently referred to as “sounders”, derived from the use of sound waves to measure temperature and salinity in the ocean.

Thanks to increased earth observation launch activity, the different user communities benefit from improvements in temporal (revisits) and spatial resolutions, improved spectrum coverage and more sensitive data products (Ustin and Middleton, 2021[10]). For example. a recent trend is the growth in hyperspectral sensors, which measure light intensity through several dozens of spectral bands and are more sensitive to subtle variations in reflected energy than multi-spectral sensors. Between 2016 and 2022, at least ten hyperspectral satellites have been launched into low-earth orbit (Qian, 2021[11]).

As observed above, many instruments are flown on increasingly small satellite platforms. The most recent generation of nanosatellites in the 130-satellite PlanetScope constellation from US commercial operator Planet, have the shape of a 10cm x 10cm x 30cm shoe box and weigh about 5 kilogrammes, carrying a multispectral camera. US company Spire’s LEMUR satellites for GNSS radio occultation have a similar shape and mass and carry three instruments for weather measurements, maritime vessel tracking and airplane tracking. These satellites have a mission life of about two years.

Still, the small satellite platform size puts constraints on performance and mission life compared to satellites several magnitudes bigger. The European LEO weather satellite Metop-C weighed almost 4 000kg at launch in 2018, including 300kg of fuel to keep it in orbit for at least 10 years, and it carries 10 instruments (WMO, 2023[6]).

Opening access to government data (of different types, beyond satellite data) is associated with new scientific insights; economic growth, innovation and productivity; and enhanced social welfare (OECD, 2018[12]; OECD, 2020[13]). The OECD estimates that the aggregate economic impact of “public sector information” was equivalent to some 1.1% of cumulated GDP in 2008 (OECD, 2015[14]). For instance, a Canadian study found that open geospatial data had led to new business models, additional economic actors and a change in the demand (greater focus on value-added products and services), overall adding CAD 695 million to Canadian gross domestic product (GeoConnections, 2015[15]). Box 2.2 gives more details on what it entails to “open” access to data.

When focusing specifically on the effects of free and open satellite earth observation data, an Italian survey of firms using a mix of open and restricted data sources found that earth observation data improved the quality of products and services, improved R&D capability and contributed to developing new products and services, which again translated into increased revenues and employment (Lupi and Morretta, 2022[16]).

Consequently, space agencies and related organisations have multiplied their efforts to enhance access to satellite data (OECD, 2020[17]).

  • In 2008, it was decided to make US Landsat data available for download free of charge (all Level-1 data and Level-2 and Level-3 science products). Similarly, most European Copernicus data are available on a free, full and open basis.

  • Several countries have taken steps to make data available by creating national data portals, for example, Digital Earth in Australia, satellittdata.no in Norway, or Satellite Data Portal in the Netherlands. In Europe, data from the Copernicus programme are made available via Data and Information Access Services (DIAS) or the Open Access Hub. Open data is the stated objective in the 2022 Canadian strategy for earth observation (CSA, 2022[18]). Data from government missions (e.g. from NASA, Canadian Space Agency, Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA), and European Space Agency) are also available on commercial platforms, such as Earth on AWS or Google Earth Engine.

  • During COVID-19, ESA, NASA and JAXA created a free and open “earth observation dashboard” for climate observations, that combines the agencies’ resources, technical knowledge and expertise to provide a low-threshold resource for both specialist and non-specialist users to study human activity and the changing environment (ESA, 2023[19]).

  • Special efforts are made to make data available to lower-income countries. The Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and other partners supported the 2018 launch of the Africa Regional Data Cube. Furthermore, the global initiative Open Data Cube, supported by government organisations in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as commercial partners and CEOS, provides an open and freely accessible exploitation tool of satellite data (OECD, 2020[17]). In 2020, Norway launched the Satellite Data Programme as part of its International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), purchasing commercial high-resolution satellite imagery of tropical forest regions for universal access and use.

  • There is furthermore growing focus on opening access to other types of resources, such as training data needed for machine learning. NASA is for instance supporting initiatives such as the Radiant Foundation’s ML Hub, an open library of training data, models and standards for applications of machine learning on earth observation.mo.

In addition to tried and tested applications such as remote sensing for weather and climate monitoring, disaster management and food production (see for instance (OECD, 2014[2]; 2019[25]; 2020[17]; UNOOSA, 2023[26]), more affordable systems and sensors, combined with increasingly powerful data processing and open data policies, have paved the way for innovative uses of space technologies, including the monitoring of emissions from greenhouse gases and the use of satellite data as open-source intelligence by news media and non-government organisations.

Table 2.2 gives an overview of selected mature applications of earth observation data, while selected important developments are highlighted in the following sections, with a focus on emerging uses of new capabilities. Box 2.3 later in the chapter presents efforts to identify and quantify benefits.

The warming of our planet coincides with record-high emissions of greenhouse gases induced by human activity, the most important of which being carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (NO2). Carbon dioxide emissions in 2022 were (then) the highest ever recorded (Friedlingstein et al., 2022[33]).

Official measurements of greenhouse gases are mainly from ground-based sensors, but as noted in the introduction to this Chapter, the WMO Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) plans to increase the role of satellites in the observing system to support air quality forecasting and inverse modelling to improve emission estimates (WMO, 2017[34]). This includes efforts to validate satellite data, foster synergies between different scientific communities to tailor measurements to user needs, facilitate combined use of different observations (ground-, satellite- and aircraft-based), and aid the evaluation of specific low-precision satellite measurements (e.g. retrievals greenhouse gas distributions from radiance measurements, which currently are short-term, low-precision and subject to bias) (WMO, 2017[34]). Data from two satellite missions are currently available in the World Data Centre for Greenhouse Gases, the Japanese GOSAT and the US OCO-2 mission, both tracking carbon dioxide emissions (WDCGG, 2023[35]).

In 2022, there were all in all 16 missions in orbit specifically tracking greenhouse gas emissions (several with multiple participating countries, also including commercial and non-profit actors) and another 16 missions under development, as shown in Figure 2.4. Satellite missions monitor carbon dioxide and methane much more frequently than nitrous oxide, at global, national and point-source levels (GEO, ClimateTRACE, WGIC, 2021[36]). And until recent developments in satellite technology, some methane emissions had been hard to detect. Sensors can now detect not only flaring, used to burn unwanted gas and put CO2 into the atmosphere, but also deliberate and accidental venting which simply releases invisible and unburned methane into the air. Leaks of fossil fuel sites from around the world can now be identified and could help prompt reactions to control large methane emissions. In 2022, more than 1 000 human-caused methane super-emitter events were detected by satellites, more than half from oil and gas fields, 105 from coal mines, and 340 from waste sites, such as landfills (Carrington, 2023[37]).

There are currently two commercial missions in orbit, the Canadian GHGSat constellation and the US Orbital Sidekick’s Aurora satellite. Another four commercial projects are under development in the Netherlands and the United States, each aiming for national or point-source coverage (GEO, ClimateTRACE, WGIC, 2021[36]). On a similar note, UK operator Satellite Vu is planning a constellation to monitor the temperature of buildings through high-resolution infrared imagery. Several of these satellites are microsatellites and/or nanosatellites, e.g. GHGSat satellites have a mass of 15kg (UTIAS-SFL, 2023[38]).

In addition to dedicated GHG gas tracking missions, other earth observation satellite data can also be used, such as the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) flying on Copernicus Sentinel-5P, which feeds into the French company Kayrros’ global methane watch platform.

In early 2023, observations from Landsat-8 and NASA’s EMIT imaging spectrometer on the International Space Station helped to detect methane emissions from two US oil and gas operators (Targa and Exxon Mobil) that the operators had failed to report to regulators (Wethe, Mider and Clark, 2023[39]; Clark and Mider, 2023[40]). In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to empower “approved and qualified” third parties to detect and report super-emitting events of 100 kilogrammes of methane per hour, or more (EPA, 2022[41]).

Commercial satellite missions aim to support government decision making but are also targeting a growing market for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting to monitor compliance with requirements for corporate social responsibility and “green finance” investments. Several international bodies frame non-financial reporting, such as national and international issuer information disclosure bodies; exchanges, self-regulating bodies and industry associations; oversight authorities such as markets regulators and bank and pensions supervisors; and standard-setting international organisations regarding responsible investing and sustainability goals (Boffo and Patalano, 2020[42]).

Data providers such as Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters produce ESG metrics and disclosure scores along the three main pillars. When it comes to environmental criteria in particular, the most common of which are listed in Table 2.3, space-based observations could contribute to filling data reporting gaps and providing globally uniform and consistent data, which are not subject to variations between reporting units and instruments.

Satellite imagery is increasingly used to dispel disinformation. Notably, the US company Maxar’s release of satellite imagery showing Russian troop build-ups along Ukraine’s borders in February 2022 provided visual support for US government statements to that effect. The Centre for Disinformation Resilience has also launched the crowdsourced Russia-Ukraine monitor Map, an online archive of verified videos, photos or satellite imagery that can be used by justice, accountability and advocacy groups (Centre for Information Resilience, 2022[43]). For example, open-source satellite imagery from several operators is used to document potential Russian war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha (Centre for Information Resilience, 2022[44]).

The ongoing war has also revealed an exponential use of commercial satellite imagery in international media coverage. The use of satellite imagery in the media is not new for war coverage and crisis management (e.g. mapping refugee camps, large fires and destructions), but it has never been seen at such a scale, with many news outlets around the world getting access to these technologies for the first time.

In the case of natural disasters and emergencies, private operators provide free access to their imagery via the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters. Commercial operators sometimes also provide imagery for non-commercial purposes on a case-by-case basis to support non-government organisations or news stories (Global Investigative Journalism Network, 2022[45]). For instance, the Maxar News Bureau is a partnership programme between the satellite operator and “trusted and respected media organisations”. Today, news organisations and non-government organisations can easily acquire high-resolution data to use in their news stories, as data analysts and journalists actively use freely available satellite imagery as well as other data sources in “open-source intelligence” (OSINT), to track developments on the ground. Some commentators compare this “explosion” in near-real-time data to the televised live war coverage during the 1991 Gulf War (Datta, 2022[46]).

The availability of earth observation data has grown rapidly in the last two decades, following considerable government investments, open data initiatives and new commercial missions. However, multiple questions remain concerning the economic sustainability of government earth observation activities, the management of partnerships with the private sector and internationally; and returns on investment (user uptake, etc.).

It is not a given that crucial satellite observations of our planet will continue smoothly. The future and sustainability of selected government missions are uncertain, as many government agencies and science departments face growing budget constraints after COVID-19 and other global crises and struggle with increased costs induced by supply-chain issues and growing inflation (OECD, 2023[47]).

As documented in this chapter, an important share of the growth in space-based observations and data in the last 15 years can be traced back to OECD civilian government missions with free and open data policies. In addition to supporting government services, they form the backbone of innovative data products, either on their own or combined with other types of data and signals. For example, Landsat data provide geometric and radiometric standards (allowing to adequately detect change over time) that are then applied to commercial data with higher spatial and temporal resolution, such as Planet’s Planetscope constellation (NGAC, 2020[48]). Business intelligence companies such as Kayrros apply their algorithms to freely available Copernicus data to track GHG emissions, among other things.

An independent review board of NASA;’s Earth System Observatory, which is the Agency’s new suite of earth observation missions for the upcoming decade, identifies a high risk of cost overruns for the planned Earth Science Observatory, which may eventually lead to compromises on mission risk or the number and nature of scientific measurements (NASA, 2022[49]).

This is part of a longer trend of reduced public funding in earth observation in many countries. In short, earth science divisions in government agencies will increasingly need to make more with less. Modifying the composition of bigger and smaller missions is one possibility. Smaller missions have the benefit of being more agile (requiring five years or less for development), responsive to new scientific discoveries, and more tolerant of risk. On the other hand, large missions tend to nurture big scientific communities, contribute to building large data archives and are scientifically highly productive (Committee on Large Strategic NASA Science Missions: Science Value and Role in a Balanced Portfolio et al., 2017[50]).

Partnerships with other agencies, including international ones, is another commonly used option, as documented by the many bilateral and multilateral missions co-ordinated by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites. In its Earth System Observatory programme, NASA has been encouraged to seek more international partnerships and well as to explore new types of partnerships, covering for instance ground and/or space operations (NASA, 2022[49]). As noted above, new types of partnerships are emerging in other parts of the world, e.g. between BRICS economies.

As a result of these developments, many agencies have started to build evidence of social and economic returns of earth observation missions, beyond the most typical scientific benefits (see Box 2.3).

Partnerships with commercial partners are another option for government agencies seeking to save costs and nurture private sector capacity-building and innovation, something which is also a stated government objective in several OECD countries (CSA, 2022[18]; United States White House, 2010[64]; German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWI), 2010[65]; USGEO, 2019[66]). Beyond potential cost-effectiveness, commercial data may have other benefits. The science community, for instance, sometimes chooses to pay for commercial data because of their high spatial resolution that can be used to improve maps and/or validate interpretations; their high temporal resolution that serves to build time series maps; and their innovative development of new types of data (Ustin and Middleton, 2021[10]).

However, there are several issues to consider. First, how would government procurement of commercial data affect non-commercial third-party users (e.g. other government agencies, research communities and international organisations) and their activities; second, how would it affect commercial third-party users, in particular small and young firms?

US government agencies are the most experienced when it comes to commercial data purchases. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been purchasing commercial radio occultation data since 2016 for integration into the agency’s numerical weather prediction models (NOAA, 2023[67]). NASA has been using the Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition programme since 2017 to augment or complement its own data or that of other partners (NASA, 2023[68]). In 2022, the National Reconnaissance Office made its largest commercial contracts yet to three data providers, worth several USD billions until 2032, as part of its Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) programme (NRO, 2022[69]). Other countries and organisations are following suit. Eumetsat launched a commercial radio occultation third-party pilot data service in 2022 (Eumetsat, 2022[70]).

A review of US government earth observation data purchases provides valuable insights from these stakeholder groups (US Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2022[71]).

  • The extent of data sharing rights remains a contentious issue between commercial data providers and government users. Providers consider licenses proving full and open sharing as incompatible with their ability to have multiple clients and create markets, as well as an obstacle to raising third-party funding (due to investors’ negative views of open licenses). Their preferred option is limiting use to the purchasing agency and scientific and non-commercial third parties. Government users, on the other hand, argue that data purchased with taxpayers’ money, irrespective of the data source, should be made publicly available for scientific purposes and for spurring commercial entrepreneurship and innovation.

  • Academic users are concerned about how the increased share of commercial data purchases in government agencies could affect their access to all relevant data sets (as well as raw data and metadata) and consequently their research activities. Notably, it may lead to potentially disrupted time series (particularly important for climate research); reduced ability to test, verify and validate research; hampered ability to publish (many journals require access to datasets); and finally, reduced ability to train future researchers on the full lifecycle of data analysis without access to raw data. Finally, paywalls could widen the gap between “rich” institutions and those with fewer resources. Government users highlighted the important function of academic users to check and verify earth observation data and associated algorithms. Furthermore, government grants to academia typically require data sharing, without which the datasets are not viewed as reproducible.

  • Finally, the US government has several international obligations for earth observation data-sharing, most notably with the WMO and the Group on Earth Observations, which promote free, open and timely (non-commercial) access. Government agencies noted that their continued sharing has an important signal effect vis-à-vis international actors’ willingness to share data. The licensing agreement of NOAA’s purchase of radio occultation data takes international sharing into account, and so does Eumetsat’s pilot scheme.

In any case, this issue is likely to become increasingly important. US government agencies expect the share of government data with commercial to grow in the coming years (US Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2022[71]). The balancing act between the benefits of open access and respecting data producers’ business models/intellectual property has therefore just started.

Public space organisations have promoted the use of space technologies for addressing environmental challenges for years, and although detailed download statistics are an important first step, we need to learn more about the actual uptake in the different user communities, as well as the most important barriers to further technology adoption. The following paragraphs look at the types of statistics that track the usage of earth observation data, before highlighting important policy implications.

User statistics from the Copernicus and Landsat programmes show that education and research communities account for the highest number of registered users Figure 2.5). However, they do not necessarily account for the highest number of downloads. In Europe, commercial users account for 67% of the number of Copernicus downloads (out of a total of 185.7 million user downloads and 80 pebibytes (PiB) of data), probably to make the data available on their data platforms for other users further along the value chain (Serco, 2022[72]).

In the United States, the USGS keeps track of Landsat downloads from its EarthExplorer platform, with science and education users accounting for the highest number of user profiles and downloads (in file size), as shown in Figure 2.6 (USGS, 2023[73]). It is worth noting that Landsat data are also available on other platforms, such as Amazon Web Services’ Registry of Open Data, which may attract other (more commercial) user groups.

What about data on sectoral uptake? This type of information is available for agriculture in Denmark (Figure 2.7). Agriculture is sometimes identified as one of the most promising areas of application for earth observation data, because of the opportunities it offers to better assess and monitor crop health and calibrate the use of inputs (water, fertilizer, pesticides) (see EARSC (2023[31]) and Euroconsult (2018[74])), and having high-quality statistics on uptake is therefore very valuable. Statistics Denmark has included questions on the combined usage of satellite/drone imagery and precision technology in their annual Agricultural and Horticultural Survey addressed to individual farms (2022[75]). While the use of precision technology is relatively common (used by 37% of farms, covering 77% of the total agricultural area), the reported use of satellite and drone/imagery is much rarer, with 8% of farms reporting this practice, covering 26% of total agricultural area. There has still been a notable increase since 2018.

The reliance on satellite/drone imagery for agriculture may be higher than the data indicate given that the use of space technologies may be more widespread among agricultural co-operatives and consultancies than among individual farms.

Figures 2.5, 2.6 and 2.7 provide important evidence on uptake but also reveal important knowledge gaps about commercial users and usages at the mid-stream level of earth observation value chains. It would be useful to better pinpoint how commercial users exploit earth observation data and how they generate value for commercial users (e.g. beyond basic data provision, such as providing de facto standards for calibration). This would better inform government efforts to promote the use of space-based remote technologies data to third-party user groups and domains and identify potential benefits. For instance, the US National Strategy to Develop Statistics for Environmental Economic Decisions (2023[76]) expects a growing future role of space-based data when it comes to measuring natural assets (e.g. thanks to improved spatial resolution).

Beyond monitoring uptake, more needs to be learned about challenges to uptake, to understand whether they are technical, cultural, financial, etc., and at which level of decision making these challenges could be addressed.

Melo et al (2023[77]) have looked at the use of satellite-based global-scale maps in national greenhouse gas inventories submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The authors found that such maps are only rarely used, despite considerable efforts by both national and international actors to launch dedicated satellite missions, improve the accuracy and relevance of data products and facilitate their dissemination and processing (as described earlier in this chapter). Possible explanations include inadequate spatial and temporal resolution (land cover maps with spatial resolutions coarser than typical national level area definitions of 5 000-10 000 m2 were never used in country submissions); furthermore, satellite data products only rarely met the requirements of consistent annual measurements over 10-15 year reference periods (Melo et al., 2023[77]). On a more positive note, the uptake of satellite products was higher in countries with lower forest monitoring capacity.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe carried out an in-depth review of satellite imagery/earth observation technology in official statistics in 2019 (UNECE, 2019[78]). The review found that earth observation inputs are commonly used to support agricultural statistics and environmental accounts, with an increasing level of activity in the area of sustainable development indicators such as land use, climate change, water stress and water quality. Macro-level collection and reporting were listed as the key strength of this type of data, well suited to agriculture and environment statistics, as well as reporting on the target indicators of several Sustainable Development Goals. However, several statistical agencies warned about overestimating the potential of earth observation data (ignoring the need for calibrating them against other datasets) and underestimating the needed investments in infrastructure to fully support data processing, interpretation and analysis.

Gaps in spatial and temporal coverage in existing data products for agricultural monitoring, to better cover key areas and at critical periods in the growing season, are also highlighted by the requirements of the Group on Earth Observations Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEOGLAM) for agricultural information products, in addition to better access to synthetic aperture radar products (CEOS, 2019[79]). In 2022 the first version of a set of ‘Essential agriculture variables’ was released, aiming to provide actionable information on the state, change, and forecast of agricultural land use and productivity (GEOGLAM, 2023[80]).

The development of product requirements (or essential variables) in close collaboration with user communities seems like a useful step to increase technology adoption. However, in several cases, other factors, which are outside the reach of space agencies and mission planning, may play a more important role, e.g. the financial resources of organisations to make the necessary infrastructure investments, access to reliable internet broadband to access cloud-based services and process data, the availability of adequately trained staff, access to in-situ data etc. (Cerbaro et al., 2020[81]; Burke et al., 2021[82]; CEOS, 2019[79]).


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