ESG appears to be taking a back seat, as the latest IEA report reveals that, in 2021, global energy-related carbon emissions increased by 6%, reaching 36.3 billion tons. This was the largest absolute increase in carbon emissions ever recorded. This can be attributed to many parts of the world pursuing a dirty recovery, using fossil fuels to power a Covid-19 rebound. As the Ukraine crisis looms large, the risk of ESG slipping down the agenda once again remains real. As the world’s youth recommenced protests against climate change on March 25, it is clear that more needs to be done to avert dangerous climate change.
The slogan, ‘there is no planet B’ scrawled across placards has become a common sight at environmental protests in recent years. Against this backdrop, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s quest for Mars could be viewed as tone-deaf. The billionaire has been criticized for taking mass consumption to a planetary level, in his bid for humans to become a spacefaring civilization. However, this reading has generalized the emerging space economy, presenting innovation in space and ESG as a zero-sum game.
The emerging space economy and ESG are intricately connected
In many ways, the space and the environmental aspects of ESG have a shared history. The space age ushered in a new era for environmentalism with the 1972 ‘Big Blue Marble’ image depicting the Earth from space, emphasizing the finite nature of the planet and the need to conserve its resources.
In addition, space-based infrastructure embodies many of the concepts required for a sustainable future, with a large emphasis on resource self-sufficiency. These learnings have given rise to numerous technological developments. Solar panel technology has been one of the largest beneficiaries, with NASA’s Advanced Energy division partnering with private firms to catalyze innovation in renewable energy.
A growing number of satellite companies specializing in high-resolution environmental monitoring could also see the space economy and ESG become the unlikeliest of friends. The company, Planet, currently operates a constellation of over 200 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The constellation harvest 15 terabytes of geospatial data a day and can be used to monitor deforestation, improve disaster response, and map emissions. The company also partnered with Human Rights Watch in 2017 and provides satellite imagery to expose human rights abuses.
Other companies such as GHGSat and Descartes Labs are also working to use increasingly granular satellite data to monitor point source emissions and provide carbon accounting. In this respect, the emerging space economy provides a means of adding empirical data, increasing businesses’ and governments’ accountability for measuring their environmental impact and reducing their emissions. This rigorous empiricism will be of paramount importance for cutting through the hazy and confusing landscape of ESG disclosure.
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Space companies can be valuable allies for tackling environmental problems
Admittedly, space activity has generated its own environmental crises, with the rapid accumulation of space debris posing as its own super-wicked problem. However, several companies have moved quickly to address the problem. Astroscale was the first to successfully demonstrate how its dual satellite mission could be used to collect space debris in August 2021. In addition, Elon Musk’s $100 million pledge towards a carbon capture contest is evidence of another way in which space economy and ESG can overlap.
Although an emerging industry, space companies are showing themselves to be agile in the face of challenges and could be valuable allies in the fight against climate change. The matter of ESG and the space economy is not always a zero-sum game and if we want to turn the tide against climate change, engagement with the latter will be required.