Operation Environmental Espionage

Article published on March 8, 2004
community published
Article published on March 8, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Yes, GMES is Galileo’s poor relation. But thanks to its implementation, forecasting natural disasters could become more precise than a Swiss clock.

From November 26th to 28th 2003 the fourth Forum on GMES, the European satellite environmental monitoring programme, due to be operational by 2008, was held in Baveno, Italy. The initiative was launched jointly by the European Commission and the ESA (European Space Agency) the day after another meeting, again in Baveno, in May 1998. The conference – where representatives of national agencies from European countries, the ESA, and the EU, and representatives from the European space industry participated – highlighted the need to provide Europe with a monitoring system for the environment in order to understand and anticipate the more pressing environmental problems such as the hole in the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, pollution, desertification and rising sea levels. 2004 represents a crucial moment for GMES because soon the implementation phase of the programme will begin.

From Kyoto to Elba: multilateralism and caution

The context is favourable. Concern in the face of environmental changes caused by man’s actions is actually ever more pressing. Just think about worrying phenomenon like the reduction of glaciers by 10%, sea levels rising by 0.1/0.2 metres in the 20th century, and the general extension of desertification.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992 recognised that the environmental situation is influenced by demographic growth, income levels, production technology and consumer models. Gradual global warming and the environmental phenomenon it causes, such as increased rainfall in some regions and increased temperatures in others, will have implications for billions of people.

The GMES initiative intends to create the basis for defining applied services and products. Common to all European countries, this will enable important surveillance and understanding of these phenomenon so that both environmental changes, which in the long term are often the subject of international treaties, and natural disasters can be foreseen. GMES is not, therefore, a space programme but is becoming part of a mass of activity whose objective is to demonstrate the contribution space technology could have in the study of the environment. One of the priorities identified by the Baveno manifesto was inspecting the respect for the commitments adopted in the Kyoto Protocol framework in application of the United Nations Framework Convention on the verification of climatic changes.

The ESA’s satellites have demonstrated the role satellite instruments can play in well-timed management of natural disasters and in the study of environmental phenomenon. They provided, for example, a map of the territory concerned after the earthquake in Algeria and during the flood in Elba, as well as studying phenomenon such as the hole in the ozone layer and El Niño.

In competition with the USA

The GMES initiative and the Galileo programme currently represent two cornerstones of Europe’s space strategy. The initiative has come in response to the will shown by the EU to develop independent technical capacities in numerous fields. Environmental problems influence policies which are dealt with on all institutional levels in the area of transport, energy, industry, agriculture and management of territory. It is therefore becoming vital for Europe to guarantee independent access to information.

The main promoters of this initiative, the ESA and the EU, are in the process of making the project concrete thanks to the ESA’s approval of the GMES Services Element programme, which has a budget of 83 million Euro, and through the inclusion of GMES in the EU VI framework programme, providing for the creation of European research into space.

With GMES a new form of co-operation based on sharing information between providers (ESA, EUMETSAT, research centres, national space agencies) and users (civil protection, international organisations, political institutions) is beginning. The initiative is taking on major importance today because Europe’s position in respect to the Kyoto treaty and environmental policies is in direct opposition to that of the United States. But the points still under discussion are many and they put the real will of the Old Continent to support the initiative in doubt. It would be a real pity. Europe’s very independence is at stake.