Space technologies are revolutionising our approach to sustainable development by providing powerful tools for monitoring and achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From eradicating poverty to combating climate change, and ensuring everyone has access to quality education. The vast potential of space technology holds the power to transform our planet and our lives in profound ways.
This article marks the beginning of a series on “Space for United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.” Throughout the series, 17 separate articles will be published, each dedicated to a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), examining how satellite data and space technology can contribute to achieving the ambitious goals by 2030. The aim is to raise awareness of the space community’s crucial role in sustainable development and to inspire further collaboration between the space sector and other stakeholders in addressing global challenges.
In this introductory piece, we set the stage by highlighting the growing recognition of satellite data and space technology’s potential in supporting the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs. As the series progresses, we will delve deeper into the unique contributions that space technologies can make to each of the 17 SDGs.
Image credit: UN, NASA Earth Observatory
What are the Sustainable Development Goals?
In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which consists of 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets. The SDGs are a universal call to action aimed at ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all by 2030.
The goals were formulated through a comprehensive, inclusive process involving governments, civil society organisations, the private sector, and individuals worldwide. They build upon the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and aim to address a wide range of interconnected challenges, including economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, highlighting the need for a holistic approach. The SDGs are designed to be universally applicable, meaning that they address issues relevant to all countries, regardless of their level of development. By striving to achieve these goals, countries around the world are working together to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable future for all.
The 17 SDGs are as follows:
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-being
- Quality Education
- Gender Equality
- Clean Water and Sanitation
- Affordable and Clean Energy
- Decent Work and Economic Growth
- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
- Reduced Inequalities
- Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Responsible Consumption and Production
- Climate Action
- Life Below Water
- Life on Land
- Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
- Partnerships for the Goals
Limited involvement of the space sector in drafting SDGs
During the SDG adoption process, the space community was not heavily involved as a primary stakeholder (the UN). The limited involvement of the space community can be attributed to factors such as prioritisation of other sectors, perceived high costs and inaccessibility of space technology, and little awareness of its potential applications. However, the UN General Assembly Resolution did recognise the significance of Earth Observation (EO) and Geolocation for the achievement of SDGs (Baumgart et al, 2021). This recognition, albeit important, did not fully encapsulate the wide-ranging potential and capabilities that space technologies hold.
In the period following the SDGs’ adoption, the role of the space sector in supporting the implementation and monitoring of these goals has been increasingly acknowledged. This has led to a growing collaboration between the space community and sustainable development stakeholders, transforming the perception of space technology from being a mere supportive tool to an integral component in achieving these goals.
The growing role of space for SDGs
Space technologies play a vital role in advancing the UN SDGs, providing key tools for benchmarking current conditions and measuring progress towards achieving the 17 goals. Earth observation satellites collect a wealth of data across a wide range of spectral bands, offering an unbiased, macroscopic view of our planet. This data, encompassing elements like deforestation rates, crop yields, urban development, and air quality, enables real-time tracking of changes and the establishment of accurate baselines. By regularly capturing comprehensive, high-quality data about the Earth, space technologies provide the evidence base necessary to measure the impact of policies, guide course corrections, and assess overall progress towards the SDGs.
Beyond benchmarking and monitoring, space data significantly contributes to the advancement and achievement of the 17 SDGs. Space technologies enable informed decision-making by providing accurate, timely, and comprehensive information about various environmental and socio-economic conditions. For instance, data about climate patterns can inform strategies for sustainable agriculture, while data on urban development can guide efficient city planning. Moreover, global navigation satellite systems, alongside communication satellites, ensure that these insights are accessible and usable everywhere, even in remote areas. Hence, space technologies not only provide a diagnostic tool for sustainable development but also actively drive it by enabling data-driven solutions and equal opportunities for all.
As space technology continues to advance and its applications expand, its role in achieving the SDGs is expected to grow even more significantly. By harnessing the power of space, we can drive collective efforts towards a more sustainable, just, and equitable future for all.
Key characteristics of satellite imagery for the SDGs
Satellite technology can aid implementation and SDG monitoring dependent on the resolution, revisit time, swath width, and cost of data.
Spatial resolution – 30 cm very-high resolution leads the satellite market today. As a result, certain SDGs can be monitored efficiently compared to ground-level data collection, such as goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, by identifying the ratio of green to urban space.
Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning and Machine Learning can also obtain large amounts of specific data. Algorithms recognise patterns, objects, multispectral colours, and more. This increases efficiency, reduces labour demands and provides higher quality data with up to 15 cm resolution for satellite sensors.
Revisit time – the time period between an image taken of the same point on Earth. Satellite tasking is a method of steering satellites towards a point on Earth, reducing the revisit time to shorter than the satellite orbit. A short revisit time is crucial for monitoring natural disasters, aiming towards goal 13: Climate Action.
Swath width – can be described as the footprint area imaged on the Earth’s surface. The SDG targets cover international, national and regional areas, which, again, compared to ground-level monitoring, is more efficient and less labour-intensive. However, this series will investigate if satellite data must be supplemented with ground-level information to achieve the SDGs.
Cost – the perks of satellite data come with a price tag. Higher resolution images are available commercially, with a few free sources, including USGS/NASA’s Landsat and ESA’s Sentinel. Prices are predicted to fall in 2024 (GeoAwesome) as technology advances and supply increases. Throughout this series, the cost-benefit of satellite data will be discussed for each SDG.
These requirements for effective monitoring and implementation of the SDGs through satellite data will be discussed throughout the series for each of the 17 goals.
The transformative potential of space technologies to advance the UN SDGs is significant. Each forthcoming article in this series will delve deeper into how satellite data can specifically impact the effective monitoring and achievement of each individual SDG. As we harness the power of space technologies, their pivotal role in driving global sustainability efforts is set to become even more pronounced. Subscribe to the particular newsletter, ‘Space for United Nations Sustainable Development Goals’ to stay updated for more articles on this topic.
Read about our projects, with focus on the SDGs
Water-ForCE – Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6)
Project Iliad – Life Below Water (SDG 14)
Space for Smart Cities – Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11)