- Earth observation data are helping to transform climate resilience planning and implementation, creating new opportunities to help direct and maximise the impact of climate resilience investments.
- To be successful, the right technical infrastructure and human capacities need to be in place, and stakeholders should be intimately involved in co-developing solutions.
- Key challenges range from developing tailored products and services that are highly optimised to particular types of decision and improving the accessibility of socio-economic and land use data, to assuring quality and boosting information equity.
In late July, the Earth Observation for Sustainable Development (EO4SD) Climate Resilience cluster coordinated a panel discussion, hosted by Innovate4Climate, addressed to the question of earth observation (EO) and the future of climate resilience.
The panel convened five distinguished representatives from the provider and user sides, including the European Space Agency (ESA), the World Bank, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), African Risk Capacity (ARC), and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Each organisation is at the cutting edge of either developing innovative EO-powered products and services or leveraging such services to boost climate resilience outcomes around the world.
The panel had three objectives. First, to take stock of the current ‘state-of-the-art’ regarding the use of EO-derived information in climate resilience applications. Second, to draw-out key gaps in provision of EO-driven services. Third, to unpack what progress in development of new EO services can feasibly be expected in the medium term and outline key demand-side requirements.
On a voyage from data to decisions
Anna Burzykowska, Technical Officer at ESA, opened the panel with a summary of ESA’s ambitious climate programme, an element of one of the most ambitious earth observation programmes ever initiated, and which seeks to make consistent, high-quality climate data available global users as a public good. The Climate Change Initiative is the flagship of this programme, generating a broad portfolio of EO-driven Essential Climate Variables spanning the world.
Recognising that technical, human and other barriers can obstruct the actionable deployment of such data, today ESA’s ambition is evolving to address these barriers is ever more action-oriented, aiming to “bridge the gap between climate science and provide information that can be used by decision makers in their climate resilience strategies”. In the end, overlooking key entry points for EO data in particular decision scenarios and failing to develop climate information tailored to such decisions will lead to missed opportunities in being able to use EO data to improve climate resilience outcomes.
Creating decision-relevant information means collaboration
Identifying these applications and entry points is, however, challenging. Organisations such as the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) are invariably large and complex, with multiple teams, hundreds if not thousands of staff, and many more projects and beneficiaries. On the provider side, this requires becoming acquainted with the nature of evidence required to inform certain decisions, and on the user side it can mean learning about the potentialities of EO data and technologies, and being flexible and innovative in deploying these in real decision scenarios. In this vein, Anna Burzykowska articulated a recurring theme during the panel: the importance of collaborative working. As Anna noted, “We believe that climate action means different communities coming together, and that means building partnerships between actors that are not used to working together on a daily basis”.
The Panel heard how projects such as the EO4SD Climate Resilience programme seek to make climate resilience challenges more soluble by working directly with IFIs to mainstream EO climate information into projects and corporate tools. Achieving this requires a three-pronged approach: to raise demand-side awareness of what is possible using EO climate data; to co-develop bespoke technical solutions that leverage quality global data to meet climate resilience challenges at organisational and programmatic levels; to build demand-side capacity so that IFIs and their beneficiaries can derive maximum benefit from EO services throughout the project cycle.
An essential aspect of this is the quality of the data and services rendered. Samantha Burgess, of C3S, stressed the importance of rich, credible, and quality-assured data. In this regard, the C3S is able to leverage a rich array of earth observation, seasonal forecast, climate projection and other climate data to assist countries and companies “understand their risk envelopes and plan accordingly”.
Towards a global streamflow forecast: One aim, four challenges
In a similar vein, Angelica Guttierez spoke to the example of a new global streamflow forecast service, developed by GEOGLOWS, that aims to transform climate data into actionable information, especially in areas where little or no such information exists. Realising this aim required overcoming four challenges. First, to leverage the considerable computing power and expertise needed to process big data and make it easily accessible online. Second, to improve access to web services to enable users to access data and easily create derived visualisations, such as flood maps. Third, to ensure adoption and stakeholder buy-in of the GEOGLOWS service by working collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to understand needs and co-develop solutions. And fourth, to assure users of the quality and reliability of the product as a resource that can inform decisions, through validation, bias correction, and incremental improvement.
EO data is indispensable and contributing to radical change climate resilience action
Panellists touched on many of the benefits of EO-driven applications that have emerged through such collaboration. Ana Bucher noted how the World Bank has been working with ESA in this spirit collaboration since 2008 and translating EO data from satellites and bringing it to bear on the Bank’s global project portfolio. With its potential to scale insight and interventions, support better planning, and inform the prioritisation of climate risks and resilience actions, Ana was clear in its benefits: “How the value of earth observation can be brought into these daily actions is immense, in terms of economic returns, saving lives, but also in how it helps us commit to climate goals”.
These benefits are particularly strong in areas of the world where the World Bank has a large project portfolio, notably regions where climate data records can be sparse and of low quality. This was echoed by Francois Kayitakire, Director of Research and Development at ARC, an organisation that has for many years used EO-derived rainfall estimates for the African continent in models parametric insurance models for drought, and in future, flood, cyclones, and epidemics. “Without earth observation”, Francois explained, “it is impossible to offer the services we offer today”. These data – that have the essential attributed of being both highly predictable and reliable - have had concrete impacts on drought-affected areas, having triggered dispersals amounting to $60 million since 2015.
Ana Bucher further added that EO data have particular potential to observe and monitor the ‘silent risks’ that can be harder to track (e.g. drought), socio-economic change (e.g. settlement shifts), and the impacts of both climate change and climate resilience investments themselves. For the Bank, the bottom line is that EO spanning these areas another others can markedly improve the way IFIs structure and deliver their portfolio and support climate resilient development.
Where next? Information equality, pertinence, and confidence
An important aspect of the GEOGLOWS mission is to improve equality of access to information; an ambition supported by other panellists also. As Angelica Guttierez noted, “If we want global issues to be addressed by the global community, then we need to level the playing field so every nation has the opportunity to access information”. Part of this means strengthening foundational technical infrastructure (e.g. internet connectivity) and human capacities to increase the ‘bandwidth’ to be able to derive maximum benefit from emerging cloud-based EO services.
On the data side, ARC is developing new services that leverage EO, such as the Extreme Climate Facility (ECF). The ECF a resilience financing instrument geared toward financing adaptation interventions over a 5 to 10 year horizon, requiring strong seasonal-to-decadal climate prediction data. Decision-relevant climate information also means attending to the specific climate sensitivities of different sectors. As data and understanding improve, demand for sector-tailored, threshold-based climate information will continue to increase on the user side.
Analysing climate risks and planning climate resilience requires EO data far beyond climate data itself. Panellists identified other types of EO data that would also markedly improve understanding of climate risk, particularly regarding the characteristics of exposed assets (e.g. urban areas and croplands). Linking such data with timely inundation maps would help to improve analysis of flood impacts, enabling relief funds to be better targeted in the short term, and resilience measures be better planned in the long-term.
Critically, such decision-useful information must also have the confidence of users. Even as EO providers already invest significantly in validation, quality assurance, and traceability, ESA has recognised that the consistency and visibility of quality assurance is an area that still needs to be addressed. As such, ESA has recently begun investigating users can be better informed about how products were developed (and the quality of those products). This, coupled with continuous improvements in tailored EO services, will help ensure that users are able to exploit EO services confidently and effectively to build climate resilience into the future.