• Andrei Geica

Space gives 'Vertical Supply Chains'​ a new meaning

A circular economy is not just about one company, one institution or even one sector; it’s about how all these 'nodes' in a value and supply chain interact with each other and what each one has to contribute that determines how circular an economic system is. The ‘Agriculture’ node has been for centuries linked to a few fundamental sectors: water, feed, chemicals, logistics and consumers. Yet, the key to circularising agriculture does not lie in these horizontal streams, but above it. Europe right now has one of the best space infrastructures in the world with Galileo and Copernicus Programmes, which will be instrumental in both the green and digital transitions.

The year is 2013. Since 1988, the Agricultural Cooperative of Nestos in northern Greece has been growing asparagus and, since 2004, kiwi plantations in 70 farms. However, in the decades since, ever-increasing food demand and the need to keep up with competition from global mass-production farming led these farms to slowly increase the quantity of fertilisers and water to raise crop yields. At the same time, the farmers were confronted by more and more demanding environmental standards, which limit the amounts of fertilisers and pesticides that can be used on a farm. The farmers were stuck between the hammer and the anvil.

That is, until I-BEC came along. The Inter-Balkan Environment Center (I-BEC), part of the European Territorial Cooperation Programme Greece-Bulgaria 2007-2013, used Copernicus satellite imagery together with data from field sensors, mobile soil scanners and meteorological sensors to produce real-time soil maps, all fed into a user-friendly dashboard that provided farmers with advice and crop health indicators.

The result? Less fertilisers, less pesticides, 60% less water consumption, healthier products and all the farmer’s sustainability targets met. This is why downstream space applications will have a crucial role to play, not only in circularising the agricultural sector, but all the economic system beyond.

European Space Powers: Galileo and Copernicus

The achievements of the European Space Agency are numerous, far more than it gets credit for, from its pivotal contributions to the International Space Station (my favourite: the Cupola), from performing the first landing and sampling of a comet (the Rosetta mission), to its 40 years of experience with the European-made launcher

Ariane Rocket. However, there are two initiatives that stand out the most, particularly for the importance that they will increasingly gain in the double digital and green transition of the European economy.

The Galileo Programme

The Galileo Programme is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) project developed by the European Union from 1999 as a competitor to the military-based US GPS system, the Russian GLONASS and the Chinese BeiDou. It’s the world’s only fully-civilian GNSS, run by the European GNSS Service Centre (GSC) located in Madrid. This has important implications, as all military-based GNSS systems have important purposeful limitations, while the architects behind Galileo argued that civilian infrastructure, including aircraft navigation and landing, should not rely solely upon military systems and the decisions of a single foreign government.

The Copernicus Programme

The Copernicus Programme enables the European Union’s Earth Observation capacity through accurate, timely and easily accessible information, providing continuous and autonomous service. It can be used to address numerous global threats, including climate change, a looming energy crisis, population growth, potential food shortages, and a higher frequency and intensity of natural and man-made disasters. The Copernicus Programme relies on EU-owned dedicated satellites called ‘Sentinels’. Each Sentinel carries an advanced radar instrument to provide a day-and-night, all-weather supply of images of Earth’s surface. The launch of the first Sentinel occurred in 2014, with the objective of putting in place a constellation of 12 satellites by 2024 that will be further supported by a total of 30 satellites as contributing missions to Copernicus.

European Space Autonomy

Today, Galileo and Copernicus are recognised as one of the best space infrastructures in the world. They are also considered instrumental for both the green and digital transitions, since space-based applications are increasing their capabilities at an exponential rate.

The space sector provides over 230.000 jobs in the EU, from manufacturing to space operations and downstream services. It is worth between €46-54 billion to the EU economy. Reflecting its increasing importance, the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 allocated a total of €13.2 billion to the space sector, making it the largest budget ever at EU-level for space. This is accompanied by a new EU Space Programme that seeks to provide support to the next generation of launchers and technologies relevant to ensure an autonomous European access to space and the planning of a second generation of Galileo satellites from 2024 with significantly improved services capabilities, notably in the field of secured navigation and resilience against emerging threats.

The natural alliance between Space and Circular Economy

Both space and Circular Economy-based applications are characterised by their cross-industry nature and capacity to provide economic benefits in terms of cost-effectiveness in many situations.

The benefits and applications in a Circular Economy context are numerous and important:

Agriculture: the best way to showcase this connubium is by taking input from the previous article on a Circular Economy in agriculture - namely, that a sustainable rural and forestry economy is highly dependent on the healthy status of plans. Control means against harmful pests are difficult or may not even exist. That is why preventive measures based on early pest surveillance and detection are therefore, economically and environmentally, more efficient than eliminating phytosanitary outbreaks from which the infestation can fast spread. Surveillance is therefore essential as a valuable source of information for the timing of the application of phytosanitary measures to prevent pest establishment and spread. Beyond this, space-based applications can help predict yields in crop based on global changes in weather; they can provide food security assessments; help estimate irrigation needs; etc.

Climate Change: space-based applications will be crucial for designing, developing and monitoring climate change indicators and indices, both at macro-level (such as temperature increases, sea level rises, ice sheet melting, the warming of the oceans, etc.) and the micro-level (level of aerosol pollutions from production processes, level of nitrate migration from agriculture to the water systems, crop management for soil regeneration, precipitation in a narrow geographical area, drought events etc.).

Energy: space-based applications can support the selection and management of renewable energy production sites and can provide crucial information for grid management such as water reservoirs, precipitation, snow, the monitoring of critical assets and the protection of vital infrastructure. Most importantly from a Circular Economy point of view, space-based applications can provide an assessment of the efficient use of energy for industrial plants and buildings.

Marine Affairs: the monitoring of shipping routes or oil spills and the control of maritime traffic for safety and surveillance purposes can already be considered ‘traditional’ space-based applications, but now they can also support the sustainable development of the marine economy in various sectors, such as maritime tourism. The monitoring of coastal zones and the provision of critical indicators and indices for the assessment of seasonal tourism activities, such as bathing water quality or the protection of natural and cultural heritage not only feeds the feedback-loop between the Blue Economy and a Circular Economy, but it is also self-evidently of crucial importance for a country such as Greece that heavily relies on these sectors.

Urban and Regional Planning: monitoring land use and land use change through detailed, high-resolution maps of EU cities can support urban planning and assure a sustainable and balanced development, particularly in view of the creation of the ‘Food Bowls’ around large cities and localising the food production with shorter supply chains in a context of a Circular Agriculture.

Insurance: as climate-change related events increase both in intensity and damage, the insurance industry will need to evolve. This will most likely take the form of using multiple data inputs, including from space-based applications, in support of new risk modelling, hazard and damage assessment, and claims management. Businesses that adopt Circular Economy approaches will hedge their activities against climate change risks, since these solutions often have a climate adaptation element, thus reducing the premiums that they will have to pay in order to insure their activities.

Other applications, such as space tourism, space-based power generation, the manufacture of high-value materials in a microgravity environment, and the commercial development of extra-terrestrial resources, will appear in the new future, all of which will have a significant impact on the rate of adoption of Circular business plans and the transition towards a fully Circular Economy.

We at Sporos Platform are proud to have designed an Investment Fund that fully takes into account the cross-sector and horizontal nature of the reflection that is needed to ensure a smooth and fast transition towards a Circular Economy. The members of the Circular Board, an advisory Committee that will oversee both Fund Operations and individual investments, cover all the sectors mentioned in this article: from climate adaptation, marine affairs, tourism, industry, value chains and even downstream space applications. This will guarantee that we can break silo mentalities and ensure that the necessary information can permeate between these sectors and reach optimal common solutions to enabling the transition towards a Circular Economy.

In this respect, Sporos Platform is happy to have entered into a strategic collaboration with the Hellenic Association of Space Industry (ΕΒΙΔΙΤΕ) for knowledge-sharing and project sourcing and whose President, Mr Athanassios Potsis, gracefully accepted our invitation to join the Circular Board to provide his valuable expertise and input on the downstream space applications for the transition towards a Circular Economy.

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