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Satellites Support Businesses Working For Sustainable Development

by Staff Writers
Paris, France (ESA) Feb 06, 2006
The European Space Agency is working with multinational companies to integrate a new practice called corporate sustainable development into their operations.

Among the participants are Alcan, AMEC, Aon, B&Q, Lafarge, Shell, SUEZ Energy and UPM. All are using satellite data to incorporate CSD practices across a wide variety of industrial sectors, including energy, civil engineering, offshore and onshore oil and gas operations, forestry and forest products, pulp and paper, aluminum and cement production.

Corporate sustainable development - also referred to as corporate social responsibility - now sits at the heart of many business practices, and Earth observations from space offer the potential to provide a global and cost-effective way to measure progress toward the sustainability of business activities, ESA said in a statement.

First championed by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the concept of sustainable development has since become familiar and accepted, spurred on by widespread adoption within the private sector. Leading companies know CSD equals good business, ESA said, while continued economic growth becomes unsustainable if business practices contribute to environmental degradation.

Many companies regularly issue environmental audits of their CSD activities and report on what is called the "triple bottom line" of economic, social and environmental impacts. Standard assessment methods include the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, along with several other means to track industry CSD leaders.

ESA said its Earth Observation Market Development program - set up to build remote sensing business capacity - has been responding to the needs of business by developing services to apply the new dimension of objective, wide-area and regularly-updated environmental information supplied by satellites.

EOMD is starting six contracts to work on the application of Earth observation to support CSD assessment, with more in preparation. All contracts involve partnering between a number of specialist value-adding companies and large corporate players. One positive sign of industrial interest is some of the contracts are being led by large corporate players.

"CSD is not just our business but our mission," says Tony Moens de Hase of Tractebel Engineering. Tractebel is prime contractor for a project to apply satellite data to CSD reporting for SUEZ hydropower plants in locations including Laos, Brazil and France. Other participants are Keyobs and Nadar in Belgium, and the environmental consultancy firm CAP Conseil.

"SUEZ recognizes it is working with some of the most important aspects of CSD including water, waste and energy," ESA said. "The company has been a pioneer in this area and has issued CSD reports for the last five years." Meanwhile, the Canadian firm VIASAT Géo-Technologie is running another project applying satellite measurements of sustainability to mineral resource extraction, working with Canadian aluminium mining company Alcan and French cement aggregate and concrete company Groupe Lafarge.

A major part of both firms' operations concerns the development of mines and quarries around the world, with the potential to impact the local environment. Satellite imagery is being used to measure and regularly monitor the biodiversity at four active sites in Brazil, Guinea, Kenya and the United States.

"We think there is a lot of potential for remote sensing in this area," said Pierre Vincent of VIASAT Géo-Technolgie. "We will focus a lot on the vegetation aspect: typically such operations remove part of the natural cover, so the local environment has to be restored during or after industrial activities to its previous state. Such activities take place across quite large areas, so with satellites we will better be able to monitor them as they take place."

He said the company would like to combine remote sensing with other data sources "to estimate the carbon captured through reforestation and related activities. There are not a lot of tools developed to measure that kind of stuff as yet, but it represents a new market - in the future there will be that need."

There also is a large number of stakeholders with an interest in how forests are managed: local communities as well as users of timber and forest-related services including tourism, recreation and biomass burning.

Aon, a major British re-insurance company, is the prime contractor working with companies exploiting forest products including leading U.K. home-improvement chain B&Q, South African forest product firm Global Forest Products, and household cleaning manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser.

Earth observation value-adding companies Sarmap in Switzerland and Ambiental Technical Solutions are applying both optical and radar satellite imagery to sustainable management and forest protection, with certification being provided by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-profit organization.

"We'll be examining the standards currently used in forest certification and looking at the way data is currently collected - which is mostly in-situ," said Charles Eyre of Aon.

"We'll be assessing if the current sources of data are accurate, whether data frequency is sufficient and the transparency of data collection - and one of the key issues is cost. We hope to cover both plantation forests as well as natural forests and look at how certification relates to the emerging market for forest eco-services."

Another contract, led by Definiens AG of Germany, is examining CSD reporting in forestry for pulp and paper manufacture. Working with UPM Forest CE and Bayerische Staatsforsten, with a focus on test sites in Bavaria as well as the Czech Republic, the project will seek to use Earth Observation to improve sustainability in exploitation and logistics of timber.

The project also will provide regularly updated information on large forest areas, so forest managers know how much wood will be available at any one time on a sustainable basis. They will be able to compare up-to-date maps of forests and conserved areas with information from wood suppliers to prevent protected wood from being taken, thereby risking damage to a company's hard-earned reputation.

CSD concerns also extend to water bodies. Another project led by Germany-based AMEC Engineering is addressing this issue via satellite sensors to assess water quality of freshwater bodies. Multispectral sensors such as Envisat's Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) can observe the color of surface water as a means of deriving their environmental quality. Spanish company STARLAB and Dutch firm ARGOSS will process satellite images to retrieve key water quality parameters.

"In late 2000, AMEC set out to develop a CSD programme appropriate for our newly expanded global business and today it is a huge part of our business," said Tim Conley, Managing Director of AMEC's Earth & Environmental European operations. "What we are trying to do with this project is not just look at our impact on the environment in a negative way but track what positive contributions we are making to the environment."

The Hatfield Group, an environmental consultancy firm in Canada, will exploit satellite data to monitor CSD practices of Shell Canada related to the exploitation of oil sands located in rural Alberta province, estimated to be the largest known oil reserves in the world.

These bitumen-saturated sand deposits represent the equivalent of between 17 and 25 trillion barrels of oil, although unlike conventional crude oil they need to be mined in situ, rather than pumped to the surface and then specially treated before being transported via pipeline.

As global oil reserves dwindle, the cost of extracting Canada's oil sands has become feasible. About 1 million barrels of oil currently are extracted daily, and this figure has the potential to double in the next five to seven years, experts estimate.

Hatfield is working with French Earth Observation specialist ACRI on applying satellite data to CSD practices and reporting in this sector, along with Shell Canada Ltd and affiliated company Albian Sands Energy Inc.

These trials will apply in particular to freshwater, biodiversity and forests in the Muskeg and Athabasca River basins, with the proposed services being developed envisaged as being sufficiently general to also have potential in other business markets, either for Shell or other multinational clients. The services will undergo independent audits by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Sustainability Asset Management Group for incorporation into sustainability indices, including the Dow Jones.

"The dominant focus is using satellite data to help quantify habitat change in various ways, such as looking at habitat fragmentation," explained Tom Boivin of the Hatfield Group. "We will gather baseline information by getting satellite data from the present - or if available the past - to understand how a habitat may be influenced by the oil sands operations."

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