Global Earth Observation – a new tool for sustainable development


Global Earth Observation, which provides a comprehensive overview of what is happening in the environment, offers important benefits in a wide range of areas. For example, in agriculture it can help agri-business boost yields by spotting where fertiliser needs to be applied. Now the GEO-BENE (Global Earth Observation – Benefit Estimation: Now, Next and Emerging) project is carrying out the world’s first systematic study of the benefits of Global Earth Observation.

GEO-BENE brings together 12 partners from 5 EU countries plus Switzerland, South Africa and Japan with the aim of developing methods and tools designed to clarify the economic and social benefits of Global Earth Observation. From this, policies can be defined to support the implementation of international agreements on sustainable development in a range of fields.

The project covers nine areas: disasters, health, energy, climate, water, weather, ecosystems, agriculture, and biodiversity.


Getting the better of the weather

Even with current technology, we still cannot provide completely accurate weather forecasts, and every year many people die and vast amounts of money are spent as a result. Being able to provide reliable weather forecasts would be a huge advantage for almost every European industry. GEO-BENE researchers have investigated the impact of climate change on weather and crop yields in the future, and developed a tool to quantify the value of weather-related satellite information.

Cherishing biodiversity

Global Earth Observation is also a useful tool to survey biodiversity and protect our ecosystems. Ecosystems form the basis of life on Earth; they provide us with food, air, water and energy. But they have been under threat for a number of years from pollution, climate change and intensive agricultural methods. Global Earth Observation can give us state-of-the-art information about the current condition of ecosystems around the world in order to promote sustainability and good resource management.

GEO-BENE has focused on the creation of a comprehensive observation system for biodiversity that can be used by natural resource planners, governments, scientists and researchers. Extensive data on biodiversity factors is not widely available in many developing countries, yet these nations are home to most of the world’s unprotected biodiversity.

GEO-BENE research in South Africa revealed that poor quality data often led decision makers to overestimate the amount of land needed for conservation areas. Managing this extra land for conservation purposes costs a lot of money. Therefore, investing in the gathering of high quality data will help to make the establishment and management of conservation areas more cost effective and free up more land for other uses.

A secure food supply

In the area of agriculture, GEO-BENE’s aim is to have a global land use and food distribution information service that can enable sustainable development through wise planning of land resources. For example, research so far has shown that the planned biofuels programmes of Europe, the US, Brazil, China and India may cost billions of euros more than anticipated.

Project results have also shown the benefits of using Global Earth Observation to identify geographic centres of malnutrition to efficiently plan aid operations. Other results from the project include the establishment of a database for global data modelling, the creation of an EPIC model (a system that can simulate agricultural ecosystem processes), an analyses of global nitrogen levels in cropland and a study of the impact of climate change on food production and agricultural water use around the world.

Energy and water: balancing supply and demand

Energy is vital to our day-to-day lives – in the food we cook, the work we do, our homes and our transport systems. It is also responsible for much of the world’s current high pollution levels. GEO-BENE found that more certainty about climate sensitivity through the acquisition of better Global Earth Observation data will lead to better informed climate change and energy policies and more stable CO2 prices. Under these conditions, energy producers’ profits would be expected to rise, while CO2 emissions are likely to fall.

Water conservation is becoming more and more important as a result of global warming and desertification in certain parts of the world. The EU needs clear water conservation and water resource management policies. GEO-BENE surveys have highlighted areas of emerging water scarcity and availability using remote sensing information. This technique increases the availability of water quality information such as early warnings of water shortages.

Limiting damage from disasters

The project is also studying a range of natural and man-made hazards such as forest fires and earthquakes to help develop better disaster management policies.

In the health field, GEO-BENE is investigating how Global Earth Observation information on factors such as climate and weather could help health systems detect disease epidemics early on. Global Earth Observation data could then be used to plan vaccination programmes, if necessary. Another GEO-BENE study is looking at whether the season and weather affect the risk of a patient dying from acute myocardial infarction.

Putting Global Earth Observation in the spotlight

GEO-BENE has had a high public impact with articles in journals such as Nature and Science. Working with the Group on Earth Observation (GEO), it has had a direct impact on government policies, such as the UK’s Gallagher Review on Biofuels, and on World Bank strategies and financing. Special focus has also been put on policy processes under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Thanks to GEO-BENE’s work, the usefulness of Global Earth Observation benefit assessment is now widely recognised, paving the way for its application in diverse situations around the world.