Centre for Law and the Environment

Centre for Law and the Environment:
Satellites and the Law

Key AHRC Project Research Questions and Aims and Objectives

Key Research Questions
This project examines the potential of satellite remote sensing as a monitoring and compliance tool in European and international environmental legal systems at a time of enormous step-changes in the capabilities of the technology. The key research questions to be addressed are:

  • What lessons can be learnt from existing national and international experience with satellite imagery as a legal monitoring and compliance tool?
  • What is the potential for current and future technical capabilities of satellites as a compliance tool in the context of the requirements of European Union and international environmental legislation?
  • How is knowledge of being monitored by satellites likely to influence compliance behaviour of those subject to regulation, and how will these affect relationships with regulatory bodies?
  • Are there significant constraints (legal, technical, economic, lack of knowledge of capabilities by regulators) affecting the take-up of satellite technology as a compliance tool?

This proposal will be the first substantive international project to address these research questions systematically. It is timely because until very recently satellites operated at such low spatial resolution that their main value was in observing large land-use changes at discrete time intervals. In the 1990s the spatial resolution of satellites was between 30-80m, but since 2000 there has been a major step change in resolution capabilities. The resolution on some satellites is now 0.6m and spatial resolution could soon be as low as a few tens of centimetres. The number of operational satellites has increased dramatically, providing more timely and accurate data, and data cost has generally decreased. Current satellites can rapidly collect and analyse data of any location on the Earth.

Our research focus is on the specialised subject area of environmental regulation. There are recognised weaknesses in the current mechanisms of implementation and enforcement of EU and international environmental laws and treaties. Many countries have environmental legislation that is sophisticatedly drafted but the weak point in the regulatory chain is often the application of laws on the ground.

At the same time, it is increasingly recognized that conventional environmental regulation based on licencing and bureaucratic physical inspection regimes are resource intensive and may be ill suited to contemporary challenges. New legislative requirements are physically extensive in area (e.g. habitat protection), applicable to greater numbers of businesses/people (e.g. millions of farms in the EU now fall under the remit of waste legislation), and employ new regulatory techniques (e.g. emissions trading). Ensuring compliance of international environmental laws is equally a matter of increasing concern (Sands, 2004(a)). Many international laws lack compulsory inspection regimes or sufficient resources to ensure compliance.

Meteosat image of the planet

Aims and Objectives
UCL aims to be the first UK research group to consider the potential of the new resolution capabilities of satellites for providing a rigorous, legally-reliable, and cost effective tool in inspection and compliance regimes under contemporary environmental legislation.

Our research will be conducted in six workpackages.

Workpackage 1 examines current uses of satellite data for environmental monitoring and lessons this provides for the future. We will consider where satellites are being used for enforcement and monitoring purposes internationally (Europe, North America, Asia, Australasia), and collect data describing each use, its effectiveness, costs involved, and whether it is prescribed in legislation.

Workpackage 2 evaluates key EU environmental laws in order to identify those elements where the current and future technical capabilities of satellites could provide compliance data. We will focus on EU Directives in the key sectors of air (including emissions trading), water, waste, and nature and biodiversity

Workpackage 3 will mirror Workpackage 2 by examining key international treaties protecting the atmosphere, marine ecosystems (including oil pollution), transboundary waste regimes, and biodiversity.

Workpackage 4 examines in detail the current use of satellite monitoring in one case study, the monitoring of agricultural fraud in the UK under CAP support schemes, the only area to date where satellites have been used systematically in this country, and where specific EU legislation prescribes its use. We will assess its effectiveness, and include research on how this has affected compliance behaviour.

Workpackage 5 considers the likely constraints to the enhanced use of satellite imagery as a compliance tool. This encompasses legislative design, lack of knowledge by regulators, data potential including costs and reliability, and issues of public and legal acceptability, especially privacy.

Workpackage 6 is dedicated to dissemination.