Centre for Law and the Environment

Centre for Law and the Environment:
Satellites and the Law

AHRC Project Publications

Project Publications
1. Technical Background to Satellite Monitoring.
2. The Use of Satellites in Legal Systems.
3. Environmental Sector Applications of Satellites.

4. An Evaluation of EU and International Environmental Laws to see if satellites could provide compliance data.

5. Project Case Studies.


1. Technical Background to Satellite Monitoring.

The main driver for its potential recognition as a powerful environmental tool has been because of remarkable advances in satellite technologies. Technological improvements in the capabilities of satelltie technologies suggest that they could offer real opportunities for those working in the legal sector, particularly for monitoring or enforcing laws. A starting point in understanding how satellites might provide evidence of compliance with environmental laws should therefore be on these advances in technical capabilities and what future satellites might be able to do. Our first report concerns a clear overview of earth observation satellites, that is suitable for lawyers and policymakers as well as technical specialists.

Click hear to read the Technical Background Report (Ref: AHRC Report 1, 19 pages).

In section 1.1 of the technical background report, we begin with a simple summary of Earth Observation. Section 1.2 and 1.3 report reviews the technical differences between satellite orbiting and spectral resolution. Next, sections 1.4 and 1.5 discuss sensor differences and spatial resolution. Image correction and classification are then dealt with in sections 1.6 and 1.7. A review of GPS is provided in section 1.8. Sections 1.9 and 1.10 review the current satellite sensors and future capabilities with some examples related to carbon source monitoring. Section 1.11 lists a cost overview of 30 sensors and provides an example for the possible cost associated with a global forestry monitoring program. Finally, section 1.12 reviews the general approaches to EO monitoring of the environment.

2. The Use of Satellites in Legal Systems

 Our research looked at whether the use of satellite imagery was expressly permitted under existing legislation. We examined nine environmental sectors under European and international legislation to see whether the use of satellites or remote sensing was expressly allowed under legislation and then whether there was any potential for its use. This scoping exercise, shown in Table 1 below, enabled us to discount sectors such as noise.

Environmental Sector

Legislation Permits

Potential for Satellite Imagery








dangerous substances




land and nature


climate change




Table 1. Legislation permitting satellite imagery

It was found that very few environmental type laws expressly mentioned the use of satellite imagery. This is probably because some enforcement bodies think that it should be treated as other forms of evidence and does not require special statutory authorisation. There were a few isolated examples in national laws e.g. a Greek law allows the use of satellite imagery for the establishment of a forest inventory to protect forests. The Australians also have some State led legislation on using satellite imagery for illegal land clearance monitoring and enforcement. We could only find two environmental sector examples under UK and European Union legislation. Legislation specifically allowed the use of remote sensing satellites for monitoring agricultural subsidies and to track fishing vessels is allowed.

Fisheries: For many years the waters in and surrounding EU countries have been overfished raising concerns over the sustainable pursuit of fishing activities. Satellite based monitoring systems are now used in the EU and internationally to monitor fishing activities (usually of vessels over a certain length). Satellite remote sensing in picture form is not currently used to monitor fisheries legislation, but global positioning systems (GPS) which operate through satellites do use satellite derived information for tracking purposes. A box installed on board the vessel transmits the GPS-derived vessel position by satellite to the Fisheries Monitoring Centre in the flag state who then communicate the information to the state or regional fisheries body in whose waters the vessel is fishing.

Agriculture: European Community legislation gives Member States the option of using satellites to monitor compliance by farmers with subsidy schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy. Satellite photographs in picture form (like the one here) have successfully been used directly as evidence in courts in CAP cases in some European countries (e.g. Germany), although most often they are used to provide the advance notification to the authorities of non-compliance, and direct evidence based on visual inspection is used as the evidential basis for the prosecution.

Click hear to read the Earth Observation and Agricutural Monitoring in the EC Report (Ref: AHRC Report 2, 9 pages).

3. Environmental Sector Applications of Satellites

There has been very little international research as to how satellite technologies might be used for environmental monitoring - particularly from a legal context. Most of the research and development has been technology led, so we decided that we would examine the current techical capabilities of existing satellites and whether they had scope for environmental sector applications from a technical perspective. A sector applications report was prepared.

Click hear to read the Sector Applications Report (Ref: AHRC Report 3, 55 pages).

This sector applications report examined the existing major satellites and looked at mission details, operational status and technical characteristics. We looked at whether each satellite could be used to monitor environmental applications in the key environmental sectors identified by the lawyers.: (1) Water, (2) Waste, (3) Land and Nature, (4) Dangerous Substances, (5) Atmospheric Pollution, (6) Climate Change, (7) Agriculture, (8) Fisheries, and (9) Other.

4. An Evaluation of EU and International Environmental Laws to see if satellites could provide compliance data

A substantial part of the project was evaluating European Union (EU) and international environmental laws in order to identify those elements where the current and future technical capabilities of satellites could provide compliance data.

We undertook a short survey of many major EU environmental Directives and some Regulations where appropriate, in the remaining environmental sectors , to assess their suitability to be provide some form of compliance role by satellites. Because satellite monitoring was already used in the agriculture and fisheries sectors we removed these from this next scoping stage of the study and concentrated on the remaining sectors (water, dangerous substances (Nuclear, Chemcials, Industrial Risk, Biotechnology), waste, land and nature (Birds, Habitats) , climate change, and other (IPPC, Liability).

Laws in Sector

EU laws

International laws







Dangerous Substances






Land and Nature



Climate Change



IPPC & Liability



Table 2: Environmental laws examined

We identified 106 environmental laws in these sectors which we considered to be most important in the EU. We then undertook a short survey of many major international environmental laws to assess their suitability to be provide some form of compliance role by satellites. We identified 42 environmental laws which we considered to the most important internationally.

The next stage of the workpackage required close interaction between legal and technical disciplines, examining selected environmental laws, and seeking matches between the technical capabilities of satellites (existing and potential), and the legislative requirements. We then put all of the individual laws into tables. The lawyers filled in a column outlining the objective and legal requirement of the law (e.g. what is it trying to do and does it prohibit or restrict something ).

After the lawyers had completed the legal side of the table we passed it on to to the technical people along with an accompanying paper laying down certain parameters. This guided the technical paper as to the responses we were seeking. On a basic level we wanted one of 2 responses: (1) No scope for satellite input (not applicable); (2) Potential scope for satellite input (e.g. yes but provided that).

Figure 1: An example of the interdiciplinary sector reports.

If there was potential scope then what we were trying to flesh out was there: (1) Potential for remote sensing or GPS? (2) Current use or existing research to demonstrate? (3) Can it catch someone in the act or provide historical data? (4) Can it indicate a problem? (5) Potential and the pitfalls?

Sector Legal and Technical Interdisciplinary Analysis of Satellites
Click on these links below to look at the individual reports

Atmospheric Pollution

European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 4, 25 pages).

International Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 11, 7 pages).

Climate Change

European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 5 , 5 pages).

International Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 12, 3 pages).

Land and Nature

European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 6, 6 pages).

International Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 13, 10 pages).


European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 7, 20 pages).

International Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 14, 3 pages).


European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 8, 23 pages).

International Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 15, 8 pages).

Dangerous Substances


European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 9, 19 pages).

International Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 16, 15 pages).


European Union Environmental Legislation
(Ref: AHRC Report 10, 3 pages).


5. Project Case Studies

After the survey was completed we used the information we had collected to decide on six case studies looking in greater detail whether satellites could provide compliance data. We wanted to focus on laws in the different key sectors. We also wanted to examine the capabilities of satellites in this context from a number of different scenarios, relating to their ability to detect, or to show different things – e.g. some of these would require visual satellite images (e.g. pictures) and others would require GPS, or use the satellites to measure specific things such as emissions.

 The six case studies were on:

  • Waste Dumping / Unlicensed Waste Sites
  • Protection of Designated Areas (e.g. SSSI’s)
  • Atmospheric Emissions
  • Transboundary Waste Tracking
  • Water Pollution – Oil Spills
  • Climate Change – Forest Accounting

We wanted the case studies to test a number of research questions. The case studies were primarily meant to examine the relevance of satellite monitoring to environmental enforcement agencies? We wanted to see if satellites could:

  • Alert regulators to specific breaches?
  • Provide direct evidence in judicial proceedings?
  • Provide direct evidence in negotiating sanctions (e.g. when the activity started and its frequency)?
  • Monitor compliance with a court order or sanction?

In some of the case studies we wanted to see what the images could show on a basic level. An example of this being, if we got images of a protected habitats area, what could we see on that land; e.g. trees, roads, animals, hedges, soil. We wanted to see the level of detail available and see whether these matched with the conditions imposed on operating the protected habitats site. We also wanted to test the value of the images against real life practice, so we looked in some case studies at actual prosecutions for environmental offences that had taken place in the UK and then got imagery where we could showing the site where the offence had took place, at the time it had taken place.. We could then test whether we could see the actual offences being committed.


Case Study One: Legal Regimes for Reducing Atmospheric Pollution and Remote Sensing (Ref: AHRC Report 17, 35 pages).





Case Study Two: The Disposal of Waste on Land and Remote Sensing (Ref: AHRC Report 18, 25 pages).


Case Study Three: Monitoring Forest Carbon Sinks under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol
(Ref: AHRC Report 19, 52 pages).



Case Study Four : Monitoring Habitats and Protected Areas
(Ref: AHRC Report 20, 38 pages).




Case Study Five: Oil Pollution in Marine Waters
(Ref: AHRC Report 21, 31 pages).



System and Waste Tracking Case Study Report
(Ref: AHRC Report 22, 12 pages).