Satellites being used to map impact of global supply chains

16 September 2019

Satellite imagery is being used to map the environmental impacts of global supply chains such as deforestation and loss of biodiversity in a project the European Space Agency (ESA) believes to be the first of its kind.

The ESA said a team of researchers at Vienna University of Economics and Business were pioneering the use of satellite data combined with artificial intelligence to gather information.

The university’s ERC Fineprint project has developed a new method for assessing the impact of supply chains using satellite data to map agricultural production and mineral extraction, as well as their related impacts.

Images from Copernicus Sentinel-2 and US Landsat satellites can be combined to analyse the spatial distribution of the production of agricultural commodities such as soybeans, sugar cane, cotton and maize.

Machine-learning algorithms can produce timely crop-type maps to map land-use change, which can be then traced along global supply chains.

It can then be passed to consumers through international biomass trade models, such as the Food and Agriculture Biomass Input-Output (FABIO) Model.

The mapping techniques will help trace product consumption back to the exact geographic location of production and assess local environmental impact – which is crucial for informed decision-making, ESA said.

Fineprint also assesses the extent of environmental impacts of the mining sector, using satellite imagery to build a global picture of land used for mining as well as buildings, dams and tailings.

Combining various sources of mining statistics with satellite images, mainly from Copernicus Sentinel-2 and Google imagery, land-cover changes caused by mining and deforestation can be estimated.

A pilot study is currently measuring direct land-cover changes driven by agricultural commodities produced in Brazil and then consumed in Europe.

The ESA said earth observation satellites were the only viable and cost-effective data source capable of providing regular and consistent information regarding mineral extraction and agricultural production and their global impacts.

“Progress has been made to understand the changing structures of supply chains, and to calculate the accumulated environmental impacts – from where agricultural products are harvested and mineral resources are extracted all the way to final consumption,” said ESA.

“However, existing models are limited to a national level – hindering the accurate calculation of global impacts.”

Victor Maus, from the Vienna University of Economics and Business, told attendees at ESA’s ɸ-week: “There is a huge, hitherto untapped potential to combine Earth observation and economic data to support efforts by business and policy in making supply chains more sustainable.

“While remote sensing has been widely used to analyse a wide range of ecosystem changes such as deforestation, satellite data has rarely been connected to the underlying economic production, trade and consumption patterns that drive these changes.”

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