The first in-person meeting of the Security Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad) leaders in Washington D.C. on 24th September, led to a joint statement worth detailed scrutiny.
Contrary to the popular notion that the Quad is a military grouping, the leaders of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, in the joint-statement, have agreed to share satellite data to monitor:
1. climate change,
2. sustainable uses of marine resources, and
3. disaster response and preparedness.
According to the joint statement, “In space we will identify new collaboration opportunities and share satellite data for peaceful purposes such as monitoring climate change, disaster response and preparedness, sustainable uses of oceans and marine resources, and on responding to challenges in shared domains.”
These three slogans are often repeated across summits, conferences, and seminars. However, when used by the Quad, these terms will be a reality. The Quad is a highly space-capable grouping, where co-operation was imminent. Each has a repertoire of satellites and payloads that will fulfil the three goals, and they can immediately put to use.
Monitoring Climate Change
Climate change is not a measure of a singular variable. Various types of satellites and payloads from each country have different capacities of measurement and assessment. For instance, greenhouse gases (GHG), the root of anthropogenic climate change, are monitored mostly by the U.S. and Japan. The U.S. space agency NASA currently operates the Orbital Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) and OCO-3, while Japan’s space agency, JAXA, operates the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) and GOSAT-2. These satellites measure GHG concentrations at low parts per billion resolutions and identify pinpoint sources of emissions.
The trio of India-U.S.-Japan – ISRO’s OCEANSAT, NASA’s Aqua, and JAXA’s Global Change Observation Mission (GCOM-W) – monitor other physicochemical variables in the oceans caused by climate change. The NASA-ISRO’s NISAR, NASA’s ICESAT, and JAXA’s GCOM-C, can measure the loss and build-up of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets and the extent of mountainous glaciers.
Satellite operating agencies share earth-observation imagery and datasets for peer-reviewed scientific research through various scientific multilaterals. The foremost is the Committee on Earth Observing Satellites (CEOS), created from the G7 in 1984. Over the years, the CEOS also attracted members from outside the G7. As a result, the ISRO chaired the organisation in 2020. It passed the baton to NASA in 2021, and the French space agency CNES will become the chair in 2022. The CEOS has become significant with more than sixty agencies from various nations becoming members over the past 40 years. However, should the Quad express interest in a similar sharing agreement, it may result in priority sharing of the datasets and imagery collected by the respective civilian satellites between the Quad agencies. The outcome could be new scientific collaborations and boosting national climate regulatory bodies with satellite datasets and imagery – all necessary for attaining climate action goals.
Sustainable use of oceanic resources
The United States’ Blue Economy Strategy Plan 2021-25, India’s Blue Economy Framework, Australia’s National Marine Science Plan 2015-2025, and Japan’s Osaka Blue Ocean Vision have one aspect in common: their commitment for the sustainable use of maritime, marine, and seafloor resources. Their respective plans align well with the United Nations declaration to celebrate the 2021-2030 period as the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
Fishing, the most prominent activity extracting marine biological resources, remains a significant concern not only in the Indo-Pacific region but globally. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) estimates, almost 85% of global fish stocks are over or fully fished. Illegal and destructive fishing activities are causing massive economic losses of up to $ 23 billion a year. Sustainable fishing, which is also the 14th of the Sustainable Development Goals, must be observed across various multilateral groupings, and the Quad is no exception. The Quad’s plan to share satellite data on oceanic ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) may help curb nefarious activities occurring on the high seas by fishing militias, pirates, and non-state actors. Such datasets can help navies, coast guards, fishing communities, and the entire blue economy value chain that is ready to create a sustainable industrial ecosystem.
Disaster Response and Preparedness
With the droughts and bushfires of Australia, tsunamis and earthquakes of Japan, hurricanes and blizzards of the U.S., and flash floods and intense weather spells of India, the Quad nations are all vulnerable to natural disasters. Since they want to engage with each other economically, they must also assist each other’s disaster response and preparedness protocols by sharing satellite datasets. The sharing does exist, but the scope must expand. The cutting-edge and most expensive earth-observation satellite NISAR jointly built by NASA and ISRO, is awaiting its launch in 2022-23. This will monitor volcanism and earthquakes. The Quad can share satellite data between ISRO’s SCATSAT and INSAT series, JAXA’s Himawari series, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) HURSAT series to monitor and mitigate extreme precipitation events.
In the coming years, commercial satellite companies from the Quad nations will also enter the disaster resilience domain. Here, Japan is in the lead. The Tokyo-based company, Synspective, is launching a constellation of 30 synthetic aperture radar satellites that can identify locations of disaster, assist in disaster risk management, and build disaster-resilient infrastructure in the long term. An understanding between the Quad nations to share such commercial satellite datasets will go a long way in mitigating precarious environmental circumstances and their socio-economic domino effects.
COES and other similar global science bodies do share satellite datasets pertaining to climate change, unsustainable use of natural resources and disasters. But these bodies are largely academic and apolitical. The Quad can bring the necessary political resolve in its actions while using such datasets. This political resolve will be key in developing constructive climate solutions that can also be extended to their partner countries. By agreeing to work on non-partisan global challenges in the initial in-person leaders meeting, the Quad has demonstrated its political intention to use science for constructive planetary solutions. If sustained, the Quad’s planetary goals can have a lasting influence on the world’s developmental politics.
Dr. Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.
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