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Space: Achieving Sustainability and Net Zero

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UK space sector sees major opportunities to deliver sustainability in space and combat climate change

John Worthy and Alex Harbin

Sustainability and climate change are big issues in space and present significant opportunities for the UK space sector. In realising this potential, the UK needs to build international consensus and ensure a sound balance in its regulatory frameworks. These are some of the key messages from our expert panel and industry delegates in Fieldfisher's latest Space Business webinar.

Space Sustainability – a vital agenda

Space sustainability is high on the UK agenda. On 23rd June 2022, the UK government launched its Plan for Space Sustainability, supporting the UK's pioneering role in managing space with care. The objective is to promote a sustainable space sector and create an effective regulatory environment to mitigate the growing problem of space debris. Sustainability is also a hot topic for space applications.  With space businesses increasingly offering services and applications to help monitor and mitigate climate change and support green energy sources, the commercial potential is opening up.

Our panel included top tier representatives from Astroscale and D-Orbit who are addressing the need for monitoring, managing and removing redundant satellites and space debris. Alongside them, we heard from leaders of the Space Energy Initiative who are pursuing space-based solar power to deliver low cost, reliable renewable energy and SatelliteVu who are harnessing thermal imaging data to monitor energy emissions and support efforts to combat climate change.  Drawing on input from our audience on key questions, our panel debated the openings and possible barriers for the UK in delivering sustainable space business.

Major opportunity for UK space business

The resounding view from our delegates was that the need for sustainable space business, and managing climate change via space-based applications, will present significant opportunities for UK space businesses:

Our panellists very much agreed, highlighting the massive scale of this emerging market. Climate change is a global issue and UK space businesses will be addressing the demands round the world. In 2020, the European Commission estimated that Europe needs around €260 billion per year in extra investment to achieve its 2030 climate and energy targets. In the UK more specifically, the Climate Change Committee reported in its 'Sixth Carbon Budget' that the UK would need £2.7 trillion of investment in order to meet its target of a 78% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035. These figures illustrate the huge scale of the opportunity for space business to help engage with the climate challenge.

Looking at government policies, the panel flagged the benefits of choosing the UK as an operations base for space business. The UK government has shown strong support for the sector in recent years through new legislation, strategy initiatives and funding programmes and is seen to be making great efforts to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the new commercial space age.

Sustainable space – striking the right balance

Importantly, a thriving space economy requires a sound regulatory environment. As noted by Minister George Freeman at the launch of the UK's Space Sustainability strategy, "A 'Wild West' space race without effective regulation risks a growing crisis of debris in space, adding to the existing threat from 400 redundant satellites and a million pieces of debris". In framing the regulatory frameworks, policy makers need to promote best practice in a safe and sustainable manner while not restricting investment or stifling innovation.

We asked our industry delegates what they considered as the most significant challenges in achieving sustainability, both in and from space:
Whilst all the issues resonated with our delegates, the need for international consensus and more effective regulation were seen as particularly important. 

Building international consensus is clearly critical, given that sustainability in space will require a global effort, just as climate change policies do on earth. For governments who support space, there is a vital need to cooperate and agree on shared targets for international methods of reducing the pollution of space and the impact of space junk.

In addition, effective regulation has a central role to play in promoting sustainability.  However, our panellists stressed that excessive regulation could dampen growth if the standards and laws are too restrictive. While regulation is undoubtedly critical in defining safety and environmental parameters for the sector, it is equally important to maintain a sense of pace and pragmatism to support the UK's target of being one of the most attractive countries for space-sector businesses of all sizes and for talent to grow and thrive (as flagged in the UK National Space Strategy, 2021).

Overall, our panellists are positive about the UK's general direction of travel based on the headlines from the UK's Plan for Space Sustainability. Many across the sector will be keen to see how the top level highlights announced to date are worked out in the detailed plans. Striking a careful and necessary balance between the protection of the space ecosystem for all and the promotion of space business will be a critical yardstick of how the UK translates vision into reality.

Our special thanks go to our panel of: Anthony Baker, CEO of SatelliteVu, Simon Reid, COO of D-Orbit UK, Nick Shave, Managing Director of Astroscale UK and Martin Soltau, Co-Chair of Space Energy Initiative and Head of Space at Frazer Nash Consultancy.

Chair of the webinar, John Worthy, Partner and Head of Satellite and Space Projects at Fieldfisher, commented: "As the world grapples with the joint challenges of managing space for the benefit of current and future generations, and the pressing need to reduce carbonisation, the UK government has planted a valuable flag on the road to a sustainable future. The acid test is how the desire to protect the space ecosystem will be balanced with ongoing support for space business, avoiding the dangers of over-reaching regulation. Getting this equilibrium right will be a key building block in enabling the UK space sector to continue its growth and seize the commercial opportunities, while helping to protect the planet and the space around it."

For a copy of the recording of the webinar, please email John Worthy. Look out for details of the next Fieldfisher Space Business webinar soon.

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