Upernavik Glacier in Avannaata, Greenland @ 2021, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Andrew Zolli is Chief Impact Officer at Planet.

Planet Arrives at COP26 to Enable Systems Change, Take Climate Action, and Make the Invisible Visible


This week, the most important convening on Earth, to ensure the future of the Earth, is assembling in Glasgow, Scotland. And Planet is here at COP26, doing our part to encourage radically ambitious climate action, using the best tools at our disposal.

It’s difficult to understate the stakes of this convening. Since the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement six years ago, the nations of the world have slowly begun to bend the curve on emissions, due largely to spectacular advances in renewable energy. Even so, we haven’t yet made anywhere near the progress required to avoid the worst effects of the climate emergency. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has modeled the five most likely scenarios, and determined that we now have only one narrow path through which we can avoid locking in the worst effects of climate change. That path requires us to take concerted action right now to avoid a planetary catastrophe by the end of the century. There can be no more dithering or predatory delay.

Putting the planet on a sustainable course will require significant changes to almost every sector of the global economy, including energy, transport, industry, agriculture, cities, finance, and land-use. That, in turn, will require deploying many powerful new technologies, incentivizing new behaviors, financing climate mitigation and adaptation, redesigning our financial system to account for climate realities, and wherever possible, valuing and encouraging the extraordinary regenerative power of nature itself. 

But these actions alone will not be sufficient. To ensure our progress, we’re going to need a system for monitoring, collecting, and analyzing vast streams of real-time information about our world, and our impacts upon it – a monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) system that can show us our status and our progress (or lack thereof) in real time. As our co-founder and CEO Will Marshall notes, any time you build a satellite, you need to measure its behavior faster than it changes; if you don’t, you run the risk of it tumbling out of control. We need just such a guidance system for the Earth itself, to safely navigate the sustainability transition.

That’s where Planet – along with our partners and collaborators – can help. Our technologies are designed to monitor and classify changes everywhere on Earth, every day, in high resolution. The data we produce are essential ingredients in independent, trusted climate indicators that can make visible what’s happened in the past, help guide informed action in the present, and improve transparency and reporting to guide decisions in the future. 

Carbon Mapper satellite rendering @ 2021, Planet Labs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Two of the big stories we’ll be sharing at COP26 – our work measuring deforestation across the tropics with the Norwegian government and UNFAO, and measuring GHG emissions with our partners Climate TRACE and Carbon Mapper – each speak to the role data can play in driving climate-positive systems change. 

Let’s start with forests. Ever since Adam Smith (a Scotsman, fittingly) wrote the Wealth of Nations, Capitalism has produced unrivaled wealth. But it’s been incomplete  –  in part because it has treated the natural world as something limitless, self-replenishing and free – and thus ‘external’ to our financial decisions. Because it was too cheap to meter, it went unmeasured and unvalued, with no feedback loop to tell us when we’d gone too far in its exploitation.

You see the lasting impacts of this today. Consider Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies. Its value is computed billions of times a day, down to a fraction of a penny. Compare that to the actual Amazon, the vast ecosystem for whom the company is named: its value is only measured when its trees are cut down and turned into timber, or when its land is cleared for mining or agriculture.

But of course, those old-growth forests are not just some valueless raw material or natural resource, but home to countless Indigenous peoples, vast biodiversity, and the living machinery that not only stores carbon we emit but also helps make breathing on this planet possible. Not to mention that the Amazon is indescribably beautiful — and worth saving for that reason alone.

By measuring and monitoring the Amazon’s forests continuously, Planet can integrate these externalities into our economic thinking. Today, under a special program financed by the Norwegian government, Planet’s data helps power the UN’s REDD+ program, a mechanism developed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It creates financial incentives for countries to reduce emissions by avoiding deforestation and investing in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. Planet’s monitoring tools provide a key, independent measure of forest change that supports this global climate-change program, and we’ll be convening many of the key actors at the COP. 

Likewise, Planet is working on breakthrough efforts to independently measure climate emissions. We are a key provider of data to Climate TRACE, a global coalition of scientific and technical organizations and NGOs created to make meaningful climate action faster and easier by independently tracking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with unprecedented detail and speed. Climate TRACE harnesses satellite imagery and other forms of remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and collective data science expertise to track human-caused GHG emissions in real-time, as they happen. 

We’re also a key partner in Carbon Mapper, a pioneering, public-private partnership that is building the world’s most complete space-borne monitoring system for methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) point source emissions. A collection of world-class collaborators – including ​​Planet, Carbonmapper.org, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL), the State of California, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University (ASU), High Tide Foundation, and RMI – powered by philanthropy – have come together to build and deploy a constellation of hyperspectral satellites, with the ability to measure methane and CO2 emissions cheaply and independently, with unrivaled sensitivity, at their source. This system will dramatically improve the completeness and timeliness of point-source methane detection – empowering a new era in climate emissions transparency, accountability, and action.

By making the invisible visible, Climate TRACE, Carbon Mapper, and our collaboration with the Norwegian government all enable the kinds of behaviors, policies and incentives that can drive systems-change at scale. As we must, we’re working with a wide variety of partners to help foster this kind of systems-change. 

We are living through challenges that can seem insurmountable. But we’ve never had better tools to bring to bear on them. Our challenge – and our hope – for COP26 is that the world can align for genuine action, not just talk. It will take all of us stepping forward together, without excuse or delay. 

The future of the planet can’t wait.

If you’ll be in Glasgow, we’ll be hosting several events where you can meet these partners and learn more.