Britain threatens to cut Kopernikus programme funding for climate spy in space

Scientists warn cash crisis will block satellites monitoring global warming

A major programme to monitor climate change from space could be in jeopardy after it emerged that the British government is poised to slash funding for the project.

Climate scientists and campaigners have expressed deep concerns over the likely cut to the £128m promised to the Kopernikus programme, which came to light just days after the government stepped up its commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

'The worry from the scientists is that it is essential to understand and monitor this change globally and it's not clear at this stage whether we're going to have the essential measurements to do that,' said Paul Monks, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Leicester.

Kopernikus is the world's most ambitious environmental monitoring project. Led by the European Space Agency and funded by European member states to the tune of more than €1bn, it features satellites and a network of ground stations to monitor the effects of climate change, such as deforestation and coastal erosion. It has the specific purpose of providing accurate data for policymakers around the world. The first of the five satellites, packed with scientific instruments, Sentinel 1, is due to be sent into orbit in 2011. 'It's essential that we recognise that the Earth is changing and that we put an Earth-management plan in place. Kopernikus is that global view of a changing environment,' said Monks.

British scientists had been led to believe that the UK would take part with a 17 per cent share of the Kopernikus project, costing £128m over five years. But at a meeting last week of the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change, it emerged that the government agencies tasked with finding the money, which include Defra, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) and the Natural and Environmental Research Council (Nerc), were having trouble finding the cash. 'There were rumours in the last week that Nerc had found £20m, Defra around £8m,' said Mike Healy of the satellite-manufacturing company Astrium.

Campaigners criticised the potential shortfall, which has come as Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband increased the UK legal target to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from 60 per cent to 80 per cent by 2050.

'There is going to be a huge need for data on deforestation, water runoff, flooding, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, large-scale fires,' said Mary Taylor, climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth. 'Satellite data can be extremely helpful in gathering lots of good, precise data about where exactly changes are happening on the Earth's surface.'

The shortfall for Kopernikus could also have dire implications for British climate science. 'It will have effects on our claim to be climate leaders, it'll have effects on our ability to influence the way the programme goes,' said Shaun Quegan, of the University of Sheffield and a member of the National Centre for Earth Observation.

Monks added that Kopernikus was crucial for global efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. 'We're moving from this state where we've been trying to understand what's going on to the state where we need to monitor the vast amounts of money we're going to spend mitigating and adapting to climate change.'

The problems are exacerbated by the fact that the main environmental monitoring satellite already in space - Envisat - was due to go offline last year and will not be replaced until 2019. 'We're slowly going blind,' said Healy.

Defra would not comment on the funding concerns. A spokesperson said: 'The UK government is committed to supporting this valuable environmental monitoring programme and no final funding decisions have yet been taken.'

The final decisions on the funding for Kopernikus will be made next month, when European space ministers meet in The Hague. British scientists fear that their only option will be to appeal directly to Downing Street for the extra money.


Alok Jha

The GuardianTramp

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