Deforestation has increased drastically over the last decade and studies have found that this could have played a leading role in permitting the spread of the coronavirus. Through changing technology to a space-based approach we could collectively address these mounting global challenges, argues Daniel Mackisack.

In case anyone needed another reason to protect the environment, here it is. A recent study published in Nature suggests that deforestation and environmental degradation may play a lead role in spreading zoonotic viruses such as that behind the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study shows that "Known wildlife hosts of human-shared pathogens and parasites" overall comprise a greater proportion of local species richness (18-72 per cent higher) and total abundance (21-144 per cent higher) in sites under substantial human use (secondary, agricultural and urban ecosystems) compared with nearby undisturbed habitats."

It's not the first study to indicate the phenomena. National Geographic published a similar warning in November 2019 – a month before the Coronavirus emerged – and a 2017 study, also in Nature, found a link between deforestation and repeated Ebola outbreaks.

The existential threat of climate change and a loss in biodiversity has already been made abundantly clear. Now we can add 'global pandemic' and 'economic catastrophe' to the list of visible symptoms.

Governments have been involved in anti-deforestation efforts for centuries, albeit often more in protecting royal hunting prerogatives than ensuring biodiversity. The world's first National Park was Yellowstone founded in 1872 as part of the conservationist movement. These policies have generated some successes. In the United Kingdom total woodland area fell to under 5 per cent in 1919. Today it stands just under 13 per cent. Yet, when it comes to the rainforest and mitigating the effects of climate change, we don't have the luxury of a century to see results.

The practice of protecting forests from illegal logging and destruction has proven elusive. Particularly in places such as Brazil. Indeed the World Wildlife Fund and Interpol estimate that illegal logging accounts for 50-90 per cent of all forestry activity in key tropical forests such as those in the Amazon basin, Central Africa and South East Asia.

The difficulty of the situation is in part due to development issues and in part a rather limited toolbox to combat the problem. When a tree falls in a forest somewhere there is often no one around to hear. Patrolling and police efforts can be effective but, there are often steep costs associated with such a policy which scale over such vast areas.

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Thus, governments can often struggle to work out the most effective solution. Take for example the European Union's limited approach to tackling deforestation by simply implementing a de facto ban on importing palm oil for biodiesel. Global Forest Watch estimates that Indonesia, as one example, lost 26.8 million hectares of forest between 2001 and 2019 alone. An area the size of New Zealand. Yet unfortunately, the implied switch to alternative crops may be even more resource intensive and drive even greater rates of deforestation.

What is required, is more than just policy, but a change in technology. The best approach to addressing deforestation, effectively and efficiently, may come from an unexpected direction. Above.

Below the tree line we may need to look up to space. Satellites and other space-based technologies offer a means to monitor, in real time, environmental activities. This would allow for the certification of sustainable products and the verification of supply chains, while also allowing governments to act multilaterally in the enforcement of anti-deforestation efforts – potentially also in near-real time.

Not surprisingly a British government survey released this summer found that satellite based measures could be 12 times more cost-effective than other approaches. Such technologies, already in limited use, are also scalable. More recently Glenn Hurowtiz, the CEO of anti-deforestation NGO Mighty Earth, pointed at the fact that forests in Malaysia have been saved through such technology and described it as a potential "blueprint" for halting deforestation in the Amazon Basin. Something which has sadly increased under right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who is only now caving to international pressure to halt the destruction.

In Malaysia, Hurowitz pointed out that "deforestation for palm oil has plummeted from a million acres per year to fewer than 250,000 acres in each of the past three years." Due to this new approach, he said, "there are many orangutans, tree kangaroos, and other endangered animals that are alive today". It's not enough, but it's a start.

The key is sharing the tech. If Europe, the UK and others want to help end deforestation, they should be working with international partners to share technology and space-based solutions, ensuring that those, including impacted communities on the ground, have the data and resources they need to work effectively. Imposing regulations on products without also giving states the capabilities to meet those regulations is ultimately harmful to global development and might simply make matters worse.

What's more, the same UK government report mentioned above also found that such technologies can be effective in fighting human trafficking and other social problems. Indeed, there is another issue at play here – one of determining how we collectively benefit from space. It is something we should conceive of, not just as a burgeoning market for private enterprise, but as an area where collaboration and cooperation can help solve problems here on earth. Harnessed properly, space based technologies can not only reduce costs and improve the effectiveness of addressing global challenges, but help create shared prosperity.

They can, in a very real sense, save the planet for future generations.

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