Page last updated at 21:40 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 22:40 UK

UK urged to fund climate project

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Glasgow

Sentinel-1 (Esa)
Sentinel-1: Astrium believes the UK position lost it the contract

The UK government has been urged to fund the next stage of a major European programme to monitor the effects of global climate change from space.

The trade body UKspace made the call ahead of a key ministerial meeting.

Britain entered Kopernikus, the world's biggest environmental monitoring project, at a quarter of the funding level preferred by industry.

UK companies are understood to have lost out on lucrative contracts as a result.

The programme will combine data from state-of-the-art satellites and hundreds of other sources to provide an accurate understanding of the land, oceans and atmosphere.

Most countries have put in more money than is required. It's only the UK that has been under-returned
John Auburn, UKspace


Data from the long-term monitoring project - originally named Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) - will inform policy-makers and help set the pace for climate change adaptation.

UKspace said 130m over nine years would be needed to ensure the UK played a significant role alongside its European partners.

Richard Peckham, the UKspace chairman, and business development director at EADS-Astrium in the UK, said: "This is a crucial programme. At the last ministerial [meeting], the UK didn't really play the sort of role we would have expected.

Larsen B ice shelf
Kopernikus will use satellites to monitor the global environment

"Verbally, the UK has taken a lead on environment and climate. But when it came to the last ministerial, we stepped short of the mark."

Then, the UK contributed just 11m for the entire first segment, or phase, of Kopernikus (the new name for GMES). This amounted to just 4.5% of the share of the cost of the programme based on the size of UK's gross domestic product (GDP); whereas industry expected Britain to pull its full economic weight and participate at around 17%.

Sources told the BBC that officials within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is leading the UK's participation, may not originally have recognised the programme's significance.

The European Space Agency's (Esa) rules of "juste retour" ensure the work which returns to a member state reflects the financial contribution they make to a programme.

Space race

Astrium UK, headquartered in Stevenage, is understood to have positioned itself as prime contractor to build the system's first satellite - called Sentinel-1. Because of the UK's low level of funding, Astrium lost the contract, worth 229m euros, to rival Thales Alenia Space.

Under the contracts, companies also build a second, replica satellite.

"This is part of a global initiative to look at what's happening to the Earth," said John Auburn, a past chair of UKspace, and business development director at the Vega Group.

When Envisat is retired, the Sentinel-5 precursor will ensure continuity

He added: "Hopefully the UK will go in at GDP level for the remainder of the programme, which is good for industry and academia.

"So far [the programme] is over-returned, so most countries have put in more money than is required. It's only the UK that has been under-returned."

But Colin Challen MP, chair of the all party parliamentary group on climate change, sounded a positive note.

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Glasgow, he said: "I think the government will be supporting it fully. A decision will be made in just a few weeks' time.

"But I think it's a bit disturbing if we think we can in any way at all freeload on the science. I don't think that's the general approach in Britain."

Crunch time

Officials at Astrium said the company was now working to position itself to win contracts as part of the programme's second funding segment, worth around 1bn euros.

Key decisions on this part of the project will be made on 25 and 26 November, when European space ministers meet in The Hague, the Netherlands.

A key target for UK industry is the contract to build the Sentinel 5 pre-cursor satellite, which is crucial for monitoring global climate change. Continuity of data is considered vital in order for scientists to assess trends in global climate.

The Sentinel-5 precursor is designed to fill just such a gap in scientific observations.

"It's absolutely mandatory to have this mission to avoid a big gap between the data from the Envisat satellite, whose lifetime is due to run out in 2013 and Sentinel 5 'proper' which is due to be launched around 2019 or 2020," said Barbara Ghinelli, business development director at Astrium.

Mr Auburn said another aim at the upcoming ministerial was to cement the idea of a climate change centre as part of the Esa facility planned for Harwell in the UK.

Professor Alan O'Neill, director of the National Centre for Earth Observation, said: "Kopernikus has enormous potential to provide vital information on climate and environmental change.

He added: "[Britain] is a world leader in climate change policy, science, understanding and space technology. The Kopernikus programme together with the planned Esa facility in the UK and related ground data-processing systems will help UK leadership to be maintained."

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