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#SpaceWatchGL Opinion: A Smarter SDG 18

by Nick Barracca

SDG 18 Logo credit SDG18 LInkedIn

2020 is a pivotal year for sustainable development and the start of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Decade of Action. This month, UN representatives hope to accelerate the SDG’s stunted progress during a high-level political forum, which is desperately needed so the world builds back better from the coronavirus pandemic.

Space organizations are active in these discussions. UNOOSA, SWF, and the MIT Space Enabled research group have highlighted the importance of space data. Others like the National Space Society and graduate students from Leiden Law School and Windesheim Honors College have called for an 18th goal for space.

But those calling for an 18th SDG have outlined sustainability principles without specific development targets for the 2030 agenda. The SDGs have S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) targets that are relevant to people’s well-being and sustainable development. Based on the adopted plan of action, UN representatives considered space a domain with technology to support other goals rather than its own distinct environment.

Our society relies on vital space-based technology, whether its GPS navigation, telecommunication, accurate weather predictions, and even digital time verification for financial transactions. But the rapid militarization of space and growth of the New Space economy is crowding and threatening the space domain.

Therefore, the space community needs to set their own SDG-esque targets for the orbital environment. To be fair, agreement on targets would require compromise among geopolitical and business adversaries. Any voluntary effort would be difficult to monitor and implement. Even if an agreement were reached, progress would be tracked outside the UN system, which is unlikely to recognize a new goal five years into the current agenda with the ongoing crises.

However, the space community cannot wait for recognition of space as its own unique environment in a post-2030 agenda, which is not guaranteed. A goal without targets or a deadline will fail. So, based on what I overheard during previous SDG 18 discussions, I drafted rough, preliminary Space SDG outcomes (numeric) and process (alphabetical) targets:

  • 18.1 Building Space Capacity for Sustainable Development (modeled on SDG 4.7 & 17.9) – Many groups recognize space-based data and technology are important for achieving the current SDGs. By 2030, those learning about sustainable development should acquire the knowledge and skills to use space technology. Stakeholders should support expertise and build capacity among national space agencies in developing countries.
  • 18.2 Enhance Representation at the International Space Station (ISS) (modeled on SDG 5.5 & 10.6) – The ISS needs more gender and international representation. While operated by 15 countries, of the 240 individuals who have visited the ISS, there have been 34 women and 3 visitors from non-OECD and non-G20 countries.
  • 18.3 Reduce Space Debris (modeled on SDG 14.1) – The European Space Agency estimates there are more than 8,800 tonnes of space debris in orbit. We are polluting the celestial environment like we pollute our planet. The global community needs to prevent and significantly reduce space debris of all kinds, including those caused by ASAT testing.
  • 18.4 Improve Space Situational Awareness (modeled on SDG 2.3) – In a recent AIAA blog, Dr. Moriba Jah, Space Security and Safety Lead at UT-Austin’s Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law, wrote to set norms in space “it comes down to what should be measured, and by whom, and who should have access to these measurements.” As we prepare to conduct more activities in space, we need to promote international cooperation and transparency.
  • 18.5 Implement Integrated Space Traffic Management (modeled on SDG 6.5) – The orbital environment is a global common that requires transboundary cooperation, not state level solutions. With the rapid growth of the commercial sector, an integrated space traffic management model could centralize and better facilitate coordination among satellite operators.
  • 18.6 Support the Growing Space Economy (modeled on SDG 8.3) – Promote decent job creation, entrepreneurships and innovation, and growth of small- and medium-sized space enterprises, especially in developing countries.
  • 18.A Universal Adoption of COPUOS Space Law (modeled on SDG 13.A) – UNOOSA has an important role to help achieve these targets and build new space agreements with multiple stakeholders. Every year since 2010, there has been a UN General Assembly resolution adding member states to COPUOS, which now works with 95 countries.
  • 18.B Increase Scientific Knowledge, Research, and Technology for Space (modeled on SDG 14.A) – We need more research to understand space phenomena, like solar weather, and how the space environment will affect our well-being back on earth.

Whenever the next space SDG discussion takes place (e.g. Summit for Space Sustainability, UN COPOUS, etc.), I hope there is a greater focus on the underlying targets. The devil is in the details.

Nicholas Barracca; Photo courtesy of the author

Nick Barracca is a Master of Global Policy Studies (MGPS) graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at University of Texas – Austin and Vice President of the Texas Space Law & Policy Society (TXSLAPS). This contribution is in partnership with the Space Security and Safety program at the UT-Austin Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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