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The catalytic potential of artificial intelligence for Earth observation

A new briefing paper, developed by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Deloitte, outlines how artificial intelligence (AI) can create economies of scale for Earth observation (EO) to inform decisive action for both climate mitigation and sustainable growth

Our world is experiencing ecological and climate crises of enormous scale. With an imperative for sustainability transformation across public and private sectors, reliable data and tools that can help to inform decisive action are vital for both climate mitigation and sustainable growth. EO by satellites, aircraft and ground-based sensors generates a rich stream of data with enormous potential to aid this transformation. With use cases as far-ranging as reforestation, detecting greenhouse gas emissions, shaping actuarial analyses and optimising supply chains, EO data’s value proposition appears compelling from both climate and business perspectives.

Commercial satellites are a boon to Earth data collection

EO refers to collecting information about activities and characteristics on Earth, both natural and artificial. EO data is used to monitor and measure the status of, and changes in, the environment and the impact of human activity on the environment.

The scale and quality of commercially available EO data has risen exponentially in the past decade, driven largely by new EO satellites. Over 1,170 EO satellites are currently in orbit-51% of which have been launched since 2019.

On board these satellites, advanced sensors offer dramatic improvements in the resolution and types of measurements that can be made at scale from space. The resulting volume of Earth images can be difficult to comprehend-hundreds of terabytes per day and rising. Add to that the data available from GPS-enabled and Internet of things devices and the scale of data created vastly outweighs the ability to analyse it.

AI is a pivotal tool in extracting value-added insights for climate action

Practically speaking, the value of EO data (as with any form of information) is not intrinsic. The extent of its value is tied to how and how widely, it is used. For example, EO data used to identify wildfire hazards becomes valuable when those insights drive actions to mitigate negative impacts.

Until recently, the complexity associated with analysing EO data has limited its use to relatively niche applications by government agencies, academia and non-profit organisation. However, the use of AI coupled with low-cost, high-performance computing has shown promise for both the public and, increasingly, private sectors. Like what recent advancements in large language models (LLMs) have done for text-based content, broadening the use of AI for EO may enable significant growth in the value derived from EO data.

The impacts of AI for EO will be profound:

  1. AI tools can answer complex questions with EO data. AI capabilities allow for more data to be processed quickly and accurately, helping to enable the transformation of vast reams of raw EO measurements into actionable insights.
  2. AI with intuitive user interfaces (UI) can make EO accessible to non-expert users. In the same way that ChatGPT awakened the world to the power of LLMs, the development of more intuitive UI will help to put AI-enabled EO insights in the hands of business users instead of only data scientists.
  3. AI for EO can drive business model innovation. As AI makes EO more accessible, scaled application becomes feasible for organisations across nearly all sectors and industries, setting the stage for disruption in commercial and sustainability-focused business models alike.

Collectively, these affects stand to not only help multiply the value derived from EO data, but to also provide additional trust and transparency in the actions being taken to transition to a net-zero economy. The ability to infuse consistent, objective measurements into climate-positive action and environmental disclosures helps to establish a common, verifiable source of truth.


The improvements in speed, cost and precision of information derived from EO, specifically from AI models and advanced computing, may create a new class of applications for a growing and diverse set of new users.

However, while technology gaps are closing, collective action and significantly greater investment are likely still needed to realise the potential benefits, which are critical for achieving climate goals and the Paris Agreement targets more specifically. A prioritised focus on governance, standards, open source solutions and business model innovation is paramount to equitable adoption on a global scale. The result can help to enable a new frontier of value creation across sectors and industries, including a more sustainable future for Earth.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Deloitte, has convened a community of leading EO data providers, users and related experts to advance EO’s transformative potential for businesses, people and the planet. Click here to learn more about the initiative.

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