A healthy society requires a healthy planet

 |   Brad Smith - President

In January we launched Microsoft’s carbon initiative, setting new goals for our company to become carbon negative by the end of this decade. While COVID-19 has upended daily life for almost all of us since then, sustainability issues have become no less urgent or important. That’s why today we’re announcing the second step in our sustainability efforts for 2020, focusing on preserving and protecting the biodiversity and health of the world’s ecosystems.

Nature and the benefits that it provides to people are the foundation of our global economy, our culture, and the overall human experience.  We depend on clean air, water, food, medicine, energy, and building materials that nature provides, but these very ecosystems are threatened or already in decline. Maintaining nature for the benefit of current and future generations is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Deploying technology to support this global effort is one of ours.

Microsoft’s new biodiversity initiative is multi-faceted. Perhaps most importantly, it aims to put data and digital technology to work, including through an ambitious program to aggregate environmental data from around the world and put it to work in a new “Planetary Computer.” We will combine this with new work to enable partners and customers to use the resulting output to enhance environmental decision-making in their organizational activities. We’ll also use it to speak out on ecosystem-related public policy issues and take responsibility for Microsoft’s own land footprint.

Biodiversity and ecosystems in decline

As with the carbon issues we addressed in January, we believe that our work on biodiversity should be science-led and data-driven. One of the most important steps in this field has come from the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which is responsible for monitoring the health of the planet, and which last year issued its first Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The news was grim. A quarter of the planet’s species are threatened with extinction. Wetlands that purify and store water and provide habitats for thousands of species have been reduced by 87 percent. Coral reefs that provide aquatic habitats, food, natural flood barriers, medicine and millions of tourism jobs have declined by 50 percent in the modern era. Mammals, birds, and other wildlife populations are down almost 60 percent in the last 40 years, and the number of species threatened with extinction continues to rise rapidly. When an animal dies off, the ecosystem it called home begins to unravel and the implications can be catastrophic.

Take one example, the impact of insects on our health and economic prosperity. Insects are a group whose diversity and abundance has fallen dramatically over the past few decades. Insects are the base of the food chain, consumed by birds, fish, and small animals. Insect pollinators, including bees, are essential to the production of more than 75 percent of the world’s food crops. Without insects there is no food and without food, people can’t survive.

A principled approach to guide our work

Whenever we take on a new and complex societal issue, we strive first to learn and then to define a principled approach to guide our efforts. This has been fundamental to our work around the protection of privacy, the ethical development of artificial intelligence, our aggressive carbon goals, and our approach to biodiversity and ecosystems as well. Today we’re adopting four principles to guide our work in helping achieve global biodiversity goals. These are:

  1. Put data and digital technology to work. We can’t solve a problem that we don’t fully understand. That’s why we will aggregate environmental data from around the world and put it to work through computing and machine learning in a new Planetary Computer.
  2. Empower partners and customers around the world. We will use the Planetary Computer to develop and deploy the digital technology that helps our partners and customers with environmental decision-making in their organizational activities.
  3. Use our voice on ecosystem-related public policy issues. We will support and advocate for public policy initiatives that measure and manage ecosystems at the national and global scale.
  4. Take responsibility for our land footprint. We will take responsibility for the ecosystem impacts of our direct operations by protecting more land than we use by 2025.

Putting data and digital technology to work: The Planetary Computer

We do not know enough about species, biodiversity and ecosystems that are vital to our health and prosperity. Simply understanding where the world’s forest, fields and waterways are remains a daunting task of environmental accounting. Understanding what species call those ecosystems home or why they thrive or decline is largely unknown. We simply can’t solve a problem we don’t fully understand.

The world’s first such assessment was launched by the United Nations in 2000, and took nearly five years and more than 1,300 experts from around the world to complete. The more recent assessment, by the UN’s Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, was designed to close the gap between simple scientific insight and more effective policy implementation, was 1,700 pages, cited more than 15,000 scientific sources, and wasn’t published until 15 years after the first. These are years that we can’t afford as our environmental challenges intensify. It is abundantly clear that the world needs greater access to environmental data to assess, diagnose and treat the natural systems that society depends on. This is why data powered by machine learning will be a game changer.

Assessing the planet’s health must become a more sustained, integrated practice that allows us to understand exactly what is happening in time to enable smart decision-making. Fortunately, there is massive potential for technology to revolutionize our environmental assessment practices, so they are faster, cheaper, and – for the first time – operate at a truly global scale. It should be as easy for anyone in the world to search the state of the planet as it is to search the internet for driving directions or dining options. We must use the architecture of the information age – data, compute, algorithms, application programming interfaces and end-user applications – to accelerate a more environmentally sustainable future.

Two-and-a-half years ago, we took our first step in this direction by launching Microsoft’s AI for Earth program to put artificial intelligence technology into the hands of the world’s leading ecologists and conservation technologists, and organizations around the world that are working to protect our planet. So far, we’ve worked to empower nearly 500 organizations in 81 countries around the world working on game-changing environmental innovations.

Yet for all the great work of our AI for Earth community, we have also learned that they need more. They need much greater access to data, more intuitive access to machine learning tools, and a greater ability to share their work and build on the work of others than our program currently provides.

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Our community needs a new kind of computing platform – a Planetary Computer, a platform that would provide access to trillions of data points collected by people and by machines in space, in the sky, in and on the ground and in the water. One that would allow users to search by geographic location instead of keyword. Where users could seamlessly go from asking a question about what environments are in their area of interest, to asking where a particular environment exists around the world. A platform that would allow users to provide new kinds of answers to new kinds of questions by providing access to state-of-the-art machine learning tools and the ability to publish new results and predictions as services available to the global community.

This Planetary Computer would provide insights into critical questions that scientists, conservation organizations and businesses already ask every day, often with no easy way to obtain a locally relevant answer. For example:

  • Understanding tree density, land use and size of forests has implications for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. Organizations often conduct expensive on-the-ground surveys or build customized solutions to understand local forests. The Planetary Computer will provide satellite imagery, state-of-the-art machine learning tools, and user-contributed data about forest boundaries from which forest managers will have an integrated view of forest health.
  • Urban planners and farmers depend on forecasts of water availability and flood risks to make educated guesses about land management. The Planetary Computer will provide satellite data, local measurements of streams and groundwater, and predictive algorithms that will empower land planners and farmers to make data-driven decisions about water resources.
  • Wildlife conservation organizations depend on their own local surveys, global views of wildlife populations, and suitable habitats for wildlife. The Planetary Computer will combine information about terrain types and ecosystems with the best available data about where species live, enabling a global community of wildlife biologists to benefit from each other’s data.
  • Combating climate changes requires organizations to measure and manage natural resources that sequester carbon, like trees, grasslands, and soil. The Planetary Computer will combine satellite imagery with AI to provide up-to-date information about ecosystems, and provide a platform for leveraging predictive models to estimate global carbon stocks and inform decisions about land use that impact our ability to address climate change.

That’s why we are announcing today that we are entering the next phase of our AI for Earth program, dedicated to building this Planetary Computer platform through dedicated investments in infrastructure development. We will provide our AI for Earth community – more than 500 grants in 81 countries – access to the world’s critical environmental datasets, and a computing platform to analyze those datasets on. We will also further invest in specific environmental solution areas like species identification, land cover mapping, and land use optimization. We’re starting with a new AI for Earth collaboration with the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network. This $1 million AI for Earth grant will support projects that strengthen efforts to monitor Earth’s biodiversity and create useful measurements required for the study, reporting, and management of biodiversity change that inform conservation decisions across the globe.

This Planetary Computer is incredibly complex, and we cannot build it alone. We must continue to learn from the work and demands of our grantees, while partnering with the organizations best suited to advance global environmental goals. That is why we are deepening our partnership with Esri, a company that is a market leader in geographical information system software with years of experience building environmental monitoring solutions.

We began our partnership with Esri at the launch of AI for Earth through shared technology granting programs. Microsoft and Esri share the goals of making geospatial data and analysis – meaning the gathering, display and manipulation of information about Earth systems – available to every sustainability researcher and practitioner around the world, and ensuring that every conservation organization can contribute its local data back to that global repository. Through hands-on collaboration and grants, Esri has helped conservation organizations all over the world – working on endangered species conservation, land protection, and the basic science that lets us understand the natural world – transform their operations to leverage digital spatial information. From mapping forest loss to combating elephant poaching, organizations depend on Esri’s tools and expertise to understand and protect the ecosystems in which they operate.

We are deepening our partnership around the development of the machine learning-based geospatial solutions that are the foundation of the Planetary Computer. We are building on work we started with the launch of AI for Earth: Jointly supporting key partners like the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Half-Earth Project and NatureServe’s Map of Biodiversity Importance. We are making key geospatial datasets available on Azure and accessible through Esri tools later this year. And we will continue to partner to provide grants that ensure conservation organizations have access to the datasets, compute and other resources.

Empowering customers

We also believe it’s vital to help our customers with technology solutions to biodiversity conservation challenges. We are building the tools and services to help customers around the world understand the ecosystem around them today as it exists, monitor and model changes from climate or human behavior, and manage these in a way that protects biodiversity, their community’s well-being and way of life and the planet.

For instance, we are already helping the Department of Primary Industry and Resources (DPIR) in Australia’s Northern Territory use AI to monitor and manage marine health by rapidly analyzing underwater video captured around Darwin Harbour. The solution is now available to anyone on GitHub, built using Azure Machine Learning Service to automate the labor-intensive process of counting local fish stocks by progressively learning to identify different varieties of fish.

Monitoring is an important first step; ecosystem protection requires on-the-ground action as well. That is why we will continue to work closely with organizations like Wildlife Protection Solutions and Peace Parks, which depend on remote cameras to detect and respond to poaching threats. Both organizations are leveraging Azure and Microsoft AI to efficiently process images, so they can allocate scarce anti-poaching resources in protected areas all over the world.

We’re also accelerating our investments in precision agriculture, including how digital technologies like AI can help boost crop yield while reducing the impact of farming on lands and other natural resources. Companies like Ag-Analytics and AVR are using the Internet of Things, AI and machine learning on Azure to collect precision data at the field level so farmers can make decisions that balance yield, resource consumption and soil health. These insights can help grow food in less conventional places as well. For example, Priva uses Dynamics 365 and M365 to digitally transform its operations, and Azure to add innovative data services to its product range, dramatically reducing water consumption and increasing yields for customers growing food in greenhouses, vertical farms, or even in underground tunnels.

Using our voice on ecosystems policies

Governments play a unique and important role in measuring and managing ecosystems and biodiversity as they collect and make publicly available massive amounts of data critical to environmental science. They also own billions of acres of public land that they can use to protect, manage and restore critical ecosystems.  And, they establish and implement policies governing the use and management of natural resources and ecosystems.

We will use our voice to speak out on four public policy issues that we think can advance the world’s efforts to protect and restore ecosystems:

  • National ecosystem assessments. National ecosystem assessments allow governments to understand what is happening in a country’s natural environment and what actions are needed to safeguard critical ecosystem services. National assessments – involving scientists and policymakers from across federal and regional agencies, universities and NGOs –examine how a nation’s water, land and other ecosystems have changed, what are the likely future scenarios and what are the potential economic, social and political impacts from such scenarios. These assessments enable governments to develop data-driven policies about how best to provide ecosystem services and manage their natural resources. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and China, have undertaken national ecosystem assessments. European Union (EU) member states have been conducting national ecosystem assessments and the European Commission plans to release its new biodiversity strategy later this year with new commitments to address the main causes of biodiversity loss in the EU.
  • Infrastructure to accelerate measuring and monitoring of ecosystems. Governments play an important role in expanding digital infrastructure to monitor ecosystems and ensure the data is available to the public. By using digital tools and advanced computing capabilities, governments can collect, integrate and make publicly available data from on the ground sensors, satellites and atmospheric monitor stations to give us more accurate and real-time insight into the health of our ecosystems. In addition, governments can help expand broadband connectivity to rural and remote areas so that farmers, fisherman, foresters and key environment stakeholders can utilize and leverage data and digital tools to better manage natural resources.
  • Public land and water conservation. A primary mechanism for conservation is the allocation of government funding for the acquisition and maintenance of public land and water for conservation, recreational and natural preservation. Governments purchase land to establish national parks, protect environmental sensitive ecosystems and wetlands, create wildlife refuges and preserve cultural heritage sites. For example, the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund was created in 1964 to purchase land for these purposes.  There is a bipartisan legislative proposal in the U.S. Congress that would permanently guarantee $900 million a year for this conservation fund and finance the backlog of maintenance at national parks.
  • Public-private partnerships. Governments can also help encourage and facilitate investments by nongovernmental organizations or individuals and the private sector to protect and restore critical ecosystems. Governments can remove administrative barriers, provide matching grants, identify critical areas to protect, and create voluntary markets for eco-credits. The EU is proposing a new public-private partnership effort supporting data-driven research to stop the loss of biodiversity. An example of this type of work is BiodivERsA, which is doing critically important programming and funding of pan-European research on biodiversity. Governments around the world are developing public-private partnerships to support the U.N. Environment Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization in their Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. For example, the World Economic Forum recently launched a public-private initiative to reforest and regenerate 1 trillion trees by 2030.

It’s critical that countries also work collectively to protect biodiversity and manage ecosystems.  We have seen progress since countries first came together to address this issue at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and launched the Convention on Biological Diversity.  Working through the U.N., governments have established IPBES as the scientific body that studies ecosystems, conducted the first global ecosystem assessment and proposed global ecosystem targets. We hope countries will approve these targets at the next meeting of the parties later this year.

Taking responsibility for our land footprint

As part of our focus on biodiversity and ecosystems, we are taking responsibility for our own relatively small land footprint. Microsoft operates on 11,000 acres of land globally. That’s equal to about three-fourths the size of Manhattan in New York City. You can see in this visualization where we operate by ecoregion and by biome. Today we are also committing to protect more land than we use by 2025, using approaches like land acquisition, conservation easement, national park creation, and community or indigenous-led conservation. We’ll protect and restore land in partnership with The Nature Conservancy globally and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in the United States. We will use a data-driven approach to identify ecosystems most at risk, using The Nature Conservancy’s newly launched last chance ecosystem framework  and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s national landscape conservation framework.

As we are doing with our carbon initiative, we will capitalize on the energy and intellect of our employees by inviting them to participate in volunteering and giving efforts focused on biodiversity and ecosystems. In addition to our annual OneWeek Hackathon, where over a hundred projects focused on environmental sustainability in 2019, employees can become citizen scientists in a new iNaturalist bioblitz with the goal of adding 100,000 new observations to iNaturalist in the ecosystems where Microsoft operates, or in Zooniverse people-powered research projects with the goal of adding 100,000 annotations to support conservation science projects around the world.

Our collective challenge

The clock is ticking on our ability to measure and manage the planet’s natural resources. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that the health of people, animals and our shared natural environment are closely connected. As we have seen with the wildlife origins of the coronavirus, including SARS and MERS, this link cannot be ignored. We must work together to determine how we maximize the benefits that nature provides to people while minimizing the environmental harm of our activities. It won’t be easy, but it is possible if we put the pieces together. It is time to accelerate our work.

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