United in biodiversity: making room for nature in Europe

The more biodiverse, the more secure life on Earth is. But species, including our own, are under threat. 22% of European animal species and over 50% of native trees are now at risk of extinction, while 75% of insects losses were recorded in nature reserves in Germany. Even the smallest of species disappearing can have catastrophic implications. The recent pandemic has shown all too clearly how fragile and interconnected ecosystems are, and how dependent our wellbeing is on the health and integrity of all species.

The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 that was introduced today by Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans and presented by Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, aims to “bring nature back into our lives” in Europe, to increase protected areas across the EU, and to identify new measures for managing and restoring ecosystems.

The release of the strategy couldn’t be timelier. With societies fighting the global pandemic, the focus has rightly been on supporting healthcare services and protecting our economies and jobs. However, taking a sustainable approach to post-COVID-19 recovery is essential for rebuilding a healthy society and a healthy economy. Indeed, as the Commission points out, almost half of global GDP depends on nature and the services it provides. The Biodiversity Strategy emphasizes the vital role that business can and should play in helping to protect the planet’s ecosystems, not only by reducing their own environmental footprint, but also through advancing innovation and partnerships to tackle biodiversity loss.

We at Microsoft are ready to do our part. Just last month, we shared plans focused on preserving and protecting the world’s ecosystems through the power of data and technology.

In fact, data – or the lack thereof – is a key issue when it comes to addressing biodiversity loss in Europe. The Biodiversity Strategy rightly points out that all efforts need to be underpinned by sound science, calling for improved data and indicators on biodiversity. Current data varies considerably from country to country and depending on the species in question. This is a challenge that goes beyond Europe.

Knowledge gaps, reinforced by the interconnected nature of global ecosystems, are hampering decision making. Without an understanding of the full extent of biodiversity loss, it’s hard to measure the impact of protection and restoration efforts. Efforts to assess the state of ecosystems have been recently made by IPBES, but such assessments take many years to complete and time is running out. To increase the availability of and access to timely and comparable environmental data, Microsoft has announced plans for a Planetary Computer. This is an AI-driven platform that will collate trillions of data points, collected by people and machines in space, in the sky, in and on the ground, and in the water, and generate insights and predictions on the state of our environment in real-time. For example, it will combine information about different 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.

As part of our Open Data Campaign we have also announced that we will make our AI for Good initiatives, including AI for Earth, “open by default” to help solve major challenges and contribute to closing the environmental data gap. Both efforts can support environmental research and help improve conservation efforts in Europe.

Since 2017, we’ve put artificial intelligence technology into the hands of more than 600 organizations working in 85 countries worldwide through our AI for Earth program. Over 100 of these projects are run by organizations in Europe, and several are focused on tackling Europe-specific biodiversity challenges.

In Sweden, for instance, where forests cover 70 percent of the country, the Swedish Forestry Agency is using AI for arboriculture and pest control. German organization we4bee is helping address the worrying decline in bee populations with AI-powered beehives. And grantees of our AI for Earth EU Oceans Award are focusing their efforts on studying and analyzing changes in marine ecosystems.

The Commission is right to emphasize that the scale of the challenge requires a multi-stakeholder approach. Public-private partnerships, including those on the Horizon Europe research agenda, are important for filling knowledge gaps and finding solutions to improve the health of ecosystems. A dedicated “Biodiversity Partnership” will link researchers and practitioners, and support data-driven research to stop the loss of biodiversity. A great example of this type of work is led by BiodivERsA, which is funding and supporting critically important pan-European research on biodiversity.

Protecting the natural habitats we live in and from is essential to securing the health, wellbeing and future of all species. This is no small ambition and, as the European Commission points out, achieving it demands active participation and cooperation from all actors in society.

The EU has already shown strong leadership through its commitment to becoming the first climate-neutral continent and Europe will continue to set the global sustainability agenda, including long-term biodiversity goals. The Biodiversity Strategy is yet another step towards demonstrating that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand and that this is the only way to ensure the wellbeing and economic prosperity of present and future generations. It is an ambitious plan that will shape the global response to halting biodiversity loss at a critical moment in time. It is a plan that requires all of us to come together and work hard to connect all the necessary pieces.

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Casper Klynge
Vice President of European Government Affairs