Saving the world waits for no man, and despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Microsoft says sustainability issues have become no less urgent or important.

In January Microsoft launched Microsoft’s carbon initiative, setting new goals for the company to become carbon negative by the end of this decade. Today Microsoft is announcing the second step in their sustainability efforts for 2020, focusing on preserving and protecting the biodiversity and health of the world’s ecosystems.

Microsoft’s new biodiversity initiative 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.” Microsoft 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. Microsoft will 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

Microsoft believes that its work on biodiversity should be science-led and data-driven. Whenever Microsoft take on a new and complex societal issue, Microsoft strive first to learn and then to define a principled approach to guide their efforts. Today Microsoft is adopting four principles to guide their work in helping achieve global biodiversity goals.

These are:

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

Putting data and digital technology to work: The Planetary Computer

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. There is massive potential for technology to revolutionize their 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.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Microsoft took their 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 their planet. So far, Microsoft has worked to empower nearly 500 organizations in 81 countries around the world working on game-changing environmental innovations.

But stakeholders 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 their program currently provides.

In response, Microsoft is creating 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 their ability to address climate change.

That’s why Microsoft are announcing today that Microsoft are entering the next phase of their AI for Earth program, dedicated to building this Planetary Computer platform through dedicated investments in infrastructure development. Microsoft will provide their 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. Microsoft will also further invest in specific environmental solution areas like species identification, land cover mapping, and land use optimization. Microsoft is 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 Microsoft cannot build it alone.  That is why Microsoft are deepening their partnership with Esri, a company that is a market leader in geographical information system software with years of experience building environmental monitoring solutions.

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.

Microsoft are deepening their partnership around the development of the machine learning-based geospatial solutions that are the foundation of the Planetary Computer. Microsoft are building on work Microsoft 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. Microsoft are making key geospatial datasets available on Azure and accessible through Esri tools later this year. And Microsoft will continue to partner to provide grants that ensure conservation organizations have access to the datasets, compute and other resources.

Monitoring is an important first step; ecosystem protection requires on-the-ground action as well. That is why Microsoft 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 threat. 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.

Microsoft will use their voice to speak out on four public policy issues that Microsoft 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 their 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.

Taking responsibility for its land footprint

Today Microsoft are also committing to protect more land than Microsoft use by 2025, using approaches like land acquisition, conservation easement, national park creation, and community or indigenous-led conservation. Microsoft will protect and restore land in partnership with The Nature Conservancy globally and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in the United States. Microsoft 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.

Microsoft notes the link between emerging diseases like SARS and MERS and land use can not be ignored, meaning protecting biodiversity can not wait.

Read much more about their efforts at Microsoft here.

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