Top Microsoft Official Urges Global Governmental Ecosystem Protection

August 4, 2020

Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s first chief environmental officer, is urging the United States and other countries to launch a global governmental system to protect ecosystems with ongoing reviews of their conditions and trends -- an idea floated by an Obama White House advisory panel.

The problem of how to “scale insights into ecological systems” is urgent, Joppa said during his plenary remarks at the Aug. 3 opening session of the annual conference of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), “Harnessing the Ecological Data Revolution.” ESA is a non-partisan non-profit collection of scientists who aim to promote ecological science.

Joppa noted that the conference was taking place at a time of global environmental challenges, highlighted by some basic numbers that he discussed. For climate change, the planet has only 420 gigatons of carbon remaining in the emissions “budget” to avoid the worst socio-economic impacts, he said. If humans exceed that budget scientists “don’t really know” how Earth’s systems will react, Joppa added, and at present so much of the budget is used each year that there is little remaining time to reverse course and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, Joppa noted that 55 percent of people worldwide lack water for sanitation; 1.6 gigatons of food are wasted each year; and 25 percent of species are threatened with extinction. All of the numbers indicate “we have problems at a planetary scale” and “we have societal scale expectations to solve these problems,” he said.

Global ecological insights are possible using advancing satellite, artificial intelligence (AI), citizen science, and other technologies to collect, store, and analyze massive amounts of data to inform policy and make predictions, but the missing component is a formalized governmental global ecosystem assessment, Joppa said in his talk on “Scaling Ecological insight.”

‘The Final Missing Piece’

Joppa’s call picks up on a 2011 report by President Barack Obama’s White House Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), “Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy,” that recommended a “Quadrennial Ecosystem Services Trends Assessment” that would capture current biodiversity and other ecosystem conditions, extrapolated trends, analyses linking ecosystem properties to ecosystem services, existing and emerging threats, and potential policy responses.

Although there have been global assessments -- including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) from 2001-2005 and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) study -- the IPBES was “a monumental undertaking” that produced a 1,700-page report published in May 2019, 15 years after the MEA, Joppa said. But “what we need are national and regional assessments” continuously operating, as PCAST recommended years ago, he said. Such a governmental assessment system, with a policy framework and associated policies, “is the final missing piece” that will enable scientists to model and policymakers to manage ecosystems and make the best use of “every square inch of the planet,” whether for agriculture, forestry, built environments, or wildernesses.

These planetary problems spurred the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to says that 2020 is a “super year” for biodiversity, amid a growing focus on developing policies and strategies to conserve biological diversity and ecosystems.

AI for Earth

Joppa in his talk also detailed Microsoft’s AI for Earth program -- a $50 million commitment the company made three years ago for climate, water, agriculture, and biodiversity conservation.

“The demand is almost infinite” for the kinds of capabilities supported by the program’s grants, which support access to the cloud and AI technologies, he said. Joppa then reviewed a number of projects with which Microsoft has partnerships:

  • Project Premonition combines biology and technology at scale using metagenomics to understand blood-feeding mosquitoes and other such insect communities.
  • The iNaturalist program uses smart phones to observe and identify organisms and has more than 3 million registered users who have made 44 million observations of species around the world.
  • Wild Me collects citizen science information down to the level of individuals within a species to estimate population numbers of species.
  • A Land Cover Mapping project with the Chesapeake Conservancy built a 1-meter resolution landcover map for the Chesapeake Bay’s 65,000 square miles to aid conservation work.
  • Silvia Terra is using satellite imagery to ask what species are in forests, with the algorithm applied across 537 million acres and analysis finding 92 billion trees in the U.S., with their species identified. Using the system, The Nature Conservancy brought small landowners into carbon offset markets where before they had been excluded.

Microsoft officials recently reviewing the AI for Earth program and asked if it was successful, drawing two conclusions about the program, which has issued more than 600 grants and operates in more than 90 countries.

First, while the firm is “extremely proud” of what it has accomplished, the need for greater “scaling” infrastructure led Microsoft to build a “Planetary Computer” that company president Brad Smith said would “revolutionize” environmental assessment practices by aggregating global data on ecosystems. AI for Earth is working on that today as the “second to final” step toward what is needed, “the technology perspective on how we scale ecological insights” by connecting all stakeholders.

The second conclusion is that the missing component is the governmental ecosystem assessment system called for by PCAST, he said. -- David Clarke

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