In this piece from two leaders at the United Nations, we hear an urgent appeal for the right data to help policymakers understand and manage the growing challenges facing the planet.  As we documented in our recent report on the top emitters of greenhouse gas, we simply don’t have enough data on their plans for the future to know where they are headed with our climate.  Meanwhile, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise along with the level of urgency to reduce emissions.   Timothy Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

The case for a digital ecosystem for the environment.  Now is the time – a pivotal moment in environmental history.

Working in the environmental field and on natural resource management, we are often in a position where we are making decisions and investing financial and human resources based on assumptions, anecdotal evidence or patchy data. Indeed, according to a recent UN Environment report, 68% of the 93 indicators covering the environmental dimensions of sustainable development cannot be measured due to a lack of data.

The scientific community has concluded that we have about a decade left to fundamentally change the way we consume natural resources and protect the environment. We believe that if we create a digital ecosystem for the environment, we will be able to use data and insights to make better natural resource governance decisions, target our investments and change consumption and production patterns.

This has the potential to transform our social, political and economic systems to achieve sustainable development. The challenge is no longer out there in some distant future – it is happening on our watch – in our lifetime. Now is the time to re-imagine and supercharge environmental governance and public-private partnerships by using big data, frontier technologies and data analytics to target our action and investments.

Today, we have at our fingertips a combination of global environmental data, technologies and data science techniques that have the potential to create insights that can underpin a sustainable future and profoundly transform our relationship to the planet. These include satellites and drones, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, block chain, citizen science and a range of open source software and mobile phone applications.

Our vision is to bring together partners to generate environmental insights that can be used to protect our planet, our prosperity and our global peace. Solutions must be geared to work at a scale, pace and level of incentives that matches the social, economic and technological forces that are leading to environmental decline.

UN Environment has been working with companies, academics, member states and civil society actors through the UN Science Policy Business Forum to envision what a global digital ecosystem for the environment might look like. We had the opportunity to participate in the process and co-author a first flagship discussion paper which was adopted in March 2019 in the margins of the 4th UN Environmental Assembly. For the discussion paper to be transformed into a global road map by 2020, it will require coordinated global action, leadership and trust amongst public and private partners.

Why do we need data?

We cannot manage what we cannot measure. We need to understand if we are on track, as well as assess different trade-offs and model policy options. Available data was a major limiting factor in the recent global modelling of environmental policy options in the 6th Global Environment Outlook. To do this, we need to identify what information is already available, how we can fill information gaps, and stimulate additional data collection by governments, companies, academics and citizens – we need to ensure we have the right information for the right decision.

New data streams and technologies such as open data cubes are offering high resolution spatial data to monitor environmental change over time. It is critically important to not only map negative trends, but also determine where investments are needed in mitigation, management or restoration to fundamentally change those trend lines. We also need data on supply chains, natural capital stocks and carbon intensity to inform financial markets and investors about environmental risks and opportunities linked to companies and their products and services. There is a major transparency benefit to be gained in terms of understanding which companies are contributing to planetary solutions and sustainability and which are not, for example through using blockchain.

How do we engage people and companies?

Using data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning to increasingly nudge consumers has the potential to change behaviors. There are already many good examples of innovative ways to “gamify” and reward green and low carbon consumption using fintech and mobile apps. 

Social media has an ever-increasing level of power and influence on attitudes, perceptions and political outcomes, but we need more aggressive strategies to ensure that messages about the environment are based on science and facts, rather than “fake news”. How can social media be leveraged in a more strategic way to direct citizen action towards sustainability? How can people be mobilized to collect data on ecosystems, biodiversity and the state of our environment using crowdsourcing and citizen science? How can we get people living in cities to understand the value and beauty of the natural world in order to take action to protect it? A digital ecosystem for the environment must deliver data and insights in a way that is accessible, open and linked to policy, markets, consumer behaviors and social media.

What are the risks?

In the rush to access data, we should consider the motivation of companies that hold data, their underlying business models and their potential intentions to create software dependency. Currently, much of the big data and technological advancements are held by a handful of companies. This not only creates imbalance in terms of who has access to use data to make decisions, influence markets and determine investments, but it also creates concerns in terms of privacy. As we go forward in partnerships with technology companies, we need to keep the adage in mind that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true in new partnerships with the largest global industrial and energy firms, where transparency and transformation is crucial to achieving our goals for sustainable development. We need to understand where motivations overlap, or conflict, and when partnerships are appropriate.

It is important to also take a step back and ask how this wealth of data and potential power will be governed. If information is power, then those who control access to information and processing capacity hold more power than other stakeholders. It is likely that few nations realize how much potential leveraging this data and processing power will give companies over their economies. It is critical that all countries build their capacity to engage in this new digital economy to avoid the massive risks and asymmetries that could follow if they do not.

As we take forward a vision for building a global digital ecosystem of environmental data, algorithms and insights, three key risks need to be mitigated. First, we need to empower governments and people to be able to understand and use data and to hold the holders of data accountable, as opposed to having data held mostly by a few companies in a few countries. Second, we need mechanisms to ensure the quality and openness of data and algorithms to ensure public trust. Finally, we need legal frameworks to protect individual privacy, data security and intellectual property.

One of the largest governance challenges to address is that national and international regulatory processes move according to very different timelines as compared to technological innovation. As a result, new forms of agile governance are needed. Countries should agree on a basic set of international norms, ethics and values that can guide the development of the technology sector and that can help to ensure it contributes positively to global public goods. A new social contract is also needed between the private and public sectors – where the cost of doing business and the social license to operate is predicated on a basic level of sharing derived data products where they can contribute to a global public good.

How do we get there?

Ensuring that frontier technologies have positive environmental outcomes is in our hands. The future is what we make it. Building a digital ecosystem for the environment that will support the achievement of sustainable development hinges on the following core principles:

  • Citizens must be engaged and empowered to use data and information to improve their own lives, communities and environment.
  • Countries must create a policy environment that promotes open data, open algorithms, inter-operability and a culture of data integration, use, innovation and governance.
  • Public-private partnerships are needed in order to leverage private sector expertise and infrastructure in data science, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, to share data and to promote the use of technology for global public goods.
  • The UN should take a leadership role and make a longer-term investment in developing and implementing a vision for a global digital ecosystem for the environment, including new and innovative partnerships with all key actors. The UN also needs to take a more proactive role to promote open data, open source software, interoperability of data, and to provide guidance on which global data sets are the “best available”.

The international community has an important choice to make in how these technologies are used to save lives and livelihoods, respect human rights and protect the planet. Ultimately, the environmental revolution that must be catalyzed by frontier technologies is equally about a revolution in environmental transparency – which actors are leading the way towards a sustainable future, and which continue to adopt practices that undermine life on earth. We as a global community have the power to hold governments and companies accountable and to ensure that leaders create change.  With the right data to make crucial decisions in the decade ahead, we can all be on the right side of human history.