Microsoft today announced a series of initiatives aimed at advancing the protection and preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems around the world. It said that it would support the development of a “Planetary Computer” to aggregate environmental data and would leverage AI to develop and deploy technology that helps partners and customers with sustainable decision-making. Microsoft also said that it would advocate for public policy initiatives that measure and manage ecosystems and that it would expand its AI for Earth program to give grantees greater access to machine learning tools.

AI for Earth kicked off in June 2017, and it has provided over $50 million in cloud-based tools and AI services to organizations working to protect the planet across five key areas: agriculture, biodiversity, conservation, climate change, and water. In a little over two years, the program has grown to support close to 500 grantees in 81 countries, reports Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith — up from around 450 grantees in January.

“Nature and the benefits that it provides to people are the foundation of our global economy, our culture, and the overall human experience,” said Smith during a press event this morning. “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.”

Planetary Computer

Microsoft chief environmental officer Lucas Joppa describes Planetary Computer as a platform that would borrow from the approach of search engines and extend beyond them in the form of a “geospatial decision engine” — one programmed with algorithms to optimize the planet’s health and support queries about the environmental status. The Computer’s purpose would not be only to spotlight the species, biodiversity, and ecosystems vital to the Earth’s health and prosperity, but to assess the various factors contributing to the decline or improvement of this health and prosperity.

Concretely, says Smith, the Planetary Computer would provide access to data collected by people and machines in space, sky, ground, and water via a portal through which new results and predictions could be made publicly available. It would allow users to search by geographic location instead of keywords and ask questions within particular areas of interest, providing satellite imagery, machine learning algorithms, and user-contributed data and measurements pertinent to things like forest boundaries, stream levels, groundwater, terrain types, species habitats, and carbon stocks.

“Think of [the Planetary Computer] less as a giant computer in a stark white room and more of an approach to computing that is planetary in scale and allows us to query every aspect of environmental and nature-based solutions available in real time,” Joppa wrote in an op-ed published in the magazine Scientific American. “Only when we have a massive amount of planetary data and compute at a similar scale can we begin to answer [some] of the most complex questions ever posed.”

Planet-wide environmental surveys are currently compiled manually by subject-matter experts over the course of years. The inaugural report, which was launched in 2000 by the United Nations Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), took nearly five years and more than 1,300 people to complete. And IPBES’ most recent study wasn’t published until 15 years after the first — it spanned 1,700 pages and cited more than 15,000 scientific sources.

“These are years that we can’t afford as our environmental challenges intensify,” said Smith. “It is abundantly clear that the world needs greater access to environmental data to assess, diagnose and treat the natural systems that society depends. This is why data powered by machine learning will be a game-changer.”

Joppa anticipates that building a Planetary Computer will require a network connecting billions — or even trillions — of data points about the environment with compute and AI tools to process them. To lay the cornerstone, Microsoft says it will provide its AI for Earth community access to “the world’s critical environmental data sets” on Azure and a platform to analyze those data sets, while at the same time further investing in specific areas like species identification, precision agriculture, land cover mapping, and land use optimization.

In collaboration with the Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation, Microsoft will commit $1 million to support projects that strengthen efforts to monitor the Earth’s biodiversity and create measurements required for the study, reporting, and management of biodiversity change that informs conservation decisions. It also plans to deepen its partnership with Esri, a Los Angeles-based geographical information software developer, to develop new AI-based geospatial solutions and distribute the aforementioned data sets.

Ecosystems policies and land management

On the policy side, Microsoft says it will speak out on issues it believes can advance efforts to restore the Earth’s ecosystems, chiefly (1) national ecosystem assessments, (2) infrastructure to accelerate the measuring and monitoring of ecosystems, (3) public land and water conservation, and (4) public-private partnerships. The tech giant also pledges to push for the adoption of targets to protect biodiversity at the upcoming meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, where parties representing over 190 countries will adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

“Governments can remove administrative barriers, provide matching grants, identify critical areas to protect, and create voluntary markets for eco-credits,” wrote Smith. “By using digital tools and advanced computing capabilities, governments can [also] collect, integrate and make publicly available data from on the ground sensors, satellites, and atmospheric monitor stations … In addition, governments can … purchase land to establish national parks, protect environmental-sensitive ecosystems and wetlands, create wildlife refuges and preserve cultural heritage sites [and] 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.”

On a micro level, Microsoft committed to protecting more of the 11,000 acres of land it uses globally through approaches like property acquisition, conservation easement, national park creation, and community or indigenous-led conservation. The company will restore land in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in the U.S., leveraging a “data-driven” approach to identify ecosystems most at risk, and it will encourage workers to contribute over 100,000 observations to the iNaturalist project and over 100,000 annotations to studies on the Citizen Science Alliance’s Zooniverse platform.

“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,” said Smith.

This morning’s announcements follow Microsoft’s January pledge to become carbon negative by the year 2030, whereby the company will eliminate more carbon from the atmosphere than it generates. By 2025, Microsoft intends to remove all carbon it has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since its founding in 1975, an effort which it will pay for with an expanded internal carbon fee, both for direct emissions and supply and value chain partners.

Separately, Microsoft recently launched a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund to accelerate the global development of carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies. Over the next four years, it will invest in people and strategies that could drive meaningful decarbonization or climate resilience; that could create market impact with existing or potential solutions; that consider climate equity, including for developing economies; and that Microsoft itself could use to address its unpaid climate debt and future emissions.

Microsoft also released the Microsoft Sustainability Calculator, a Power BI app that shows carbon emissions data associated with your business’ Azure services.