3 ways technology can save trees (and our planet)

March 21 seems destined to be a significant day for the convergence of nature and technology. It is traditionally considered to be the first day of spring by most cultures, and it was also established as the International Day of Forests by the United Nations in 2012. On the technology side of the house, March 21, 2016 is also the 10th anniversary of the first tweet ever sent by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

Given the symbolic convergence, the question is, can technology help with one of the biggest challenges that nature has ever faced – one with long-term consequences for our planet?

Global warming will affect all of us

Climate scientists around the world agree that 2015 was the hottest year on record since recordkeeping began in 1880, and the ten warmest years have come in the past twelve years. So it’s no surprise that the Twitter buzz around this topic has been on the rise as well. According to some quick queries on Sysomos, there were more than a million tweets in fourth quarter 2015 that mention “global warming”, versus 660k in third quarter 2015 – a 65 percent increase.

The immediate consequences of global warming on the natural world are fairly obvious. Ongoing warmer temperatures bring heat waves, drought, glacier ice melting, changing weather patterns, rising global sea levels and changes in animal migration and vegetation growth patterns. The longer-term impacts are less obvious:

  1. Increased risk of natural disasters such as wildfires, flooding, landslides
  2. Increased desertification, particularly in arid regions of the world, further exacerbating global warming trends
  3. Compromised crop productions leading to disruption of food supply chains
  4. Decreased biodiversity impacting both plant and animal life.
  5. Increased health risks ranging from asthma and allergies to the spread of disease
  6. Significant economic impact that could lead to a 23 percent lower GDP per capita by 2100, leaving up to 77 percent of countries poorer than they are today if global warming continues unmitigated.
  7. Global net mitigation costs are projected to rise by 40 percent on average for every decade of delay.
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Source: Centers for Disease Control

Deforestation is a good place to start

Global emissions by gas (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency)
Global emissions by gas (Source: US Environmental Protection Agency)

Because the problem of global warming is so large and complex, there is no simple solution. However, scientists generally agree that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are a major cause, so reducing the planet’s carbon footprint is a good place to start. Deforestation accounts for up to one-fifth of global GHG emissions directly. Forests are cleared for a variety of reasons in support of human activity. But the biggest driver is economic value – trees are cut down for agriculture, fuel production and wood product exports. For poor countries in particular, the near-term economic gain of cutting their forests down is valued over conservation to avoid long-term costs in the future. Taking these additional factors into consideration, cutting trees down could account for up to 50-75 percent of GHG emissions.

3 ways technology can help solve the problem

  1. Data leadership to help shape global economic policies

Governments and organizations are beginning to put economic incentives and penalties in place to help slow deforestation and global GHG emissions. For example, REDD+ is an international incentive strategy where tropical nations would reduce deforestation and be compensated by wealthy nations for any resulting economic loss. Carbon taxes, such as the proposed US Federal Carbon tax, and environmental tariffs are on the other side of the spectrum.

However, designing and implementing economic policies that will have a measurable impact is complex due to the number of factors and data sources involved. For example, will the policy put in place have the intended effect if another economic incentive counteracts it? Which data is the right data to consider for shaping strategy and policy decisions? What technology and tools should be used?

As global economies continue to grow more interconnected and interdependent, where a tree being cut down in the Amazon could have economic repercussions in Alaska, governments are going to need strong data leaders on their team with the ability to mobilize their organizations around the right data-driven decisions and strategy.

  1. Cognitive computing to help predict deforestation and stop global warming

Solving big problems requires a lot of brainpower, perhaps more than we have ever had before. Global warming, for example, is an enormous data problem with many overlapping and changing data sources such as different industries, economic development, crime, urbanization, energy use, agricultural activity, waste and pollution. There are also cause and effect patterns that need to be discovered to enable decision makers to focus on the right mitigation areas.

That’s where cognitive computing comes in, allowing us to learn and discover insights from large data sets to solve grand challenges like healthcare, education and water and sanitation in Africa. What if this deep thinking ability were applied to a big problem like global warming by examining one of its chief sources – deforestation? Global Forest Watch aims to do just that by combining satellite imagery, crowd-sourcing and predictive data learning and artificial intelligence to predict deforestation before it happens. Just like businesses that are being transformed by machine learning and cognitive computing, governments and non-governmental organizations in charge of forest lands will be able to overcome big challenges such as inconsistent data sources and definitions and lack of data transparency to uncover insights that were previously difficult to pinpoint and manage.

  1. IoT smart devices to help stop crime and rev up smarter energy

Prediction is only half the battle – governments must also be able to enforce conservation policies and prevent crime. However, that can be costly for countries with large forest regions to manage, especially since loggers are devising new tactics to avoid satellite detection. That’s where smart drones flying over large swaths of forest could help prevent crime before it happens. These drones would need to be smart devices that rangers could manage remotely to monitor and track illegal activity. IBM is helping to make connected drones a reality with Bluemix and the Internet of Things Foundation. This type of connected smart drone system could enable fewer rangers to manage larger areas of forestland more effectively.

As governments become more successful in pulling all these factors together into stronger policies in support of conservation, it will accelerate the transformation that the energy and utilities industry is already facing. Fossil fuels currently provide about 85 percent of all energy use worldwide, but these traditional energy sources will only last another 50-100 years. Phasing out fossil fuels (a significant source of both deforestation and GHG emissions) quickly and moving toward renewable energy sources such as solar and wind would be a big step in the right direction.

Fossil fuels are also rapidly losing their cost advantage, and the share of renewable energy in global power generation is expected to rise to over 26 percent by 2020. One of the biggest barriers, however, is the investment needed to replace aging infrastructure with new power plants. Building IoT intelligence into the new power plant designs, such as smart grids and smart meters, can help utilities recuperate those investments faster with improved operational performance, reduced costs, lower supply chain risks and real-time asset monitoring and predictive maintenance for fewer outages over time.

Is it possible?

Even focusing on only one of the sources (deforestation) of a major global problem (climate change) is a massive challenge with multiple layers of interconnection, data sets, relationships and groups that play out across the world. Shifting policy makers towards making the right data-driven decisions for our planet’s future will depend on strong data leadership, backed by cognitive computing, with the ability to learn what patterns to look for.

Putting intelligent networks of connected smart devices in place to help implement, monitor and enforce these policies will also be key. A smart network of that scale that can continually help detect and prevent problems before they happen may also take computing power beyond what is available today. Quantum computers could provide the horsepower needed to bring the race to the finish line. Quantum computers promise exponentially more speed and power than what is attainable by traditional computers today, and they have the potential to impact problems on a global scale.

Want to be part of the solution and help save the forests (and our planet)?

IBM has pledged $5 million in prizes to the three teams that use cognitive computing to make the biggest breakthroughs on some of the world’s biggest challenges.

So why not go for the prize while saving our planet at the same time?

If you do, leave us a comment and tell us about it!

Originally published on the IBM Center for Applied Insights blog Mar 2016

A version of this post was also published on the American Forests blog on Mar 22


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