At the Second Global Session of the UN Science Policy Business Forum and UN Environmental Assembly in March 2019, unprecedented initiatives were launched, catalyzed by a year of relentless work spearheaded by the Forum and the UNEA President to unite global efforts to leverage technologies to boost access to Big Data to monitor the state of the world environment, tailor solutions, improve decision making and assess impact.

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. But how to harness these technologies for sustainability?

Three key outcomes of UNEA-4 and the Second Global Session of the Forum offered a big boost for big data and frontier technologies that will lay the foundation for building a global digital ecosystem for the environment starting in 2020.

Big Data Policy Boost

In an unprecedented move, Ministers from 193 countries expressed their determination to promote the use and sharing of environmental data and engaging civil society, citizens, indigenous peoples, local communities, private sector, academia and all other relevant stakeholders. Ministers pledged to support the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to develop a global environmental data strategy by 2025 while also improving national environmental monitoring systems and technologies. They also committing to promoting the use of data analysis models to develop environment foresights, support evidence-based decision making and improve national and local preparedness and responses to mitigate environmental degradation and risks from disasters and conflicts in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They also mandated UNEP to expand the scope of the future Global Environment Outlook process by including environmental security and citizen science.

Launch of Forum’s First High Level Working Group : Laying the Foundations for a Global Platform for Big Data on the Environment using Frontier Technologies:

 Building on the Science-Policy-Business Forum’s extraordinary session hosted by the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) and the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) in Paris in October 2018, the Forum’s Second Global Session launched a High Level Working Group on Big Data that aims to lay the foundations for a global platform powered by frontier technologies. The Working Group will cover the following key tracks: Opportunities offered by Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning; Big Data, Earth observations and remote sensing, Governance, Equity and Ethics; Financing.

A Paper entitled  “The case for a digital ecosystem for the environment” was adopted by the Working Group as the key discussion document. It represents a collective intelligence process involving over 200 stakeholders, including a variety of trendsetting technology companies.

The report concludes that traditional environmental governance approaches to achieve sustainable consumption have largely failed as they don’t work at the same pace and scale as the main drivers of degradation and consumption. Business as usual will simply not work to fundamentally change humanity’s relationship with the planet in the next ten-year period. The report makes a clear call to action.

Now is a pivotal moment in history when we can reimagine and supercharge environmental governance and public-private partnerships by using big data, frontier technologies and data analytics to target our action and investments. The working group was mandated to develop an implementation plan for the digital ecosystem to be presented to UNEA in March 2020.

World Environment Situation Room

The Forum also witnessed the launch of a revamped vision for the World Environment Situation Room. This groundbreaking initiative aims to promote transparent access and sharing of statistical and geospatial environmental data supporting policy and action for sustainable development and humanitarian action at the global, regional and national levels. The Situation Room supports “Environmental Foresight” for analysis of data, mapping trends, creating scenarios and identifying emerging issues on a permanent basis, at the frontier of environmental knowledge. The situation room will be powered by MapX – an open source platform of the best available environmental spatial data developed by UN Environment and GRID/Geneva in partnership with the World Bank and UNDP. MapX was also presented as the main spatial data engine powering the UN Biodiversity Lab – a partnership among UNEP, UNDP, WCMC and GEF helping 140 countries report on progress against their biodiversity targets.

Going forward, 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. The UN Science Policy Business Forum offers an important platform to convene these actors and forge a common vision together with a commitment framework.

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. Technology is agnostic. The future is what we make it.

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