Participants during the event

Big Data for the Planet Breakfast and Ministerial Dialogue: The Next 50 Years

4 March 2022 | Nairobi, Kenya

United Nations Environment Assembly – UNEA

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Shereen Zorba, SPBF

The DEAL Launch event was moderated by Shereen Zorba, Head, Global Secretariat, UNEP SPBF.

The increasing complexity and severity of environmental challenges and the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution require Big Data, or data sets that are too large or complex for traditional data-processing application software to deal with. Recognizing this, the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) in 2019 committed to support a global environmental data strategy by 2025. Out of this commitment came the Data for the Environment Alliance (DEAL), which was first announced by the Government of Estonia at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference in 2021 and formally launched at UNEA-5 in early 2022. The Big Data for the Planet Breakfast and Ministerial Dialogue, which was organized by the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Science-Policy-Business Forum (SPBF) on the sidelines of the [email protected] Special Session of UNEA, convened on 4 March in Nairobi, Kenya, with both in-person and virtual participation.

A Big Data Revolution for the Planet

Shereen Zorba, Head, Global Secretariat, UNEP SPBF, moderated the event. She called for more robust science-based decision making, stronger accountability, and greater transparency and inclusion to meet environmental targets. She stated that “we cannot manage what we cannot measure,” and called for better access to reliable, real-time data to articulate more clearly the impact of human actions.

Shereen Zorba, Head, Global Secretariat, UNEP SPBF

Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, said the first international cooperation projects under DEAL are already underway in Kenya and Montenegro, with financial support from Estonia. She explained the projects will focus, in part, on data related to climate change and early warning systems.

Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia

Kaupo Heinma, Deputy Secretary General, Ministry of the Environment, Estonia, said DEAL is a member State-led initiative that: links state and non-state actors; promotes cooperation and synergies on environmental data and solutions with the latest technology; and aims to inform the various multilateral environmental agreements.

Kaupo Heinma, Vice-Minister of Environment, Estonia

Kaupo Heinma, Deputy Secretary General, Ministry of the Environment, Estonia

Sonja Leighton-Kone, Acting Deputy Executive Director, UNEP, said we have transformed into a society where digitizing information is critical. She explained that Big Data helps member States make critical decisions, demonstrates the need for investing in the environment, and helps level the playing field with respect to accessing information.

Sonja Leighton Kone, UNEP Deputy Executive Director

Sonja Leighton-Kone, Acting Deputy Executive Director, UNEP

Alexandre Caldas, Chief, Country Outreach, Technology, Innovation and Big Data, UNEP, noted UNEP’s recent launch of the first phase of the World Environment Situation Room (WESR)—a Big Data knowledge platform that aims to transform global governance and multilateral environmental action.

Alexandre Caldas, Chief, Country Outreach, Technology, Innovation and Big Data, UNEP

Dialogue and Policy Insights: Florika Fink-Hooijer, Director General for the Environment, European Commission, discussed, inter alia: Horizon Europe, which is a funding programme for research and innovation; Destination Earth, which aims to simulate a high-precision digital model of the Earth to model, monitor, and simulate natural phenomena and related human activities; and digital passports for products, with information on carbon and environmental footprints, and on the content of recycled materials and hazardous substances.

Florika Fink-Hooijer, Director-General for the Environment, EC

Florika Fink-Hooijer, Director General for the Environment, European Commission

Demétrio do Amaral de Carvalho, State Secretary for the Environment, Timor-Leste, said sharing information can help communities with limited resources cope with environmental challenges. He said updated COVID-19 information shared by health organizations helped his country design mitigation strategies before peak impact.

Demétrio do Amaral de Carvalho, State Secretary of the Environment, Timor-Leste

Demétrio do Amaral de Carvalho, State Secretary of the Environment, Timor-Leste

Where We Are and Where We Need to Be

Yana Gevorgyan, Secretariat Director, Group on Earth Observations, discussed the ways in which harnessing the Big Data revolution can put us on track to meet environmental targets. She said earth observations provide policymakers with robust tools to make informed decisions, implement coherent policies, and monitor and measure their effectiveness.

Remote panel (L-R) Yana Gevorgyan, Director of Secretariat, Group on Earth Observations; Jia Gensuo, Deputy Director General, Chinese Academy of Sciences; and Laurence Monnoyer Smith, Director, Space Climate Observatory

Remote panel (L-R): Yana Gevorgyan, Secretariat Director, Group on Earth Observations; Gensuo Jia, Deputy Director General, CAS, International Research Center of Big Data for the Sustainable Development Goals; and Laurence Monnoyer Smith, Director, SCO

Laurence Monnoyer Smith, Director, Space Climate Observatory (SCO), discussed challenges and opportunities in aggregating, packaging, and using Big Data to fight climate change. She explained SCO provides state-of-the-art tools that transform data into solutions for adaptation and mitigation and help scale local monitoring to the international level.

Laurence Monnoyer Smith, SCO Director

Gensuo Jia, Deputy Director General, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), International Research Center of Big Data for the Sustainable Development Goals, said large-scale, cross-cutting issues require Big Data, and that while a significant amount of data emerges every second, it is isolated, not comparable, and not ready to be used for monitoring purposes.

Dialogue and Policy Insights: Franz Perrez, Ambassador for the Environment and Head of Delegation, Switzerland, said DEAL is particularly relevant at this time, given recent UNEA decisions on, for example, the establishment of a science-policy panel on chemicals and waste.

Franz Perrez, Ambassador for the Environment and Head of Delegation of Switzerland

Franz Perrez, Ambassador for the Environment and Head of Delegation, Switzerland

Gyubin Hwang, Spokesperson, Children and Youth Major Group at UNEP, said governments have a responsibility “to work with, not for, the private sector” to develop regulations that protect citizens’ rights. 

Gyubin Hwang, Spokesperson, Children and Youth Major Group at UNEP

The Solutions that Will Take Us There

Empowering Technologies, Tools, and Innovation: Hichem Maya, Managing Director, Consumer Packaged Goods, Google, presented the Google Earth Enginea collection of real-time imagery that provides actionable insight to what is happening on the ground. He described how it helps monitor and predict floods and droughts, as well as provides the data to organizations so they can act on, among others, supply chain disruptions, crop management, and impacts on farmers.

Managing Director, Consumer Packaged Goods, Google

Edan Dionne, Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs, IBM, noted IBM’s collaboration with UNEP, using marine litter as a case study. She cited the use of modeling and artificial intelligence to identify plastic pollution along coastal areas, and the need to accelerate scaling up of this modeling.

Edan Dione, IBM VP Corporate Environmental Affairs

Edan Dionne, Vice President, Corporate Environmental Affairs, IBM

Charity Wayua, Senior Research Manager, IBM Research Africa, emphasized technology that is equitable, accessible, and ethical. She pointed to research labs in Kenya and South Africa that tap into local talent so young men and women can participate in, among other things, climate risk impact modeling.

Charity Wayua, Senior Research Manager, IBM Research Africa

Financing and the Role of Business: Christopher Hurst, Director General, European Investment Bank (EIB), described EIB’s use of data to monitor its projects, such as measuring forestry projects and land take around mining projects. He underscored the need for high-performance digital infrastructure that is safe from cyberthreats, and said countries require assistance in this regard.

Christopher Hurst, Director General, EIB

Jürgen Weichenberger, Chief Data Scientist, Accenture, underscored the need to encourage working with entire sectors to create transparency and accountability along the whole value chain, not just in terms of carbon emissions, but regarding resource efficiency as well.

Dialogue and Policy Insights: Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu, Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Zimbabwe, asked how platforms such as DEAL can be used to ensure high-performance digital platforms in developing countries. He called for focusing on skills exchange and bridging the digital divide.

Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu, Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Zimbabwe

Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu, Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Zimbabwe

Terhi Lehtonen, State Secretary, Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, Finland, mentioned LUMI – a supercomputer for artificial intelligence – and the Finnish Ecosystem Observatory, which will help realize the goals of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Terhi Lehtonen, Vice-Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Finland

Terhi Lehtonen, State Secretary, Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, Finland

Mohamed Abdelraouf, Chair, Major Groups and Stakeholders at UNEP, underscored the need to: focus more on local conditions; complement the data the private sector collects; and ensure local populations, including farmers and Indigenous groups, are involved in analyzing data.

Mohammed Aly Abdelraouf, Chair, UNEP Major Groups Facilitating Committee

Mohamed Abdelraouf, Chair, Major Groups and Stakeholders at UNEP

UNEP Permanent Representatives

L-R: Bill Lehmberg, Permanent Representative of the US to UNEP; Christopher Hurst, Director General, EIB; Sonja Leighton-Kone, UNEP Acting Deputy Executive Director; and Ado Lõhmus, Permanent Representative of Estonia to UNEP

Selma Malika Haddadi, Ambassador of Algeria to Kenya and Permanent Representative to UNEP (right)

Selma Malika Haddadi, Ambassador of Algeria to Kenya and Permanent Representative to UNEP (right)

William McDonald, Barbados

William McDonald, High Commissioner of Barbados to Kenya

Pascal Peduzzi, Director, GRID-Geneva, UNEP

Pascal Peduzzi, Director, GRID-Geneva, UNEP

Hichem Maya, Google, answers questions from the public.

Hichem Maya, Google, answers questions from the audience.

Jian Liu, Director, Science Division, UNEP

Jian Liu, Director, Science Division, UNEP

Participants during the event

Participants during the event

Estonian Delegation and SPBF team

The Estonian Delegation and SPBF team (L-R): Krista TõnissonKätlin MandelKaupo Heinma, Deputy Secretary General, Ministry of the Environment, Estonia; Shereen Zorba, UNEP SPBF; Ado Lõhmus, Permanent Representative of Estonia to UNEP; Rehana VeljiEdgar OchiengYoussef AboaliMargaux Abrieu; and Daniel Skilton

Photos courtesy of UNEP SPBF. Funding for Earth Negotiations Bulletin coverage of this event has been provided by UNEP SPBF.

UNEP SPBF

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