Corporate commitments to protect forests are numerous. Unilever says it is “determined to drive deforestation out of our supply chains.” The giant paper company Asia Pulp and Paper promised to “eliminate all natural forest derived products” from its supply chain by 2020. Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, launched a “sustainability dashboard” to report its “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation” policy. Cargill, McDonald’s…the list goes on.
But how can governments, NGOs and customers be assured that these promises will be kept? Just as important, how can companies make good on their promises.
An ambitious effort to track the world’s forests, called Global Forest Watch, and launched a bit more than a year ago by the World Resources Institute, will be a big help. I visited Nigel Sizer, who leads the project, at WRI’s Washington office not long ago, spoke to users of the platform and then filed this report for Guardian Sustainable Business.
Here’s how it begins:
The forestry website Mongabay recently reported that United Cacao, a London-listed company that promises to produce ethical, sustainable chocolate, had “quietly cut down more than 2,000 hectares of primary, closed-canopy rainforest” in the Peruvian Amazon. The company claimed that the land had been previously cleared, but satellite images showed otherwise.
The satellite images came from an online platform called Global Forest Watch, which provides reliable and up-to-date data on forests worldwide, along with the ability to track changes to forest cover over time.
Launched a year ago by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the platform has brought an unprecedented degree of transparency to the problem of deforestation, pointing to ways in which big data, cloud computing and crowdsourcing can help attack other tough sustainability problems.
Before Global Forest Watch came along, actionable information about forest trends was scarce. “In most places, we knew very little about what was happening to forests,” said Nigel Sizer, the global director of the forests program at WRI. “By the time you published a report, the basic data on forest cover and concessions was going to be years out of date.”
Several technology revolutions have changed that. Cheap storage of data, powerful cloud computing, internet connectivity in remote places and free access to US government satellite images have all made Global Forest Watch possible. None were widely available even a decade ago.
This last point has stuck with me. It’s the latest example, of many, of how rapid advances in technology can drive sustainability, and give us reason to be hopeful.
You can read the rest of my story here.