In order to keep the world’s tropical forests standing, we need to know as much about them as possible. But monitoring, analysing and understanding the complexities of 1.84 billion hectares, or about 6% of Earth's land surface, is no easy feat.
This is where technology comes in.
In the fight against escalating biodiversity destruction, technology promises to level the playing field, by identifying illegal land clearing in real-time, empowering conservationists and bringing much-needed transparency to forest finance.
Technology to fight illegal deforestation
Deforestation is rampant — about 10 million acres of tropical forest was destroyed in 2022 alone, which is an area the size of Switzerland. But technology promises to give conservationists and law enforcement a much-needed advantage.
Satellite images, drones, camera traps and audio recorders, when coupled with machine learning technology, can detect forest destruction in near-real-time.
For example, Global Forest Watch is an open-source web application which monitors global forests and can identify the felling of a single tree. “If we can detect deforestation and other changes as soon as they’re happening, then there’s the possibility to send in law enforcement ... to stop it before it goes further,” Global Forest Watch’s director Mikaela Weisse told NPR.
Not-for-profit Rainforest Connection is a little more thrifty. The company pairs old mobile phones with solar panels and strategically places them in treetops, where they collect and upload audio data, which is analysed by AI software to distinguish the sounds of chainsaws and logging trucks from wildlife and weather events, sending instant deforestation alerts to local rangers. Since 2016, more than 200 treetop monitoring units have been installed in a dozen countries.
But technology can only be used to curb illegal deforestation if it’s coupled with enforceable law.
As of 2017, 150 countries have enshrined environmental protection or the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, yet implementation and enforcement is lacking in developing and developed countries alike. A 2019 study shows that weak law enforcement is a global trend that’s exacerbating environmental threats.
“We know where the big illegal logging is happening. We can see that from satellite imagery,” explains Erik Meijaard, an adjunct professor of biology at the University of Queensland and an expert on forest and wildlife management in Indonesia. “It’s in the next steps — following up, apprehending people, building a case in court and so on — where things generally go wrong.”
Technology to empower forest conservationists
Researchers used to trek deep into tropical forests, with radios and notepads, to manually document flora and fauna — but today’s technology offers them unprecedented speed and specificity, in just a few button clicks.
Plant ecologist Jeannine Cavender-Bares, for example, has devised a way to use spectrometers that measure the light reflected off plants to identify a forest’s photosynthesis levels, the genetic diversity of trees and the soil’s microbial inhabitants, without ever having to set foot in forest itself.
This ability to readily measure a forest’s health and resilience is more important than ever, because these ecosystems are rapidly changing, in large part due to climate change and destructive human activities.
In fact, species are being pushed to extinction before scientists can even name them.
While about 1.5 million species are formally described, an estimated 8.7 million species live on Earth — and these 7.2 million undescribed species face a higher extinction risk, a 2022 study shows.
“The species that are poorly known, that we only just described, were the ones that had the highest extinction risk,” writes study co-author David Lindenmayer, a forest ecologist from the Australian National University. “And what that really means is that there’s likely to be a very large number of species that are undescribed that are going to go extinct before we even describe them.”
Technology to unlock nature-based projects
Technology is key to enabling the measurement, reporting and verification of nature-based projects and raising much-needed finance for forest projects.
Indeed, forest finance needs to increase up to 200 times over to meet our collective 2030 nature goals. But raising funds at this scale is dependent on being able to accurately measure both environmental baselines and subsequent improvements.
This is where technology comes in.
We need startups such as Pachama, Tropiko and Carble to calculate a forest’s carbon stock, Wildlife Drones to track animals at scale, and Wedgetail investment Agronomeye to provide landscape-wide natural capital data.
Nature is priceless, but huge opportunity lies in monetising the restoration of natural ecosystems. Just as technology has enabled the growth of the billion-dollar carbon credit market, so too will it enable the growth of new assets such as nature credits, bringing much needed capital to nature-based projects.
We need an additional US$460 billion annually to protect, restore and enhance forests on a global scale. Conservation technology might not perfect, but it is good enough to significantly propel our efforts to curb deforestation, bolster conservation and progress forest finance. Technology can help us reach nature-positive by 2030 — all we have to do is utilise it.