The Jumbo Hill Wind Farm nears completion in this PlanetScope image collected on April 7, 2014. © 2014, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
AUTHOR PROFILE Andrew Zolli
Curious Planeteer working to make the Earth's changes visible, accessible and actionable.

Advancing Sustainable Development with Planet, Part One

Stories

Planet’s tools and technologies are powering a new generation of sustainable development and climate solutions. This blog covers our work with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Advancing Sustainable Development with Planet, Part Two explores how our work enables corporate sustainability and sustainable finance. Learn more about how Planet can help advance your sustainable development practices here.

On an ever-more crowded planet, responding to the linked challenges of sustainable development, the loss of nature and climate change is simply no longer an option. For humanity to survive and prosper, we must transition to practices that operate safely within the limits of Earth’s life-support systems.

In recent months, we have glimpsed the terrible consequences of not doing so. Catastrophes like the Australian bushfires and the COVID-19 outbreak are reminders that human societies, and our economies, are ultimately dependent on the natural world, and not the other way around. We ignore that dependence at our own peril.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Rebalancing the relationship between people, nature and the economy has taken on a sense of urgency, as humanity’s growing impacts on the planet accelerate toward irreversible tipping points. According to the best available science, we now have less than a decade to undertake civilization-scale, concerted action if we are to avoid ‘locking in’ the worst effects of climate change, and the risks from the collapse of biodiversity and the loss of nature are no less existential.

According to the UN, human beings have altered 75 percent of the land surface of the planet, mostly for the purposes of extracting resources, building habitats and growing food. More than a third of the world’s lands are now devoted to crop or livestock production, putting increasing pressure on the world’s forests, which we all need to breathe. Meanwhile, we’ve also altered two thirds of the world’s marine ecosystems. As a consequence, fisheries are declining worldwide – in the world’s most populous region, the Asia-Pacific, they are on course to decline to zero by 2048. Altogether, a staggering one million species are now threatened with extinction. And this comes before the demands of the next one billion human inhabitants are factored in, who will arrive on Earth in just the next decade.

Fortunately, there is a growing understanding that another path is not only urgently needed, but possible. By using the best tools available, we can redesign our systems to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. That is the very definition of sustainable development.

Planet was founded with precisely this mission in mind. Our purpose is to use space to help life on Earth, by making change on our planet visible, accessible and actionable, and by providing a transparent and independent source of the truth. By enabling us to see and understand change in unprecedented detail, in both time and space, Planet’s tools can help us make more ecologically informed, effective and speedy decisions, encouraging better stewardship of the planet and enabling a truer-cost economic system.

Enabling Sustainable Solutions

We are now working with a wide range of corporate, governmental, scientific and nonprofit partners to advance these kinds of solutions in virtually every market we serve.

Consider agriculture. Under a business-as-usual scenario, feeding a skyrocketing human population in the decades to come will require more land, which will put pressures on both biodiversity (by eliminating habitat) and the climate (by eliminating forests, which sequester carbon).

This is inherently unsustainable. Instead, we need to grow more food on the same or less amount of land, and use fewer inputs (seeds, water, fertilizer, insecticide) to do so. We also need to help farmers not only grow more, but earn more. In developing contexts, this is an important part of poverty alleviation and human development.

By intensifying the information about where and how crops are growing, Planet’s data, in the hands of our partners, can help farmers more efficiently use their inputs—seeds, fertilizer, water and pesticides—lowering their costs while improving their yields. Those very same data and analytics can be used to help farmers and governments better predict yields and avoid food shortages. Such data can become the foundation for new kinds of financial and risk management products, like smallholder crop insurance, which helps farmers contend with unanticipated shocks and disruptions. Planet’s data can also help determine where sustainable practices, like building and maintaining healthy soils, rotating crops, reducing or eliminating tillage, and adopting regenerative agroforestry practices are being followed, making sustainable supply chains more transparent.

And this is just in agriculture. With our partners, we are developing equivalent breakthrough solutions in other domains of sustainability, including monitoring and slowing deforestation, helping to transition to lower-carbon forms of energy, encouraging sustainable urban growth and improving conservation on both land and in the oceans.

Planet and the SDGs

The signature framework for sustainable development are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These 17 global goals articulate nothing less than a moonshot for the simultaneous improvement of the human condition and the planet, addressing everything from poverty and hunger to clean energy and climate change. Fittingly for a moonshot, the proposed schedule to achieve these goals is fifteen years—roughly equivalent to the time between the start of the space race and the arrival of the first humans on the moon.

Unfortunately, nearly five years in, the SDGs are in serious danger of being derailed. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, we have been making positive, measurable progress on only a small fraction of the environmentally-focused SDG indicators; for many, we simply have insufficient data to know for sure. Similar data gaps exist across the larger SDG ecosystem; again and again, we lack the data to tell us if we are moving in the right direction.

Planet’s data are a powerful tool for helping to meet these global goals. Our daily Earth-observation technologies are helpful in measuring 13 of the 17 SDGs, including 40 percent of the underlying SDG targets and 23 percent of the related SDG indicators. Our data has particular relevance for measuring SDG 2 (No Hunger), SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG (Life Below Water), SDG 13 (Climate) and SDG 15 (Life on Land). These represent SDGs where the data gaps are among the most significant.

We are now working closely with the United Nations community, including various national governments, UN agencies, and philanthropic and technical partners, to use our data to help measure the SDGs, with a particular emphasis on closing data gaps and serving the Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States—places where the needs for inclusive sustainable development are the greatest and the resources are often the most constrained.

We are also helping major corporations, NGOs and others align their sustainable development strategies with the SDGs, and working with financial institutions and other stakeholders to value nature, measure and incorporate climate risks, and “green” the financial system.

We’ll explore this in our next blog, here.

Lean more about how Planet can help you meet your sustainable development challenges here.

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