Cloud to Street used historical data and Planet’s unique analytics to show structures at risk from flooding in Beira, Mozambique. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Andrew Zolli is Chief Impact Officer at Planet.

Advancing Sustainable Development with Planet, Part Two


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

As the impacts of climate change and the loss of nature are felt around the world, organizations of all types are under increasing pressures to act and adapt. Intensifying expectations—from investors and financial markets, governments, customers and the public at large—have made sustainability and climate action increasingly important elements of corporate strategy and governance. As Harvard Business School professor George Serafeim aptly puts it, “Regulators and investors are asking for it, customers are demanding it and employees are expecting it.”

Planet’s data products and services can help organizations to uncover new sustainability opportunities, monitor their supply chains for unsustainable behaviors, deliver measurable improvements in their sustainability and climate performance and report on the results. And because we work extensively with the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we can help our customers align their efforts with the broader SDG framework.

Illuminating Supply Chains

Many sustainability challenges may lurk in the supply chain. For example, as reported in Monga Bay last year, an enormous rubber plantation in Cameroon, operated by a subsidiary of  the world’s largest rubber processor, Halcyon Agri Corp, recently came under intense scrutiny for its unsustainable practices. The rubber plantation engaged in deforestation and land clearing right up to the border of the country’s Dja Faunal Reserve, which is part of Cameroon’s largest surviving tract of rainforest. This reserve is home to critically endangered wildlife such as the western lowland forest gorilla. It’s also home to indigenous Baka communities, which were forced from their lands by the development.

In 2018, citing these “sustainability risks,” Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global divested from Halcyon Agri. The company responded by developing a comprehensive sustainability plan, creating a sustainable natural rubber supply chain policy and an independent sustainability council, developing schools and hospitals for the local community, and promising to stop any further deforestation. While the story is still unfolding, imagery from Planet confirmed that no additional deforestation has since occurred—verifying Halcyon Agri’s delivery on its commitment.

In this case as in many others, Planet’s data provides a unique, independent source of truth—one that companies, investors and shareholders, journalists, NGOs, governments and other stakeholders can use to help ensure that sustainable progress is measured and sustainability promises are kept. And this is true not just in forests, but in agriculture, oceans, cities and many other contexts.

Enabling a Truer-Cost, Climate-Aligned Economy 

It’s not only individual firms that are pivoting. Global capital markets have begun to awaken to a simple fact, articulated concisely by Blackrock’s CEO, Larry Fink, earlier this year: “Climate risk is investment risk.”

This observation is rooted in a larger one: the global financial system does not properly account for the value of nature or a stable climate, or the services that they provide to humanity. From cleaning the water and the air, to providing the habitat in which our food grows, nature and the climate underpin all life and prosperity. Yet the financial system assumes nature to be limitless, self-renewing and free—an “externality” scarcely worth measuring. This mis-pricing undervalues nature and those that care for it, and encourages reckless behaviors that bespoil our air, overfish our oceans, imperil our forests, accelerate climate change and put all life at risk.

Capital markets have begun to sensitize themselves to the fact that companies that contribute to the loss of nature and the degradation of the climate are at risk of losing the future, and more broadly, that we must “green” the financial system if we have any hope of meeting the demands of the climate emergency. As the Bank of England notes: “Carbon emissions have to decline by 45 percent from 2010 levels over the next decade in order to reach net zero by 2050. This requires a massive reallocation of capital. If some companies and industries fail to adjust to this new world, they will fail to exist.”

Planet’s daily, whole-Earth measuring, monitoring and analytics capabilities can help enable this transition. Our data, when combined with others, can help us create high resolution, globally complete, spatially explicit and dynamically-updated indicators of change—what we call “big indicators.”

These kinds of indicators will allow for the measurement of social, environmental and climate risks with unprecedented detail, in near-real-time, enabling markets to more accurately measure and incorporate both climate risk and the value of nature. We hope that one day they will power a wide array of new financial instruments—from climate-smart municipal bonds to novel insurance programs and national credit ratings. Today, we don’t have a “Dow Jones for Deforestation” or a “NASDAQ for Nature”—but tomorrow we could, built on these new kinds of indicators.

We’ve begun to work with many stakeholders to accelerate this work. Recently, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, we began convening networks of leaders in finance, artificial intelligence and climate science to explore how to create new kinds of geospatial climate risk measurements. One result is a demonstration, developed with our colleagues at Cloud to Street, in which we illustrate how these kinds of indicators can illuminate flood risk in new ways.

In the demonstration, we begin by producing a high-resolution satellite basemap of Beira, Mozambique, based on Planet imagery. Then, using the tools of machine learning, we automatically extract building footprints from the imagery, showing where all of human settlement has occurred. Finally, we overlay Cloud to Street’s high-resolution assessment of flood frequency (also derived from historical satellite imagery). The resulting picture shows, in fine detail, where communities are building in places that are especially susceptible to flooding, especially in a climate-changing world.

Using Planet’s continuous satellite monitoring, this kind of risk assessment can be continuously produced on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, illustrating how many buildings are in flood-prone areas, and how climate-related flood risks are evolving in real-time. And that’s exactly the kind of indicator one might use to power a new kind of microinsurance product, climate-resilience municipal bond or other new kind of financial instrument. As the indicator moves, so might the premium paid, or the payout in the case of a disaster. Moreover, the technology that developed these maps is based on historical data, but can also produce data in near real-time, with such resolution and consistency that it could support triggered insurance payouts.

Meeting climate and sustainability challenges will be the most significant we face. But in them, we don’t just see opportunities for the reduction of risk but also the creation of new growth. The UN has estimated that meeting the SDGs alone will open $12 trillion in new market opportunities that have yet to be seized, in areas such as food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being.

In other words, this is not just about compliance. It’s about re-aligning our behaviors in a way that values and restores nature, aligns economic growth with planetary boundaries and creates new possibilities for humans and the planet to flourish together.

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