Forest protection, biodiversity and artificial intelligence: what challenges ahead?

Speakers: D’Eugenio Joachim, Lucas Thierry, White Topher, Neves Luis, Borkowski Piotr, Dedopoulou Angeliki
Moderator: Keating Dave

At the end of June, PubAffairs Bruxelles organised an evening of discussion on the challenges ahead regarding EU and global forest protection and the use of artificial intelligence to counter biodiversity loss and improve environmental sustainability with Mr Joachim D’Eugenio, Senior Expert, DG ENVI, European Commission, Mr Thierry Lucas, Senior Programme Officer, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Mr Topher White, Founder & CEO, Rainforest Connection, Mr Luis Neves, CEO, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Mr Piotr Borkowski, Executive Director, EUSTAFOR.

Ms Angeliki Dedopoulou, Senior Manager, EU Public Affairs, Huawei, held a keynote speech and took part in the panel discussion.

The debate was moderated by Mr Dave Keating, Journalist and Brussels Correspondent for France 24.

Mr Dave Keating began by setting the stage of the debate highlighting that the discussion comes at a pertinent time as biodiversity loss can be blamed for some of the current crucial societal challenges, most notably climate change. Indeed, he pointed to the fact that biodiversity loss may be contributing to the outbreak of new diseases such as COVID-19. He then brought attention to the fact that biodiversity loss has been a primary area of focus for the EU for some time and especially so with the recently released Commission’s Biodiversity Strategy. The moderator also remarked that there is a growing understanding that biodiversity loss is connected to wider environmental issues and that these can be fought in tandem. Stressing the many important roles that forests play for the health of the globe, he consequently stated that forests are nonetheless rapidly disappearing at a global level as a result of deforestation and environmental degradation. Mr Keating opened the discussion by highlighting that policymakers have put forward several actions which have culminated in the recognition of the importance of forests, meanwhile the scientific community, the private sector and NGOs have all started to collaborate and deploy efforts to counter biodiversity loss, with the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools as well.

Ms Angeliki Dedopoulou began her keynote speech by reflecting on the vital role that forests and woodlands play in ensuring human existence and preventing climate change. Indeed, she explained, these very roles are one of the main reasons for the European Commission’s efforts towards a fully-fledged implementation of the EU Green Deal. She subsequently highlighted the need to improve both the quality and quantity of Europe’s forested areas. Indeed, she stated, forests constitute our common past, our present, as well as the future of planet Earth, while providing the alarming example that, between 1990 and 2015, the world lost about 130 million hectares of forest, an area equivalent in size to South Africa. Elaborating on these facts, she stated that when forests are removed, it is not only the trees that disappear, but an entire ecosystem begins to fall apart. In addition, she pointed out that forests are not only home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, but also to sixty million human beings. In relation to Europe, she highlighted that farming is one of the main causes of deforestation, while globally, 80% of deforestation is due to industrialisation, intense farming, as well as to the fact that the world is overproducing in the agricultural sector. Bringing attention to the role of AI and industries, she highlighted several of Huawei’s projects that have helped in tackling these challenges. The first Ms Dedopoulou mentioned was Huawei Connected Farm, which is aimed at helping farmers increase efficiency and productivity through smart agriculture. She explained that another project named Huawei Rural Star has used low cost and easy to set up technology to foster connectivity in rural areas. Elaborating further, she stated that this solution allows farmers to use the potential of 5G and AI for crop management, reducing overproduction and waste, while combating deforestation by allowing people to better manage the land and maximise crop yield via improved irrigation and fertilisation. She further stated that, through the combination of these practices and AI technology, countries around the globe would better deal with the above-mentioned issues. In reference to forest protection, she highlighted Huawei’s collaboration with the NGO Rainforest Connection. Ms Dedopoulou subsequently explained that this collaboration is aimed at managing and protecting rainforest ecosystems through the use of old mobile phones that collect and upload sound data, after which, AI-based software can identify chainsaw and track sounds. Another facet of the project she highlighted was the collecting of data on spider monkey sounds, which provides information on their habitat, helping foresters to protect endangered species. Furthermore, she remarked that these innovative solutions would not be possible without fast, robust and widespread connectivity. Concluding her speech, she highlighted the importance of digital skills and accessibility, while stating that it is crucial to act at the local level with local communities and ensure connectivity to tackle the issues of deforestation and climate change. She concluded by affirming that there is also a need to bring together all stakeholders in agriculture, while policymakers need to provide investments and focus on the implementation and application of new technologies.

The moderator introduced the panellists and opened up the debate by asking the speakers how they are each factoring in AI tools into their work when developing policies targeted at protecting forests and biodiversity. 

Mr Joachim D’Eugenio began his remarks by highlighting the work of the Commission on the coupling between digitalisation and the environment that ties into the goals of the Biodiversity Strategy and the Circular Economy Action Plan. The speaker answered the question of the moderator by bringing attention to President Von der Leyen’s announcement at the beginning of her mandate to adopt the green and digital transitions as a new vision for Europe to achieve its climate and environmental objectives. Elaborating on these statements, the speaker highlighted the role that digitalisation can play in achieving the climate change objectives, as set out in the European Green Deal and the European Digital Strategy. The speaker then elaborated in detail on the Commission’s Digital Strategy, Data Strategy and the White Paper on AI, all of which set out the mandate on digitalisation. Mr D’Eugenio subsequently brought attention to the Biodiversity Strategy and its role in setting European leadership in this area coming up to the global negotiations at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in China. He continued his remarks by bringing attention to the importance of forest ecosystems and the efforts of the Commission to protect and restore forests globally in mid-2019 which include a large emphasis on data, information and knowledge tools, with particular regard to the supply chain. He also brought attention to the Commission’s intention to evaluate current legislation on the illegal trading of EU forests, such as the Timber Regulation. Furthermore, he stated that the Commission aims to create a forestry strategy and subsequent legislation in 2021, while also highlighting the collaboration with the Joint Research Centre to set up an EU observatory. Focusing on the three critical areas in which he sees huge potential, namely data generation, data transmission and data analysis, the speaker remarked on the issue of time sensitivity when it comes to making data available for policy analysis and the important role of AI in this context. He continued by stating that the Commission sees data as a prerequisite for the efficient use of AI while highlighting that there needs to be high-quality data, along with a clear mechanism to collect and pool it. The speaker continued his statement by underscoring the role that Blockchain and AI technologies can play in supply chain management, ensuring that forestry products are sustainably sourced and regulations followed. Concerning forestry management, the speaker mentioned the benefits of geospatial intelligence, where geospatial AI technologies were used in the landmark ECJ case regarding the “Białowieska Natura 2000”, proving that the management of the site was not in line with the “Habitats Directive”.

Mr Thierry Lucas responded to the moderator’s question by highlighting that UNEP looks to AI to complement the work they do around the globe. He continued by explaining that UNEP monitors more than 300 indicators related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which involves complex data, subsequently orientating them towards the use of AI. In agreement with Mr D’Eugenio, the speaker highlighted the need to process data in a timely manner so that it is available for the use of policymakers. Mr Lucas brought attention to the limitations of satellite imagery when monitoring biodiversity, as they do not provide the necessary resolution to understand what is beneath the forest cover. In this regard, he added that UNEP is working with multiple companies on how they can combine AI with satellite images. Another use of these tools that the speaker brought attention to is species recognition, which can be quite difficult as it requires skilled and well-trained people, while remarking that UNEP is working with several NGOs to use AI and camera traps for species monitoring. Mr Lucas subsequently highlighted the current state of biodiversity monitoring in Europe by stressing that we are unaware of the current state of biodiversity or invasive species and, in order to understand the full picture, there is a need for another level of data processing, along with human intervention. In the speaker’s view, UNEP would like to further expand the use of AI also in relation to marine pollution, as there is a need to enhance location tracing for pollution. Other examples he highlighted are illegal logging and illegal wildlife trafficking, which he stated is now the third most profitable criminal activity in the world. Remarking on the consequences of not countering these phenomena with the use of new technologies, he concluded that it will be most likely that species will be lost and law enforcement will be more difficult.

Mr Topher White began his remarks by stating that satellite imagery is one of the most useful tools for understanding the problem on a global scale, however, he added that in several cases, there is also the need to react in real-time, requiring another tool to be able to gather that data, analyse it and report it in a timely manner. Moving on to the approach of his organisation, which is active in 14 countries around the world, he highlighted that Rainforest Connection works with both the private sector and grassroots communities. Giving the example of their partnership with Huawei, he described the project in which they use discarded Huawei phones in the treetops of the rainforest to monitor audio in real-time by using the cell phone network to stream data into the cloud. Elaborating on this example, Mr White explained that this data is subsequently analysed using AI to detect threats that indicate illegal logging operations which are then reported via real-time local partners, be them NGOs, governments or indigenous tribes. The speaker remarked that when these operations are caught early, the stakes are much lower and there is thus less chance of conflict between stakeholders. The speaker continued his reply by highlighting the difficulties in their work when a governmental partner is absent, as local communities often lack the authority and means of law enforcement. In the speaker’s view, the most important aspect of their work is not the hardware, but rather the AI analysis that takes place in the cloud, as with this technology they can detect faint noises that would otherwise be imperceptible. Mr White then brought attention to the untapped potential and importance of sound data in the rainforest, as it contains large amounts of information. In his view, sound is the next frontier, as with a small number of sensors it is possible to pick up sounds over great distances. Concluding his remarks, the speaker stated that his organisation looks to increase the amount of forest that it covers, along with working on new uses of acoustic data for bioacoustic monitoring through AI.

Mr Luis Neves explained that GESI is a membership-driven organisation which works on the intersection between technology and sustainability, as well as covering a diverse number of areas from climate change to supply chains. The speaker elaborated on the research of the organisation relating to how digital technologies can aid sustainable development and drive innovation through raising awareness and best practices sharing. Mr Neves drew attention to GESI’s recent study, the Digital with Purpose report, which covers how technology can impact each of the SDGs. This report, he explained, identified four key areas of intervention where AI can aid in combating biodiversity loss and deforestation. Proceeding to explain these areas, he began with connecting and communicating, which he explains is centred around using technology to better inform people about what is ongoing in relation to biodiversity loss and the environment. The second area that he mentioned was monitoring and tracking, where he explained that data collection, IoT and blockchain technologies can provide useful insights into how and why ecosystems are changing, as well tracking the flow of resources from the biosphere. Providing other examples, the speaker explained that these projects have collected data on protected areas and monitored land degradation over time using satellite imagery. Another area included in GESI’s report that the speaker elaborated on was analysing, optimising and predicting. Indeed, Mr Neves stated that the projects referenced by Ms Dedopoulou would fall into this area. The final area mentioned by Mr Neves was augment and alternate, where autonomous machines can play a role in improving the efficiency of sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing or waste. Concluding his remarks, the speaker highlighted that in a business as usual approach, the world will see around 20 million hectares of forest lost to deforestation, however, these losses can be decreased by 23% via the implementation of AI-based technologies.

Mr Piotr Borkowski began his remarks by explaining the role of EUSTAFOR, which he specified represents thirty-six state forest management organisations across the EU and its neighbourhood. The speaker stressed that the main role of state forest organisations is to ensure that Europe’s state forests are managed in a sustainable and multifunctional way as national assets. Providing a breakdown of the forested area that EUSTAFOR manages, the speaker explained that 8 million hectares are designated as Natura 2000 sites, while an area of equivalent size consists of protected areas and strict reserves. Mr Borkowski emphasised that forests also provide many protective functions such as preventing soil erosion and maintaining the wellbeing of infrastructure, however, he also stressed it is important not to lose sight of the fact that forests also have an economic function. This fact, he explained, was even more relevant in light of the EU Green Deal and publication of the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. Further expanding on this point, he mentioned the role that forests play in the bioeconomy, in particular in providing green jobs as means of living for rural people, which he described as paramount for maintaining population levels in rural areas. With regard to how AI is being used in forest management, the speaker explained that AI aids in the assessment of the conditions of the forest and forest inventory. Forest inventory, he explained, is the basis of forest management, as all EUSTAFOR members operate according to forest management plans, of which entail detailed descriptions of the resources they manage and the prescriptions used when managing them. Mr Borkowski stated that satellite imagery does not offer yet the necessary resolution to focus on the stand or landscape levels, however, he added, new technologies will be in use soon. An example of such technology he mentioned was in forest operations in Norway, where through the use of remote sensing and satellites-based connectivity, Statskog manages and supervises field operations in wide and remote expanses of forest. Shedding light on the complexity of forest management, with its huge databases and technical operations, the speaker stressed the importance of new technologies. Speaking of the previously mentioned “Białowieska Natura 2000” case, Mr Borkowski argued that state forests in general remain open to public access so the satellites are not needed to provide any evidence of management practice contrary to what is provided by the national authorities. He also explained that the actions in question were taking place in the buffer zone around the area of primeval forest (Białowieski National Park) and were related to a certain management approach towards the bark beetle. Regarding the use of AI and new technologies, the speaker cited the application of AI for camera traps to monitor wildlife species behaviour observations (e.g. lynx, wolf, etc.), as well as for preventing forest damage from the illegal deposition of waste, illegal logging and forest fires.

The moderator continued the debate by asking about how regulations can either impede or encourage the implementation of these new AI technologies, as well as enquiring as to what stakeholders require from policy makers in this regard.

Mr D’Eugenio started his intervention by stating that, on the one hand, the Commission is examining how they can make environmental legislation more “digital” through the use of evaluations and fitness checks, while, on the other hand, the EU executive body is looking at making laws more effective in the way they are implemented. The speaker continued by underlining the implementation gap with current legislation as, according to him, it is imperative to ensure that the EU member states put into action EU legislation through improved capacities and manpower. Mr D’Eugenio also stressed that technology and data will play an increasingly central role, however, in order to maximise the efficacy of technological tools, digital skills will have to be prioritised. Reflecting on the time lag of technological transformation in his area of work, the speaker noted that the utilisation of common tools such emails replacing fax machines took some time to become commonplace, as there is a need to upskill people for using the new technology effectively. Remarking on the legislative side, he stated that the Commission has issued a White Paper on AI, which is currently undergoing the process of consultations and discussions in preparation for possible legislative intervention. Continuing his remarks, the speaker stressed that the transparency of AI is a crucial principle, as AI algorithms will need to be open and transparent for people to understand what the algorithm is doing. Elaborating on this, he explained that algorithms will only do what human beings program them to do, thus, he argued, we need to program them in a way that fulfils both environmental and climate objectives. The speaker then highlighted how Executive Vice-President Vestager and Commissioner Breton have expressed a desire to present a data strategy with open data at its heart provided data protection rules are respected. On the work of the Commission with respect to data protection, he explained that the EU executive body has recently published a report on the application of GDPR. However, he elaborated, environmental data is mostly non-personal data, which can be collected and shared openly by private enterprises, investors as well as the public and used in new analytical AI tools. Furthermore, he stated that these tools thrive on large amounts of data from different sources. Concluding his intervention, the speaker said that there is a need to create an interface between the legislative and implementation sides in order to achieve objectives and effectively implement laws.

Ms Dedopoulou answered by calling attention to the use of AI in agriculture to increase production while using less land and producing less waste. She stated that policymakers can aid in these efforts by making connectivity more affordable and cutting the red tape with respect to AI. Underlining Huawei’s investments in research and development, she stated that Huawei has spent approximately 13 billion euros in that field in annually; while in 2019 they led the field in Europe’s patent development. The speaker continued her remarks by articulating her view on AI as a core technology that can have lasting and positive effects for forests. As per the role of governments and policy makers, she stated that they will play a key role in creating digital ecosystems as their support will be needed to aid developers in building tailored apps for different communities and industries. Concluding her remarks, the speaker highlighted the need for policymakers to invest in the future now by supporting greener processes and providing both legal authority and certainty, all the while focusing on connectivity, SMEs, start-ups and strategic sectors of the economy linked to the environment and forestry.

Mr White replied to the question of the moderator by emphasising the question of illegal logging. He explained that in many of the areas his organisation works, there are no new regulations that could really aid in allowing local partners to stop illegal activities, as law and order is not always prevalent. Shedding light on the fight against deforestation in remote areas, he told of how it is mostly local people fighting back using the monitoring the NGO provides. On the subject of the data that they collect in this monitoring, Mr White stressed the need to make this data as public and accessible as possible.

Mr Neves replied to the question of the moderator by elaborating on the complex nature of data collection and data gathering, with global monitoring activities utilising technologies as diverse as drones and satellites and involving many different types of data. In his view, with data now being the currency of the world, data privacy and security discussions have to be driven by high levels of ethical standards and stated that this is very important in every area related to AI. Referencing the current environment around AI, Mr Neves said that we are currently on a pathway that will lead to conflict and controversy. With technology evolving at the speed of light, he explained that the landscape will look remarkably different in a years’ time, and as such, it is extremely difficult to predict where we will be then. Another component he mentioned was that human beings often take a simplistic approach to understanding issues, citing the example of a meeting he attended in Silicon Valley, wherein he asked a question to the developers of an algorithm about its wider implications, to which they replied that it was not their area of responsibility. Concluding his speech, the speaker highlighted that this is a difficult area which will need to be continually monitored and discussed, with GDPR and other initiatives playing crucial roles. Finally, he advocated for a focus on ethics and transparency to ensure that in this area and others, a pathway for sustainability and peaceful living remains available.

In a closing remark, Ms Dedopoulou, complemented the remarks of Mr Neves, highlighting the importance of ensuring that algorithms remain non-discriminatory, sustainable and transparent. Bringing attention to the aspect of liability, she stated there also exists high-risk AI, where human oversight should always be required, along with a strong liability framework. In this case, she elaborated, the burden of proof in the case of harm caused by AI systems should not be on European consumers. In sum, she stated that Huawei believes it is of the utmost importance to monitor algorithms and assess all the associated risks, while also using high quality, unbiased datasets.

The Q&A session covered the following issues: How developing countries can enable the technological leap necessary in order to provide adequate protection to biodiversity, how to encourage developing countries to protect forests in the context of the current crisis, the advantages of private companies and NGOs compared to international bodies when dealing with difficult political situations, the EU’s success in its role as a global model for forest and climate protection.

Want to know more about the issues discussed in this debate? Then, take a look at the selected sources provided below!

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), United Nations

Forest, United Nations Environmental Programme

Deforestation, UN News

UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15)

EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, European Commission

European Green Deal, European Commission

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs, European Commission

Forestry explained, European Commission

Position Paper on the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, Eustafor

Commission steps up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests, Press Release, European Commission

Sustainable and multifunctional forest management, EUSTAFOR

Circular Economy Action Plan, European Commission

White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, European Commission

European Digital Strategy, European Commission

European Data Strategy, European Commission

Digital with purpose, Report, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) 

Rainforest Connection website

Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) website

EUSTAFOR website

EUSTAFOR’s messages to European policymakers “Let’s build a future-fit Europe together”