Google to Help Fight Climate Change

Earlier this year, Google Earth set up a program to help non-profits and advocacy groups to advance their causes. Darfur advocates, for example, could use the program's satellite imagery combined with overlaid annotations, for example, to show how many people had been displaced by the conflict there.

Which is why it was exciting to hear during the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen that Google Earth has launched a new program which will help fight global warming by giving tropical countries an effective way to measure how much of their forests they’re preserving—a key step in setting up an international program to reward them (and therefore motivate them) to do so.

Here’s the background: Scientists have shown that the impact of tropical deforestation is greater than the impact of the emissions released by all of the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships. As a result, the United Nations wants to implement a system which would financially reward rainforest nations for protecting their forests. The problem, though, has been that those countries haven’t had an effective and cost-feasible system for proving how much they’re saving.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Imazon, a non-profit that studies land use in the Amazon, have developed software that can perform this analysis. But the computing power and satellite imagery required to implement the program on a global scale has been lacking. Until now.

In Copenhagen last week, Google.org (Google’s philanthropic arm) announced it will use its massive computing power and the satellite imagery it has collected through Google Earth to provide a not-for-profit service to help monitor and measure deforestation. A prototype of the program is currently being tested and Google.org hopes to make it more widely available over the coming year.

The impact could be huge. As Fast Company wrote: “The prototype system, could, for example, allow users to show forest cover and deforestation over time in Rondonia, Brazil from 1986-2008 in just seconds. This type of computation normally takes days or weeks, but the massive horsepower of Google's data centers makes the information much more quickly. In practical terms, that means police investigators can get to the root of illegal logging activity quickly, and activist groups like Greenpeace could call out logging operations in real-time.”

Not a bad little present for the world, just in time for the holidays.

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