Google unveils satellite platform to aid forest efforts

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Google Inc unveiled technology on Thursday it says will help build trust between rich and poor countries on projects designed to protect the world’s tropical forests.

A man looks at screens showing images by Google Earth at the Cancun Messe Convention Center where climate talks are taking place in Cancun, December 1, 2010. REUTERS/Gerardo Garcia

Measuring the success of forest-protection plans in places like the Amazon, Indonesia and the Congo basin has always been difficult because tree disease, corruption, and illegal logging threaten vast remote areas that scientists can’t monitor by land.

The future of the projects are important to global talks on climate being held in Cancun for two weeks ending December 10 because forest destruction is responsible for up to 17 percent of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The platform, called Google Earth Engine, takes vast amounts of forest images from U.S. and French satellites and crunches it at shared data centers, through cloud computing. It allows scientists to monitor forests from their own computers in minutes or seconds instead of the hours or days it took before.

Google also wants to eventually sell access to advanced aspects of the tool to carbon traders, policy makers, and researchers working in forestry.

Global deals among nations to protect forests have been slowed by the lack of transparency and the failure of the United States to pass a climate bill that would have boosted a global market in carbon offsets.

But negotiators at the climate talks believe progress can be made on a global plan called reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation, or REDD, in which rich countries would fund rewards for developing and poor nations like Brazil, Indonesia and several in Africa such as Rwanda, that save and restore forests.


Google hopes its tool will help speed cooperation in REDD which could lead to further global agreements on climate.

“How does a rich donor nation gain a level of comfort that what is being recorded about forest protection projects is in fact what is taking place?” said Rebecca Moore, Earth Engine’s engineering manager, on the sidelines of the U.N. global warming talks.

“What’s nice about a cloud computing environment is that both donor countries and developing countries ... now have the same tools and data” to analyze the evidence of how well projects work, she said.

The United States, Japan, Norway and other rich countries pledged $3.5 billion at last year’s climate talks in Copenhagen, to fund the development of REDD and it could be worth much more in the future.

Gerry Steinlegger, a forestry expert based in Switzerland with World Wildlife Fund, said stronger satellite analysis tools dramatically cut the costs of monitoring forests by land.

He also said the tools should help countries trust each other to work together.

“Ultimately this is what the global climate negotiations are about, how to monitor and verify what is going on with emissions and this offers consistency.”, the company’s philanthropic unit, will give 10 million computer hours of Earth Engine to developing countries for the next two years as the world tries to come to a new agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

Editing by Philip Barbara