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Eye on Earth Special Initiatives demonstrate critical role of data for Sustainable Development



At the second Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi today, experts highlighted the achievements of the movement’s Special Initiatives in providing data, tools and frameworks to help inform decision-making for sustainable development. The Special Initiatives are the engine and driving force behind Eye on Earth and a key component of the success of the global movement in closing the data gap to support informed decision-making.

The Special Initiatives were created, following the inaugural Eye on Earth Summit in 2011, to conceive and facilitate numerous data-related projects all over the world. They cover eight subject areas: equal access, linked networks, environmental education, water security, biodiversity, oceans and blue carbon, community sustainability and resiliency, and disaster management.

Since their launch, the Special Initiatives have brought together more than 500 scientists, government officials, academics, non-government organisations and citizens to focus on data creation, discovery, access, and analytics, as well as decision support systems and procedures needed to improve decision-making for sustainable development.

A core part of their work has been to help nations, civil society and other stakeholders understand the importance of data and information for achieving the outcomes of several emerging global frameworks, and to enable their engagement in the creation, discovery and use of data. These include the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), as well as the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“Through the Special Initiatives  a number of pilot projects have been undertaken across many disciplines and in many parts of the globe. The result of these has been an improved capacity for decision-making, and a growing uniformity of approach when it comes to interoperable data and policy support,” stated Costis Toregas, Associate Director, GW Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute and a Facilitator of three Special Initiatives.

Among the 2011 pilot projects are 11 that were selected by Eye on Earth to receive seed-funding. Since their implementation in 2013, they have significantly improved the development of environmental and social information, and human and technical capacity critical to achieving the post-2015 global sustainable development agenda.

Project successes have included:

– The commitment by governmental and civil society stakeholders in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) to create a regional instrument on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, considered the gold standard for the promotion of environmental democracy

– Collaboration between local and national governments in the Arab region to create a Spatial Data Infrastructure that can help local communities best prevent, prepare for and recover from disaster situations

– Technical capacity building in the fields of environmental indicators, data infrastructures and web map services in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a view to their replication in the Arab region and beyond

– Development of a new information architecture that enables the automated sharing, discovery and integration of existing data networks – even when they (as they usually do) use inconsistent terms and concepts

– Developing a global educational network to mainstream environment and sustainability practices and curricula into universities around the world, including the successful facilitation of a MOOC

– Capacity building among decision makers in Europe and the Arab region to understand emerging technologies and their potential to support sustainable development, with a particular focus on water security

– The introduction of best-in-class data collation methodologies and tools

– The harnessing of citizen science and crowd sourcing of data to support sustainable urban planning and management, and to provide governments with a more refined understanding of neighborhood-level data and needs.

“Eye on Earth’s Special Initiatives are helping to lay essential groundwork, not only through their groundbreaking projects, but also through the multiple opportunities for networking and cross sectoral engagement they afford. The cross-regional and interdisciplinary cooperation being fostered wouldn’t really happen otherwise at this scale,” said Derek Gliddon, National Partnership and Development Manager, Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI, and Facilitator of Global Network of Networks Special Initiative.

“The Special Initiatives have worked hard to develop a true community of practice which cuts across organisation, budget and mission. They bring together governments, industry, NGOs and academia united by the same objective: to find creative ways to improve the use of data and analytics in sustainable development questions, and to strengthen the decisions of policy makers,” said Viktor Lagutov, Head of the Environmental Systems Laboratory, Central European University, Budapest and Facilitator for the Water Security Special Initiaitve.

In providing a platform for dialogue and collaboration, the Special Initiatives continue to facilitate new partnerships and project development opportunities, particularly public-private cooperation between technology companies and NGOs. Esri is now working closely with the Ecocitizen World Map project that is managed within the Community Sustainbability and Resiliency Special Initiative and Google has partnered with the Environmental Education Special Initiatives to provide state of the art software to students interested in sustainable development, both a result of the Eye on Earth process.

“Sustainable development cannot be achieved through political agreements, financial incentives and technological solutions alone – it will also require a change in the way citizens and societies think and act. The diverse elements of the post-2015 development agenda are linked by the need for environmental education at all levels, and Eye on Earth is helping all nations to build this capacity,” said Brian Waswala, Environmental Education and Training Specialist at the United Nations Environment Programme, and Facilitator of the Environmental Education Special Initiative.

Members of the Special Initiatives have identified another 120 data-realted issues that will improve the efficiency and efficacy by which environmental sustainability is acheived. These project proposals, which require funding, are being presented during Eye on Earth Summit 2015, and have also been made available to nations, funding organisations and interested philanthropists.

Commenting on the role that the Eye on Earth Special Initiatives can play in aligning programmes of work, Jane Glavan, Climate Change & Blue Carbon Partnership Project Manager at AGEDI and Facilitator of the Biodiversity and Oceans and Blue Carbon Special Initiatives said: “Transformational change on broad, large-scale and global issue like sustainable development comes from increased cross-sector coordination rather than isolated interventions from individual organisations. The more data we can collect and put in the hands of people who have the power and political will to effect real world change, the better our planet stands to be. We want to encourage more people to align their work with the Eye on Earth Special Initiatives and to use our growing global network of connections to advance their projects.”

The Eye on Earth Special Initiatives have produced a booklet of case studies outlining specific project outcomes over the last four years. It is available here.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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