In 2019, a group of scientists from Swiss university ETH Zurich published a pivotal study saying that global degraded landscapes, collectively about the size of the U.S., could support the planting of some 1 trillion trees. This would, it said, reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by a whopping 25 percent.
The study, which was conducted by the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, received a fair bit of pushback, with critics saying its findings were overestimates, too good to be true. But as it zoomed across headlines, the study’s uncontested accomplishment was that it did more to raise public awareness about the power of landscape restoration – particularly through tree-planting – than perhaps any other piece of research in recent history.
And it didn’t stop there. The opportunity the findings presented felt ambitious but achievable, becoming muse for a group of experts at Google.org, the charitable arm of Google, to develop a tool to help the study be lived out through science-based restoration activities. The result is Restor, a free digital platform that allows everyone, everywhere to access information about their landscape – from soil moisture levels to rainfall levels to types of biodiversity – giving the knowledge needed to plant and restore species that will, most importantly, survive.
A finalist for the 2021 Earthshot Prize, Restor has now been used to inform efforts in almost 76,000 sites, helping people worldwide mitigate and adapt to climate change in ways that will last. Here, Landscape News spoke to Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, the director of public impact at Google.org, to learn more about platform and its resulting change.
When did Google sign on to support this initiative of the Crowther Lab, and why?
Google started working with Crowther Lab in 2020 to build and scale an idea into Restor, a collaboration with a wide network of restoration projects, communities, scientists and environmental organizations around the world. Additional support, in the form of a USD 1.2 million grant from Google.org, is helping the Restor team test new methods and technologies to monitor ecosystem restoration progress by collecting data on indicators such as tree size and forest density, soil moisture and vegetation structure from various restoration projects currently underway.
We believe that technology can play an important role in sparking and maintaining a global restoration movement by giving groups and individuals everywhere the information they need to restore their local ecosystems and giving us a global picture of the movement’s work.
What did Google have to develop and innovate in order to achieve the envisioned goals of Restor?
Restor relies on massive amounts of global data, which is where Google’s existing technologies come in – the platform is powered by Google Earth Engine and Google Cloud. High-resolution satellite imagery can help scientists, advocates and NGOs monitor restoration progress over time all over the world, regardless of their location. To gather information, the platform creates global data layers from various sources of raw data, including those remotely sensed by Google Earth Engine satellites. Restor gives preference to data layers and methodologies that are peer-reviewed, published in scientific journals and used by academic scientists in generating new information about the state of Earth’s ecology, or otherwise expertly validated.
Ultimately this type of tool will only be successful if people use it, so designers, animators and creative technologists from Google Creative Lab also helped design and develop the platform to be user friendly and actionable.
One of the areas of most concern in climate change is how to move beyond making ambitious pledges and actually implement them, and how those who set such targets can be held accountable for doing so. What role can open data play in this challenge?
Even if emissions stopped today, it would be important to draw the excess carbon out of the atmosphere to reach global climate goals. Our shared goal with Restor is to make sure anyone with an Internet connection can access ecological data and science in a user-friendly format to help inform where and what to restore.
When it comes to targets and pledges, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Over time, as the number of projects on Restor continues to grow, the platform has an opportunity to contribute to transparency for a variety of nature-based solutions pledges. Google.org also supports other open data tools for communities, policymakers and planners to measure and predict potential climate impacts and track their real progress towards goals, such as Climate TRACE, Global Water Watch and Saildrone. Climate TRACE launched the first open, transparent, near real-time data on global greenhouse gas emissions by sector and country. Global Water Watch provides real-time indicators for current and future water management needs, and is being built in partnership by Deltares, World Resources Institute and the World Wildlife Fund with support from Google.org. Saildrone is using support from Googe.org to collect year-round ocean data from the Gulf Stream to gain novel understanding of its impact on weather and climate.
How does Google’s engagement with Restor tie into its own climate commitments?
At Google, our moonshot goal is to run entirely on carbon-free energy by 2030 for all of our data centers and campuses. Our work also involves our surrounding communities. As part of our pledge to replenish 120 percent of the water we consume, on average, in communities where we operate by 2030, we are committing to ecosystem restoration projects in those areas. This stewardship is a critical part of our mission, as is sharing our technology to empower others, with Restor adding a new way to understand the natural world and how restoration efforts are impacting it.
How will Restor continue to evolve in line with scientific progress?
Restor is built to bring in new information and science as contributions grow from restoration organizations around the world. Google.org’s grant funding to Restor is also helping the team test new applications of sensor and imaging technology that, when paired with machine learning, will improve the reliability and frequency of data about medium to large-scale restoration projects. This integration of new AI technologies and remote sensing tools will help identify species of trees, measure tree size, and assess the health of soil. Through collective action, our vision is to grow the platform that will yield the most up-to-date data in order to provide greater precision and reliability for users.