Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Forests and Climate? Just Google It

Posted by Danny Morris on December 15, 2009

This post originally appeared on Weathervane, RFF’s climate policy blog.

COPENHAGEN — Yesterday at the COP, Google was in the air (if you’re wondering, Google in the air smells faintly like mint). First, Copenhagen managed to conquer the most frequently search term list. Tiger Woods is no longer no.1, on the Internet or in our hearts. Second, Google threw delightful side events where they unveiled a new tool that could be a game changer for monitoring the world’s forests and could put Google on the map in the climate change philanthropy world.

Since its inception in 2004, has been using 1 percent of Google’s total revenues to address issues like global health, but it has concentrated mainly on investing in products to reduce energy usage and commercialize electric vehicles, all the while challenging the world to create renewable energy that costs less than coal.

These seeds have yet to blossom, because as powerful as Google is, its engineers haven’t yet figured out how to completely redesign the world’s energy systems. Google is not an energy company, it is an information company. If they are incredibly innovative in the information business, it stands to reason they might have a better chance of being innovative in information philanthropy than in other things.

But yesterday Google finally accepted what we knew all along: that they’re not an engineering firm, an automaker, a public health center, or a policymaker. They’re facilitators. The business model for the profitable arm of Google is based on a superior ability to facilitate the transfer of information. They’re finally applying this skill set to climate change in the form of a new forest monitoring tool. Utilizing the amazing capability of the “Google cloud,” scientists can use an online platform to take satellite imagery data compiled over time and use it to track changes in forests. This tool is a major step forward in identifying areas of deforestation and reforestation, and may help solve some of the current problems with forest monitoring and measurement. A full rundown of the tool is here. See what happens when Google tries to do something it’s good at?

Thanks to Virginia Kromm for her insights into the inner workings of Google.

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