At the end of last year, Microsoft decided to roll up its sleeves to help make effective changes to the planet. Besides recycling waste and using solar panels in its offices, the company founded by Bill Gates offered what it knows best: technology to increase the efficiency of energy distribution, to make the weather forecast more accurate and to manage the use of water, among others.
The company has done that with AI for Earth. The plan is to invest US$ 50 million over the next five years in putting artificial intelligence (AI) in the hands of individuals and organizations around the world who are working to protect our planet. “While the experts' warnings are dire, at Microsoft we believe technology advances can help us better understand and address the environmental issues facing our world," wrote Brad Smith, CEO and Legal Advisor of the company.
Within the first six months of the program, Microsoft has awarded over 30 grants in more than 10 countries for access to the AI technology, in addition to taking the knowledge to universities and NGOs. Thereby, the company has united its expertise to that of partners around the world to make practical changes. For instance, The Yield, an Australian company, has created a solution that uses sensors, analytics and apps to produce real-time weather data, right down to field level, helping growers make smarter decisions that can reduce their use of water and other inputs while also increasing their yield.
Microsoft's action is in line with the 1987 report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: sustainable development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own demands. Although much has happened since then, and the concept gained new meanings, the UN's definition still serves as a master guiding line for thinking the planet's directions.
In 1962, American biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson sparked international clamor with her book Silent Spring, which spotlights the uncontrolled use of pesticides. It was a time when activists founded organizations and focused on corporations for the first time. The world ban on whaling, which finally came into effect in 1986, was one of the standards of the WWF (created in 1961), Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (both from 1971).
Since then, companies have added environmental concern to their practices and, today, sustainability is taken into account in the companies' market value too. They are increasingly expanding their focus beyond profit, also considering how they can create value in society and be successful in the future. These principles are in line with the Earth Charter, a global society document launched in 2000 that broadened the definition of sustainability to include the idea of a global society "founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace."
To achieve these goals, it would be necessary to review the principles not only concerning environmental protection, but also to social responsibility and economic practices. In that sense, 2015 is a milestone. It was when the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the 2000 initiative. The SDGs, supported by 193 countries, cover a global vision for a fairer and more sustainable world. Global leaders made history by getting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change - despite the non-ratification of the United States and China at the time.
"By 2015, there has been a definite shift from simple risk management to a new positioning of companies on how they could add value to society," Lindsay Hooper, of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, said to The Guardian. "Businesses will be the leaders in meeting global goals, with the support of constructive policies and socially responsible investment."
From biodiversity to energy generation
Since the ban on whaling, the conservation agenda for the environment and wildlife continues to grow steadily, as well as the increasing concern for energy generation to sustain population growth. For sustainability experts, currently, that is one of the most urgent demands, since electricity, light, heating and fuel are critical factors in economic growth, in food production efficiency and to reach high living standards. According to the UN report of the Earth Summit to Rio+20, "access to modern sustainable energy services contributes to poverty eradication, saves lives, improves health and helps to provide basic human needs."
That is why some groups began to advocate, long before Rio +20, that governments must adopt new approaches to their energy policies. For instance, conservation and efficiency in the use and generation of renewable energies such as wind, solar and biofuels, giving less preference to oil, gas and coal, although taking into account that these sources remain essential in many cases.
A sustainable society
The current perception is that a sustainable society is based on equal access to medical care, nutrition, clean water, housing, education, energy, economic opportunities and employment. In an ideal society, humans live in harmony with their environment; preserve resources not only for their generation, but also for their descendants’ descendants. All citizens would enjoy a high quality of life and there would be social justice for all.
Companies play a crucial role in this. They are called to create long-term practices that do more than just respecting the environment, the well-being of employees and the future of future generations. At the same time, they are expected to increase profitability, their market value and finance innovation. It's no longer about raising standards, but about surviving in a world that has changed.