UN Launches The First AI Tool For Rapid Natural Capital Accounting

Modernisation and industrialisation have radically changed human life for good but also resulted in significant environmental damage. The introduction of AI to improve the ecological condition is a pivotal step to undo the damage we have inflicted upon nature throughout centuries. Artificial intelligence has accelerated the efforts the United Nations has put in to tackle various environmental challenges. The United Nations has always been at the forefront in addressing global issues and pushing environmentally sound development. To that end, the UN recently launched the first artificial Intelligence tool, ARIES for SEEA Explorer for Rapid Natural Capital Accounting.

An innovative artificial intelligence tool, ARIES will make it easier for countries to factor in nature’s contributions like forests, oceans etc, to their economic prosperity and human well‑being. The Artificial Intelligence for Environment and Sustainability (ARIES) is an easy-to-use application developed by the Statistics Division of the UN DESA, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and BC3. The tool intends to support the compilation of Central Framework accounts.

So what’s the use of AI in SEEA?

Over the last few years, ecosystem accounting has gone through numerous ground-breaking developments, including developing a new accounting framework called the SEEA EA. The System of Environmental-Economic Accounting—Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA) was a step taken by the UN to incorporate sustainable development in policy decision-making and economic planning to address critical environmental issues like loss of biodiversity, climate change etc. India is, in fact, one of the countries that favoured the implementation of ecosystem accounting to combat environmental degradation. The SEEA account focuses on the relationship between environment and economy in a dynamic way that traditional measures like GDP cannot account for. ARIES provides basic ecosystem assessment functionality and helps in producing rapid and standardised ecosystem accounting. With the launch of the ARIES, India can significantly improve the SEEA EA framework to measure the link between its economy and the environment. 

How ARIES works?

The ARIES is specifically developed to assist in SEEA EA. It provides a mechanism for countries to assess their ecosystem extent, condition, and physical accounts for selected ecosystem services. This AI tool can be expanded to a wide range of ecosystems easily. With artificial intelligence, the ARIES team was able to automate data and model integration cheaply to provide transparent assembly and reporting. This allows the system to choose precise combinations of data and models, which helps prioritise data based on a user’s focus. 

Currently, the national statistical offices of India and South Africa under the  Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services project (NCAVES) pilot program are testing the prototype of ARIES for SEEA EA with many other countries. With ARIES, India can improve its natural capital accounting and use SEEA to implement sustainability and environmental conservation, including economic development. Since India uses the prototype tool, one can’t be sure how it will help experts contribute to the data and models on a larger scale with the help of older data and models. Even though the application integrates remote sensing data for experts and non-technical users, the ARIES team are still developing models that will work with global data. They are trying to work on models that can be customised to work with local data when needed. 

The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) has plans to further discuss how research groups and national statistical offices can improve the interoperability of model and data based on the study of ARIES for SEEA in spring 2021.

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Ritika Sagar
Ritika Sagar is currently pursuing PDG in Journalism from St. Xavier's, Mumbai. She is a journalist in the making who spends her time playing video games and analyzing the developments in the tech world.

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