Leveraging the advantages of digital technology innovation as a boost to achieve SDGs

A staff member (R) demonstrates 5G-based remote control of a robot during the 2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in East China’s Shanghai, on Aug 29, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN) and the 5th anniversary of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. When presiding over the High-level Video Conference on Poverty Eradication and South-South Cooperation, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced the release of the Big Earth Data in Support of the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 written by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This is the second time in two consecutive years (2019 and 2020) that this series of reports have been submitted as an official document of the Chinese government at the United Nations (74th and 75th) General Assembly, which were warmly welcomed by the international community. The report shows the use of cutting-edge technological innovation in digital technologies (such as big data, AI, and cloud computing) to facilitate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), demonstrating China’s firm commitment and contribution to bridging the digital divide and implementing the 2030 Agenda.

On the 70th anniversary of the United Nations in September 2015, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted, which listed 17 goals, aiming to address the social, economic and environmental development problems faced by humans in the most integrated manner in the history of human development and move comprehensively towards the path of sustainable development. 2030 Agenda represents a structural shift to the SDGs from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focusing solely on milestones such as poverty reduction and zero hunger. This ambitious and comprehensive global initiative is facing several challenges in many aspects. The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has severely endangered public health security and presented immense challenges to the implementation of  SDGs.

As international consensus had been reached on the important role of science and technology in facilitating the achievement of SDGs, UN launched the Technology Facilitation Mechanism aiming to advance global implementation of the 2030 Agenda through technological innovation. The UN’s Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 reaffirmed science and technology as an important lever to promote global development and innovation by focusing on the need to transform the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and setting direction for SDGs realization.

As the world’s second largest economy and largest developing country, China has assumed its due responsibility and made contribution to the implementation of the SDGs. China leads the world in issuing its National Plan in Implementing the 2030 Agenda and two Progress Reports and reaped early harvest in many areas. China will lift all rural residents living below the current poverty line out of poverty within this year, thereby meeting the target of eradicating extreme poverty set out in Agenda 2030 ten years ahead of schedule, showcasing the effect of science and technology as the primary productive forces in driving development.

The report Big Earth Data in Support of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on six SDGs including zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities and communities, climate action, life below water, and life on land. The case studies presented in the report monitor progress and evaluation results of SDGs indicators and provide data products, methods, models and decision support at four scales ie local, national, regional and global, highlighting CAS’s unique advantages in using big Earth data to carry out scientific research and in demonstrating how big Earth data can support SDGs.

With regard to food security, an issue of global concern, the study established a remote sensing-based model for the estimation of the yield gap (difference between potential and actual yield) of three staple crops, and found that the yield gap of rice and wheat in the agriculture zone with the highest harvest area was 13.3 percent and 12.5 percent of the yield in 2015, respectively, which would enable the national output of the two crops to meet the predicted consumption demand in 2030. The study stated that rational spatial distribution planning for different regions for increasing crop production while reducing excess fertilizer application is critical for effectively improving the sustainability of food production .

Regarding water resources monitoring, an algorithm was created for monitoring and evaluating lake water transparency based on dual-band reflectance. The products generated using this algorithm show that water transparency in China’s lakes from 2000 to 2019 is “high in the west and low in the east”, being fairly good on the whole and improving. This proves the satisfactory results of China’s policy of attaching equal importance to ecological civilization, environmental protection and economic development.

With respect to urban disaster monitoring, a method was developed for identifying urban shantytowns and points of disasters based on the deep learning network model, and a new indicator ― the ratio of Economic Growth Rate to Land Consumption Rate (EGRLCR),―was proposed, which expanded the SDG 11 indicator system. A multi-indicator comprehensive evaluation of SDG 11 at provincial scale showed that Chinese cities are moving towards sustainable development.

In the field of coastal resources and environmental monitoring, a health assessment method was proposed based on the structures and service functions of marine ecosystem to reveal the contribution of environmental factors in China’s typical coastal bays to the change of key ecosystem elements.

In terms of ecological conservation and monitoring, an integrated spatial-temporal-spectral feature extraction model for forest type and a spatial abundance simulation methodology for threatened species was developed, global high-resolution forest products of 2019 were produced, assessment of China’s Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) was carried out, and policy suggestions on ecosystem protection and restoration were proposed, providing strong support for the dynamic monitoring and evaluation of SDG15 indicators. All these strongly prove that Big Earth Data as well as related technologies and methods can provide new analytical tools for deeper understanding and more accurate judgment of major SDGs-related issues, and have important theoretical significance and practical value in promoting global sustainable development through science and technology.

The Big Earth Data in Support of the Sustainable Development Goals (2020) released at the United Nations shared China’s valuable efforts to support the UN sustainable development agenda by using big data technology, publicized China’s practical actions in implementing the 2030 Agenda, and demonstrated China’s determination and effectiveness in pursuing sustainable development. The reports published by the United Nations in two consecutive years have aroused positive response from the international community and proved that Big Earth Data, as an important aspect of scientific and technological innovation, has become a new tool for us to know more about the Earth and make more scientific discoveries. Science and technology are the inexhaustible driving force for the development of human society. Big data is changing people’s lifestyle and promoting the development of scientific research paradigm. With the new concept of “innovative, coordinated, green, open, and shared development” advocated by China and the digital transformation of economy and society, new scientific and technological means represented by big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain and 5G will also play a more important role. China will further strengthen international cooperation in promoting scientific and technological development and make greater contributions to the implementation of the “B&R Initiative” to build a community of shared future for mankind and realize the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

The author is executive director of the Academy of Digital China and former deputy director-general of FAO.