The Year Ahead: Environmental and Sustainability Hotspots in 2013

Dr. Andrew Steer

On Tuesday, January 15, Dr. Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute (WRI), hosted an annual Stories to Watch in 2013 event in Washington, D.C. Dr. Steer identified six hotspots – topics that will dominate headlines in the coming year.

1. The evolving energy mix in the U.S. and worldwide

More than 55 coal plants were shut down in the U.S. in 2012. Yet over 395 remain, and global coal consumption continues to rise, particularly in India and China. The development of other energy sources – shale gas and renewables – has the potential to offset coal demand. What is unclear is how quickly countries will develop these alternative sources. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not have renewable energy targets.

2. China’s balancing of economic and ecological concerns

Although China’s growth has slowed somewhat, the country continues to consume a lion’s share of major raw materials. China represents close to 50 percent of the world’s consumption of coal, iron, and cement. This growth comes with costly environmental degradation; analysts estimate the environmental costs are almost 10 percent of the country’s GDP.  Given this economic impact, and the very palpable evidence of Beijing’s air pollution index that was widely publicized last weekend, China has reiterated verbal commitments to renewable energy, carbon trading and shale gas. It remains to be seen whether China can deliver on these commitments.

3. Africa’s growth

While the world’s major economies suffer from sluggish growth, Africa is booming. Counties such as Sierra Leone, Angola, and Ethiopia have growth rates approaching 10 percent. Dr. Steer applauded the social benefit of this growth, but remains concerned. “Will these developing nations grow in a healthy green way?”

4. Sustained progress on deforestation

Deforestation has been an important world issue for decades. Over 32 million acres of forest are lost each year. Brazil and Indonesia together represent over half the share of tropical deforestation. The good news is that both countries have made strides to curb logging rates. Last year, Brazil’s deforestation rate was about half that of 2008, and Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono issued a moratorium on logging native forests. The concern is whether these policies can survive political shifts and leadership changes.

5. Green investments

Investors are generally risk averse, and even more so in a recessionary environment. Green investments tend to have a high risk profile; they involve technology and regulatory bets. Two positive developments are promising on the green investment front: (a) the long anticipated launch of the Climate Fund, and (b) a notable shift in the private sector towards longer term metrics that consider ecological as well as economic risks.

6. Obama’s action (or inaction) on climate change

Now that reelection pressures are behind him, the world is watching to see whether President Obama will deliver on his 2006 vow to take on climate change: “The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril.”

WRI’s list offers few surprises, except for several conspicuous absences. In trying to maintain a tight focus, WRI may have missed critical parts of the story. Here’s what we might see if WRI expanded the hotspot list to ten.

7. Water

Although water is mentioned in the discussion on energy, and as a hurdle to Africa’s continued growth, WRI does not give water much attention. Yet water, as a critical resource to cities and developing countries, food and agriculture, mining and energy production, warrants headlines of its own. Oceans might fall secondary to fresh water issues as a hot topic. Yet the health of our oceans may deserve its own category as the discussion escalates over marine fisheries, rising seas, and weather related events.

8. A different tack on global climate talks

Although the momentum around a global climate deal has dissipated, the imperative remains. WRI sees the greatest potential in mini-multilateral deals among nations with shared interest. As these networks of nations expand, we may see reinvigorated interest in a global climate deal.

9. India’s balancing of economic and ecological concerns

Like China, India continues to grow and become an ever more important consumer of world resources, and generator of environmental challenges. It will be critical to watch how India manages its growth and how India and China influence one another’s postures.

10. Game changing technology

Technologies are critical to solving our climate issues. Innovations in areas such as micro satellites, cloud computing and mobile telephony have enabled global economies to reduce costs and revolutionize access to information. These can be game changing events and trends. WRI released a mapping tool last year to track deforestation rates worldwide. This year, they will release Aqueduct, a similar tool to track global water resources. Technologies like these radically expand awareness and enable countries, and private concerns, to address critical environmental and sustainability issues and find new solutions.

Heather King

Heather is President of kingconsulting, a leading strategy consulting practice focused on sustainability, clean tech, and green tech. Heather has over 30 years experience working with pioneering technology, consumer, B2B companies and international non-profits - including Apple, Microsoft, Disney. Oracle, Ogilvy, Waste Management, Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Day in the Life, and multiple start ups. She serves on the boards of Trust for Conservation Innovation, a fiscal sponsor and incubator for over two dozen environmental non-profits, and the Presidio Graduate School, the leading MBA/MPA program focused on sustainability.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for the post Heather. These are all clear trackable trends. What are the big surprises that could happen this year? Every year is increasingly punctuated with these — from Sandy to the Arab Spring. What are those wild cards that just might explode (or show signs of this)?

  2. Thanks for update, Heather. It seems unless US is leader on climate change, things can not move quickly enough to avert the rapid increase in global warming. Is there movement on passing carbon tax? We have the technology to avert this, and a carbon tax could be our solution to keep up with increased emissions and pace of warming. It appears all nations need to do it all at home and internationally, and fast.

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