Income growth across the developing world continues to spur individual empowerment, better health and longer lives, and environmental awareness. But it is also placing ever more pressure on natural resources as more people are able to afford energy-intensive and resource-depleting lifestyles, with bigger homes, more meat and fish in their diets, and private transportation.
So, year after year, environmentalists inevitably find themselves asking the same question: “Can we continue growing the global economy while simultaneously making it more sustainable?”
Each January during its annual forum, the World Resources Institute, an environmental and energy think tank in Washington, D.C., probes that question by examining key indicators across the globe.
The list of trends to watch for in 2014, as outlined last week by Andrew Steer, the group’s president, reveals the most pressing environmental challenges as the world’s economy continues its ascent.
How will cities grow and plan for the future?
A few years ago, an important shift occurred: More than half of the world’s population is now living in cities. Today, cities produce 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. With 274,000 people flocking to cities around the world every day, that emissions number is only going to swell.
“How cities are designed will fundamentally affect the environment,” said Steer. “We’re seeing a revolution in the way they are being built.”
One example will be on view when the World Cup begins in June across 12 cities in Brazil. Officials there need to demonstrate they can handle a surge of hundreds of thousands of people while keeping public transport moving and emissions down. Brazil is already struggling to finish some of the Cup’s major infrastructure projects, including a light rail system designed to shuttle soccer fans to stadiums.
The country is near completion, however, on an impressive array of stadiums designed with sustainability in mind. Many of the facilities will feature recycled building materials, rainwater harvesting, large solar-generation systems, and mixed-use design. These features show how environmental design is becoming more integrated in construction and also illustrate that countries are seeing the benefit of branding themselves around sustainability.
The second urbanization story occurs next month in Johannesburg, where mayors of the 40 largest cities in the world will discuss climate change adaptation. Steer said the meeting could bring important progress on local climate targets, which are central to national and international greenhouse gas commitments.
More than 3,000 cities around the world are set to implement climate plans by 2015—creating a foundation for country-level and international targets. This year’s meeting of the world’s largest cities will provide a “signal” for how aggressively mayors will attack climate change in 2014 and beyond, said Steer.
Are we reaching an environmental tipping point in China?
Last year was both tough and promising for pollution in China.
The country saw some of its most severe air pollution ever, driven by a continued surge in automobile ownership and coal burning. Medical experts estimate that air pollution caused 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, with the problem only getting worse as the country goes on burning half the world’s coal.
The problems have inspired a public backlash against fossil fuels, helped by the use of social media in the country. “There’s been a popular uprising,” said Steer. “People are saying ‘enough is enough.’ ”
Yes, there are 363 coal plants in China, but last year, in a big green step forward, three Chinese cities banned construction of new coal plants.
China will fully implement seven provincial cap and trade markets this year, setting the stage for a much bigger carbon reduction goal in the country. If those markets are successful and if Chinese citizens continue to demand change, China could be more willing to sign on to a global carbon reduction agreement in 2015.
“Little by little, we are starting to see changes,” said Steer.
Can the United Nations pull together global climate action?
Despite two decades of failed attempts at binding action on climate change, Steer said, the U.N. still has a shot.
In September, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a summit to pave the way for international action next year. Although 90 countries have set their own voluntary targets for emissions reductions, it’s nowhere near what needs to be done to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius—as most scientists agree must be done to avert the worst effects of climate change—come mid-century.
Steer said the U.N.’s efforts could be bolstered by a range of new research on fossil fuel subsidies, two upcoming IPCC reports on climate impacts, increasing extreme weather, and a new push for fossil fuel divestment, which together could “spur growing pressure” for action.
“The plans don’t add up. We’re absolutely missing the mark right now. We’re a year or two away from needing a deal,” said Steer.
Scientists continue to warn that the world is nearing a tipping point on climate change and natural resource depletion. This year will be a crucial one for pulling ourselves back from the brink. As the global economy picks back up from the 2008 recession, countries will need to find the appropriate balance between growth and sustainability—because when one is chosen, you can guess which loses.
Other important trends outlined by the World Resources Institute include new regulation of coal plants in the U.S., the impact of elections around the world, and the impact of deforestation mitigation efforts.
You can see them all here.