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5 Things We Learned in 2013 that Could Move the Needle on Sustainability

Two and a half millennia ago, Plato announced that “Human behavior flows from three things: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” Unfortunately, our human and corporate behavior on climate change is not even close to where it needs to be. But if the great philosopher was right (and he usually was), 2013 may have been a game changer.

Gains in “desire” and “emotion” were modest but real – with polls generally showing greater concern for the planet, Americans broadly supporting President Obama’s climate change announcement in June, Chinese citizens and authorities concluding that life-shortening air pollution is an unacceptable price to pay for economic growth, and citizens of the Philippines and the world grieving the loss of 6,000 lives from Typhoon Haiyan.

But the big news from 2013 came from gains in knowledge. Our understanding was deepened in several key areas. Consider the following, for example:

Overspending the Carbon Budget

This year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report once again confirmed the overwhelming scientific consensus that the world is warming, and that it’s caused by human activities. For the first time, these scientists also identified a “carbon budget,” the emissions the world can release while still having a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). At present, we’re on track to burn through this budget within the next 30 years. According to a statement from leading scientists, this means that nearly three-quarters of fossil fuel reserves—especially coal—must remain unused if the world is to limit temperature rise to 2°C.

This year’s new climate dictionary entry is “stranded assets,” the idea that physical assets (whether coal reserves, or carbon dioxide-emitting plants and equipment) may need to be revalued significantly downwards, as governments finally (and unpredictably) adopt policies to address climate change. This could lead to a “carbon bubble” being popped, with serious economic disruption. The implication is clear: a modest price on carbon should be established now, with a pre-announced escalation. This kind of predictability will lead to more, not less, investment and jobs.

Losing Forests 50 Soccer Fields a Minute

A new report in Science by Professor Matt Hansen showed that the world has been losing 13 million hectares of forest each year. That’s equivalent to the size of England. That’s a tragedy for ecosystems and for the businesses and communities that rely on forest products. There’s an upside, though: Using satellite data, this research provides the first-ever high-resolution, global picture of forest cover change over the last 13 years.

WRI’s Global Forest Watch, to be launched in early 2014, will use satellite imagery as well as crowd-sourced information to chronicle forest cover change on a free, online mapping application. This up-to-date, transparent data can help improve forest management and cut back countries’ deforestation rates.

When citizens realize that 50 soccer fields’ of forest cover are being lost every minute of every day – and that reversing this can be good for jobs and the planet – will they insist in a change of direction?

Energy Subsidies: $2 Trillion (with a T)

This year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one of world’s most trusted financial institutions, quantified the extent of energy subsidies. Governments are spending $500 million each year to encourage the wasteful use of fossil fuel. That number wasn’t new – although coming from the IMF, it still got the ears of the financial community. But the Fund had the courage to go further. When taking into account the level of taxation on other goods and the fact that energy has an adverse impact on climate, the true subsidy amounts to $2 trillion a year.

Eliminating energy subsidies can reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by an impressive 15 percent, while also increasing economic growth, lowering budget deficits, and spurring private sector energy investments. Hmmm. When are we going to wake up?

Wasting Food: It’s Worse than We Thought

Sustainably feeding 9 billion people by 2050 is one of the greatest challenges of our era. According to WRI analysis, we will need to produce 69 percent more food calories to achieve this goal. And yet, at present, the world wastes or loses around one-third of all food by volume, and around one-quarter by calorie value. By reducing the amount of food we lose and waste each year by half, we can close the food gap by about 20 percent. This would dramatically improve nutritional standards, and would also make addressing climate change much easier. (Agriculture accounts directly and indirectly for around 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions).

This year saw major food processors and retailers taking the issue more seriously. For example, Tesco, the world’s second largest food retailer, announced the results of a major audit of food loss and waste within their jurisdiction. As a result, the issue is rising rapidly in the public’s and governments’ consciousness.

There hasn’t been a consistent international method to account for and reduce this waste—until now. In October, WRI and partners (World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Waste and Resources Action Programme, FAO, UNEP, and more) kicked off a process to develop the Global Food Loss and Waste Protocol, an initiative that will create a standardized methodology to help companies and countries measure how much of their food goes uneaten. By identifying the extent of their food loss and waste problem—and where it’s occurring—countries and companies can take steps to prevent it.

Risky Water

In the 2013 World Economic Forum’s survey of top risks, leaders chose water risk in the top three of 50 risks. More than 1.2 billion people currently live in water-scarce regions. Others battle pollution, flooding, and variable supplies. Yet most countries and businesses lack high-quality data on the water risks they face.

New technologies enable water risks – drought, floods, pollution – to be measured and predicted much more accurately than ever before. Thus, for example, WRI released the first-ever assessment of national water risks this month, examining 181 countries’ exposure to floods, droughts, baseline water stress, and supply variability. Researchers found that 37 countries face “extremely high” levels of water stress, where at least 80 percent of the supply available to domestic, agricultural, and industrial users is withdrawn annually. Business and national leaders can use this advanced information to come up with strategies that mitigate their water risks and ensure a water-secure future.

2013: The Year of Better Information

We are leaving 2013 will less ignorance and more understanding. New tools and research are opening our understanding much wider than before. But will we act on this? Knowledge can spur action, but this path is not guaranteed.

Former U.S. President James Garfield (1831-1881) wisely noted that “The truth will set you free – but first, it will make you miserable.” While we can demonstrate convincingly that citizens as a whole—as well as our long-term economic future—will benefit from a different course, we can’t guarantee that existing vested interests will all gain. Tough choices will need to be made by political leaders, and the bravest and best will face severe opposition from those who benefit from the status quo.

The achievement of 2013 has been that, if we fail to act, we can no longer say that we didn’t know.

To learn how you can help WRI turn information into action, watch the video below.

Comments

This article presents out of date information about the amount of temperature rise the Earth can tolerate. A recent paper by Dr. James Hansen and others says that we need to cap temperature rise at 1 degree F, not 2 degrees F.

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