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People & Ecosystems

6 Top Environment and Development Stories to Watch in 2013

This post originally appeared on Bloomberg.com.

As we enter 2013, there are signs of growth and economic advancement around the world. The global middle class is booming. More people are moving into cities. And the quality of life for millions is improving at an unprecedented pace.

Yet, there are also stark warnings of mounting pressures on natural resources and the climate. Consider: 2012 was the hottest year on recordfor the continental United States. There have been 36 consecutive years in which global temperatures have been above normal. Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise – last year the world added about 3 percent more carbon emissions to the atmosphere. All of these pressures are bringing more climate impacts: droughts, wildfires, rising seas, and intense storms.

All is not lost, but the window for action is rapidly closing. This decade--and this year--will be critical.

Against that backdrop, experts at WRI have analyzed trends, observations, and data to highlight six key environmental and development stories we’ll be watching in 2013.

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A Critical Moment to Harness Green Infrastructure—Not Concrete—to Secure Clean Water

This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.

Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.

While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.

Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.

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Farewell, 2012. You Taught Us Much.

This year has been one of those worst-of-years and best-of-years. In its failures, there are signs of hope.

An unprecedented stream of extreme weather events worldwide tragically reminded us that we’re losing the fight against climate change. For the first time since 1988, climate change was totally ignored in the U.S. presidential campaign, even though election month, November, was the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature higher than the long-term average. A WRI report identified 1,200 coal-fired power plants currently proposed for construction worldwide. The Arctic sea ice reached its lowest-ever area in September, down nearly 20 percent from its previous low in 2007. And disappointing international negotiations in June and December warned us not to rely too much on multilateral government-to-government solutions to global problems.

But 2012 was also a year of potential turning points. A number of new “plurilateral” approaches to problem-solving came to the fore, offering genuine hope. A wave of emerging countries, led by China, embraced market-based green growth strategies. Costs for renewable energy continued their downward path, and are now competitive in a growing number of contexts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that global investment in renewable energy was probably around $250 billion in 2012, down by perhaps 10 percent over the previous year, but not bad given the eliminations of many subsidy programs, economic austerity in the West, and the sharp shale-induced declines in natural gas prices. And the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, coupled with the ongoing drought covering more than half of the United States (which will turn out to be among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history) may have opened the door to a change of psychology, in turn potentially enabling the Obama Administration to exhibit the international leadership the world so urgently needs, as many of us have advocated.

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Does Economic Valuation Really Influence Coastal Policy?

Governments, corporations, and development agencies are increasingly interested in putting a dollar value on ecosystems in order to balance conservation and development needs, a concept known as “economic valuation.” For example, St. Maarten’s government recently established the country’s first marine national park after a local organization found that the area’s coastal ecosystems contribute $58 million per year through tourism and fisheries. Belize enacted a host of new fishing regulations based on a WRI valuation, which found that coral reef- and mangrove-associated tourism contributes $150 million-$196 million per year to the country’s economy. And in Bonaire, park managers used economic valuation to justify the Bonaire Marine Park’s establishment of user fees—making it one of the few self-financed marine parks in the Caribbean.

These stories show that economic valuation can indeed lead to better coastal policy, conserving these ecosystems and securing their important economic contributions. However, according to new WRI research, these cases tend to be the exception in the Caribbean.

Economic Valuation and Coastal Policy in the Caribbean

In the Caribbean, there is keen interest in economic valuation of coastal ecosystems to inform policy and improve natural resource management. But while the literature on the value of coral reefs and mangroves in the Caribbean continues to grow, these ecosystems continue to decline.

WRI and the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership (MESP) took a closer look at the impact of previous economic valuation studies in the Caribbean. Out of more than 200 studies of the economic value of the Caribbean’s marine ecosystem goods and services, we were only able to identify 13 that actually influenced marine and coastal management policies, such as those in Bonaire, St. Maarten, and Belize.

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Updated Guide Helps Businesses Source Sustainable Wood and Paper Products

Forests are vitally important for the global environment, economy, and population. The forest sector employs 13.7 million workers and contributes to about 1 percent of the global GDP. Plus, an estimated 500 million people around the world directly depend on forests for their livelihoods.

But forests are also under threat. From 2000-2010, about 15 million hectares of the world’s forests were cleared, and a 2004 assessment estimated that 8-10 percent of the global wood trade is of illegal origin. In addition to deforestation, illegal logging can cause government revenue losses, poverty, unfair competition with legally sourced goods, unplanned and uncontrolled forest management, conflicts, and other illicit activities that can occur in instances where illegal logging’s proceeds are linked to organized crime and corruption.

But there are solutions. One way to improve forest management across the globe is for businesses, governments, and citizens to seek out and demand sustainably harvested wood and paper products.

Today, WRI and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released the third edition of a guide that helps businesses develop sustainable policies and seek out sustainably harvested wood and paper products. The updated guide, Sustainable Procurement of Wood and Paper-Based Products, is accompanied by a revamped website.

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The False Choice Between Palm Oil and Indonesian Forests

This post originally appeared in the Jakarta Post.

Palm oil is on a lot of people’s minds. In Indonesia, the industry is booming, with $19.7 billion of crude palm oil exports in 2011. But expanding oil palm plantations have taken their toll on remaining forests and other natural habitats in tropical regions and led to conflict over land with local people.

The world’s top scientists are also raising concerns. According to a recent study in Nature Climate Change, from 1990 to 2010, 90 percent of lands converted to oil palm plantations in Kalimantan were forested.

There need not, however, be a trade-off between palm oil, forests, and communities. It is possible to grow more crops--including oil palm--while keeping forests and cutting rural poverty.

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