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6 Stories to Watch in 2015: Global Climate Deal, Sustainable Development Goals, Rising Water Risks and More

As world leaders deal with climate change, aim to lift more people out of poverty, and make the world a more sustainable, prosperous place in 2015, here are the top Stories to Watch, according to WRI’s experts and as presented by WRI President and CEO Andrew Steer on January 8.

1) Global Climate Deal

December 2015 is the target date for a worldwide agreement that will unite all countries in an ambitious response to climate change. But what kind of agreement will it be?

“It won’t be your old grandfather’s plain-vanilla, textbook climate deal. It’s going to be much more interesting than that,” Steer told a packed briefing at the National Press Club in Washington. Following the hottest year on record, 2015 begins with momentum to limit greenhouse gases, as 38 countries and 23 cities, states and provinces now have a price on carbon dioxide emissions. With emissions now higher than at any point in history, keeping the planet cool enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change is possible only with rapidly reduced emissions and big changes in the energy mix.

The United States, the European Union and China, which together account for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, have pledged to do more, but that may not be enough. All nations are expected to make their emissions-cutting commitments known in the first half of the year, and these pledges will send important signals about the ambition of the final agreement to be reached in December. The United States can lead on this issue, and has proposed to cut its emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. But whether this reduction can happen will largely depend on rules on power plant emissions to be released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. How strong will the EPA’s final standards be? Will leaders rise to the climate challenge this year?

2) Sustainable Development Goals

In September, leaders will gather at the United Nations headquarters to agree on goals to reduce world poverty while encouraging sustainable development, replacing the Millennium Development Goals that expire in 2015. While the MDGs helped cut poverty in half from 1990 through 2015, there are still 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day.

Sustainability will be at the core of the new goals, a shift from the expiring ones. The new goals will also be universal in nature, reflecting the shifting balance in world power, and be more comprehensive, with a different form of financing. Will the world embrace the new goals? Will they spur people to action?

3) New Coalitions for Action

“The old government-to-government way of doing things is breaking down quite rapidly,” Steer said. He pointed to public-private partnerships that bring governments, businesses and civil society groups together to make progress on sustainability, climate and other issues. These include the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, which aims to reduce tropical deforestation from commodity expansion by 2020; the Compact of Mayors, an agreement signed by leaders of 228 cities to cut 13 gigatons of carbon emissions by mid-century; and the New York Declaration on Forests, a giant initiative committed to restoring 350 million hectares (865 million acres) of degraded land in the next 15 years. Provided these coalitions and others follow through on their commitments, they can tap into the message of the New Climate Economy report, making economic growth and environmental sustainability work together. Will these coalitions drive global action?

4) Water Risk Rising

From the western United States to Brazil to China, water scarcity is a global stressor. WRI’s Aqueduct platform found that 36 countries face extreme levels of water stress. According to a recent scientific paper, the U.S. West is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years. In Brazil, the city of Sao Paolo is in its worst drought in 80 years, with its reservoir system down to 7.1 percent of capacity. In China, 90 percent of coastal cities are facing water stress.

The private sector is starting to respond. Brewer Ambev now uses 3.3 liters of water to make 1 liter of beer, down from 5 liters in 2002. McDonalds is incorporating Aqueduct’s water risk assessment into their supply chains. Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble plans to reduce water use in its factories by 20 percent per unit of production over 2010, focusing its plans in water-stressed regions. Will other companies and governments follow? Will there be innovative water management policies, such as water pricing or new efficiency mandates and incentives?

5) India in the Spotlight

“We couldn’t possibly do this, this year, without having a story on the country that is perhaps going through the biggest discontinuity of all in terms of policy, which is India,” Steer said. Newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a populist with a bold leadership style and a mandate to drive economic growth for the world’s largest democracy. He has indicated that he will be very active in his first months, and 2015 will be an important time for him to advance his agenda.

Modi has the difficult task of ensuring that the country expands economically while also addressing major sustainability and human rights challenges. India’s urban population is expected to double by 2030, meanwhile 300 million still lack access to electricity and the country’s coal use and air pollution continue to grow. The Modi government plans to invest $1.2 billion in 100 smart cities over the next year, with funding coming from private investors and abroad. The government has also promised a 30-fold increase in solar capacity, installing 100 gigawatts by 2022. Achieving these targets will require significant investment and a commitment to low-carbon growth. What role will India play on the global stage? What impact will President Obama’s upcoming visit to India have?

6) New Leadership

Along with India’s Modi, Brazil’s Dilma Roussef, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo together represent 1.8 billion people, one-quarter of the world’s population. Their countries are also rife with major challenges: Brazil’s cities are grappling with crippling drought, and Indonesia is facing pressure from expanding agriculture and other industries that drive deforestation. Will these leaders embrace sustainable, low-carbon growth?

The U.S. picture is equally complex. President Barack Obama is looking to cement his legacy over his last two years in office. Meanwhile, Congress offers few signs of hope for a productive approach to the climate challenge. Looking ahead to 2016, the U.S. presidential campaign will offer candidates a chance to articulate their positions on sustainability and climate issues. Now that’s a Story to Watch.


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