Earlier this month, WRI launched its “Stories to Watch in 2014.”

All years are important, but decisions made in 2014 will have a striking impact for decades to come. Here are seven potential game-changers:

1) The Year of Cities: How Will They Grow?

We’re currently in the midst of the most massive urban transition the world has ever seen. Cities are projected to add 274,000 people every day over the next 30 years. By 2040, the urban population will be more than 2 billion higher than today.

Here’s the point: How cities grow—economically and demographically—will be critical in whether we fail or succeed in the fight against climate change and poverty. Poorly designed, sprawling cities can exacerbate existing greenhouse gas and congestion problems. (Cities already account for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and some cities already lose 10 percent of their GDP to congestion alone.) Alternatively, compact, low-carbon cities—featuring sustainable transport systems and people-centric design—can improve quality-of-life and drive economic opportunity.

A growing number of city leaders are beginning to act – and often showing more vision and action than national leaders. This year could significantly accelerate this trend, as a number of key meetings of city leaders can help build political momentum. In February, mayors from the C40 (a group of more than 60 global cities committed to action on climate change) will gather for a summit meeting in Johannesburg. And other major gatherings of mayors in Singapore in June and Colombia in April offer opportunities for best practices to be shared and replicated.

But nowhere will the focus on cities be greater in 2014 than in Brazil as it plays host to the World Cup. All eyes will be on the 12 cities where games will be played.

One the most urbanized, large countries in the world, Brazil has already experienced some of the worst problems of pollution and inequality—as well as some of the most inspiring innovations that are benefitting both citizens and the environment. Urban transport illustrates both. Vehicle emissions caused more than 4,600 premature deaths in Sao Paolo in 2011, and in June last year, more than 1 million protestors took to the streets to demand better urban transport systems and other city services.

At the same time, a new national law requires 3,000 cities to create people-centered city mobility plans by 2015. One hundred cities already have bus-rapid-transit (BRT) systems in place that carry more than 12 million passengers per day.

What image of Brazilian city life will remain in the minds of the 3 million extra visitors and the 3.2 billion World Cup television viewers—and what impact might it have? And, as Brazil faces elections and urban unrest, will its city and national leaders pursue a path towards greener and more efficient cities?

2) Restoration: A 2 Billion Hectare Opportunity

Every minute of every day for the past 13 years, the world has lost an area of forest the size of 50 soccer fields.

The greatest tragedy is that much of all the forest we have lost now has little economic or ecological value. WRI has mapped 2 billion hectares of such degraded land—equivalent to twice the size of China—and shown that much of it can be turned from wasted and unused land into forests, agricultural fields, and other productive uses.

Some countries are beginning to seize this opportunity. The Bonn Challenge, a global commitment for restoration established in 2011, calls for 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land to be restored by 2020. Restoring this amount of land could bring $84 billion in economic benefits annually and close the greenhouse gas “emissions gap” by one-fifth.

Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Rwanda, and the United States have already made commitments to the Bonn Challenge, pledging to restore a collective 20 million hectares. This year could be a year of increased momentum. As leaders seek ways of addressing climate change in a way that would boost rather than reduce jobs and incomes, restoration could emerge as the greatest “win-win” of all. Countries will meet again in Bonn in June to potentially seek additional pledges, and the Heads of State Summit on Climate Change in September offers another opportunity to bloom into a global movement.

3) Sustainable Palm Oil: A New Era?

Palm oil has become one of the most ubiquitous ingredients—found in everything from candy bars to cosmetics to cooking oil. More than half of all supermarket items contain it, and its demand will continue to sky-rocket as the global “middle class” rises from 2 to 5 billion between 2010 and 2030.

But it currently comes at a very high cost: It is one of the leading causes of deforestation in tropical areas.

There are signs that the traditional expansion path – cut down the forest to plant oil palm – may be changing. Western companies, led by the likes of Unilever, Nestle, and Proctor and Gamble – are increasingly committing to phasing out all palm oil that has been produced through deforestation. About 15 percent of world trade is now certified as “sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a collection of more than 1,000 businesses, retailers, investors, and NGOs working to curb deforestation. This is a good start, but so far just scratching the surface.

This year could mark the beginning of a tipping point. Not only established groupings such as the Consumer Goods Forum, but also Asian-based majors such as Wilmar, the second-largest palm oil trader in the world, are now making commitments to deforestation-free production.

Particularly important is the emergence of technologies that enable monitoring to take place. For example, February will see the launch of Global Forest Watch, a high-resolution, Google map-based tool showing deforestation taking place in near-real time. Developed by WRI with key partners, it provides overlays of concessions and protected areas, enabling deforestation to be identified and responsible companies named. This and other tools will provide for the first time the ability to monitor commitments, and will enable all participants in the supply chain—including consumers, shareholders, and NGOs—to distinguish good from bad performance. This theme will be highlighted at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

Will this increased transparency encourage more sustainable palm oil? Will other industries like soy, beef, and cocoa follow?

4) China: Clearing the Air?

In 2013, Beijing experienced a whopping 189 days of dangerous air pollution. This choking smog is due largely to China’s massive coal consumption, which constitutes 50 percent of the world’s total.

This year will see a major step-up in action to address pollution. How effective will it be?

In June 2013, China’s State Council approved a $277 billion, five-year, anti-pollution plan—the biggest ever anywhere. A ban was placed on new coal-fired power plants in China’s three key cities—Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou—and tighter pollution regulations were put on 10 additional areas. In an effort to seek less polluting energy sources, more than half of China’s new energy capacity in 2013 came from renewable energy.

This year will see new spending and policy innovations come into force. The pilot cap-and-trade system in five cities and two provinces will be implemented for the first time.

How will it go? Will it indicate that China will be ready for nation-wide implementation, as is currently planned? What will leaders learn from these initiatives? And will it indicate that China can shift away from coal and toward cleaner energy sources?

5) A New Standard for U.S. Power

Last year’s announcement by President Obama of a comprehensive U.S. Climate Action Plan—which reaffirmed the national target of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—now needs to be implemented. Power plants account for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing these emissions represents one of the most important opportunities.

On June 1, 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scheduled to announce new guidelines for existing power plants. (Just last week, they entered the rules for new power plants into the Federal registry). According to WRI analysis, meeting the 17 percent target will require that these regulations reduce power plant emissions by 31 percent by 2020 and by 74 percent by 2035 (below 2011 levels).

Critics will claim that this would impose too high a price on the economy. How effective will those critics be? There is mounting evidence that if the regulations are strong but flexible, the costs will be small and manageable, and that smart regulations can boost technology and competitiveness.

Already nearly 100 coal-fired power plants have closed in the United States in the past two years. And the Union of Concerned Scientists recently showed that nearly half of the remaining 1,050-odd coal-fired plants are old (43 years on average) and ripe or ready for replacement.

This year will also see the opening of the path-breaking Kemper power plant in Mississippi, applying carbon capture and storage at scale. Will the stories be about the era of CCS finally arriving, or more about cost and schedule over-runs?

6) The Year of Global Momentum on Climate Change?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will host a heads-of-government summit on climate change in September – probably the largest meetings of global leaders on climate ever. Its intent is to create political momentum in the lead-up to the planned global climate deal to be finalized in Paris in December 2015. Will it?

The coming months will see the unveiling of major analytical reports that could influence the Summit outcome. In March and April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue its crucial reports on the impacts of climate change and on policy options. In the summer, a major report on the U.S. economy, Risky Business, will be issued. Sponsored by Tom Steyer, Hank Paulson, and Michael Bloomberg, it will provide new evidence on the sharply increased risk the United States is imposing upon itself by not leading more vigorously on climate change. And finally, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, led by President Felipe Calderon, Nick Stern, and Luisa Diogo—and comprising a stellar group of global political and business leaders and some of the world’s top economists—will issue its report, The New Climate Economy. This will provide the most up-to-date evidence on the benefits and costs of climate action.

Will all this evidence, coupled with the growing concerns about extreme weather events, be enough to create incentives for firm action? What’s clear is that the world is currently heading in the wrong direction – towards a 3-5 degree Celsius rise in temperatures. Could 2014 change that?

7) The Year of Elections: Which Way Will They Choose?

It’s likely that more people will vote in democratic national elections this year than in any other in history. The stakes are high: Three of the world’s four largest democracies—Brazil, India, and Indonesia—will elect heads of government this year.

Together, these countries account for 25 percent of the global population and 40 percent of the world’s poor. In each of these nations, there are crucial issues relating to social, economic, and environmental futures. The European Union will also hold its elections at a time when European leadership on sustainable development is under threat form political and economic pressures in some member countries. And the mid-term Congressional elections in the United States will influence whether the country can be a global leader on climate and energy.

Moving from current patterns of production and consumption toward a path that is more productive, equitable, and sustainable is a choice. And 2014, more than most, is a year of choices.

  • LEARN MORE: View the Stories to Watch 2014 Powerpoint presentation, video, and other resources on WRI's Event page.