Each year, WRI presents a line-up of key stories that we think are worth watching in the year ahead, drawing on the Institute’s collective insights and wisdom. In 2023, we’ve chosen four: the long-term impact on global energy supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whether new leadership will mark a rebound for the world’s tropical forests, how proposed reforms to the global financial system will impact climate finance for vulnerable nations, and how three monumental pieces of legislation are transitioning the U.S. to a clean energy economy.

In this podcast, WRI’s President Ani Dasgupta explains the reasoning behind these stories to host Nicholas Walton. How did the events of 2022 shape the background to the stories? How did we choose these ones? And what are the key elements to watch that will let us know how those stories are shaping up during 2023 and beyond?

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“When we started thinking about what stories we wanted to tell, we really focused on not retelling the stories that are already in the headlines. What was under the headline that actually will make a big difference in the stories that we and our audiences are interested in? Are we going backwards? Are we going forward? Are we going faster?”

Ani Dasgupta, President and CEO of World Resources Institute


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Nicholas Walton  0:05

Hello, and welcome to WRI big ideas into action podcast and a look at what stories we should be keeping our eyes on in the year ahead.

Ani Dasgupta  0:13

What did happen that was under the headline that actually will make a big difference in the transition story, in the stories that we and our audiences are interested in.

Nicholas Walton  0:22

So what should we look for in each of these stories? And why do those stories matter?

Ani Dasgupta  0:27

Are we going backwards. Are we going forward? Are we going faster? We call them four breakthroughs. The four breakthroughs that we made last year, how would that matter?

Nicholas Walton  0:37

This is WRI's Big Ideas Into Action podcast. I'm Nicholas Walton. And in this podcast, we're looking at WRI's annual Stories To Watch presentation, our chance to put our heads together and work out what really matters in the year ahead and beyond. This year, we've concentrated on four particular stories: on the energy response to the Ukraine invasion; on tropical forests after Lula's re-election in Brazil; on a big year for climate finance; and on the real implications for the US Inflation Reduction Act. If you want to catch the full presentation by our president, Arnie Dasgupta, including a Q&Awith our experts, it's now online on our website wri.org. But listen on to this podcast for a bit on now the stories we'll put together, how we picked out the themes that matter and so on. First, I asked Ani, how the world was shaping up after such a momentous 2022.

Ani Dasgupta  1:29

I think the invasion of Ukraine made the whole year more difficult for everyone in the world, especially for Ukrainians, Europe, but those impacts impacted everyone, in the food crisis, energy crisis. So I think overall, Nicholas last year was a difficult year. And we're not even talking about the economic pressures countries face because of these things, inflationary pressure that was already there, even before Ukraine. So overall, it was a kind of a difficult, uncertain year. And people, all of us, including all of us, did not know where this Russian invasion will go. No one expected it to be going on still now. But I want to add that I think as the war settled in, into what's going on now, is that there was a big worry from a lot of us people like me, who worry about how we will make progress on climate or progress on finance, because global solidarity or countries being able to work together is a critical part of the solution. And you know, in the beginning, if you remember, we saw the possibility of regionalization, Saudi Arabia was already making transactions that was not dollar denominated, India was buying natural gas from Russia. So there was this nervousness of multi-lateralism breaking up. But that didn't happen, actually, in the end of the year. So the question is, when we started thinking about what stories we wanted to tell, we really focused on let's not retell the stories that are already in the headlines. What did happen this year, that was under the headline that actually will make a big difference in the transition story, in the stories that we are and our audiences are interested in? Are we going backwards? Are we going forward? Are we going faster? So stories we chose Nicholas, are those stories that have a movement under the surface that we think will matter, the decisions that were made, that we think - we call them four breakthroughs, the four breakthroughs that were made last year, how would that matter, so that is the tone of this year Stories To Watch.

Nicholas Walton  3:32

I worked with you and the team on one of the stories and that's about the longer term impact on energy and the energy transition after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As you say, this is something that's been covered at length in the media, especially the short term impact, keeping the lights on in Europe. What was really important for me working on this with you and others in the team was to throw a bit further forward into the future and to try and put some of the jigsaw pieces together and see what would happen. If you look at solidarity, how Europe's really come together, and it's starting to itself really consider some of the future possibilities that we've got for how we think about energy. And of course, in the past, there was this question, but we weren't as focused, obviously, before the invasion. We've also thought about the global impacts and the global aspects. What did you think of the story that we ended up with?

Ani Dasgupta  4:18

I thought, Nicholas, first of all, it was a pleasure to work with you on the story. And I think the story we ended up with is really a fantastic distillation of the moment. This story, Nicholas, exactly illustrates what I was saying about going under the headlines. All of us know of the weaponization of energy by Russia, the complete devastation that's happened to the energy infrastructure in Ukraine, about 40% of energy, sorry, gas that Europe was depended on vanishing overnight. We know all that right? All the nervousness that Europe has not enough energy for heating this year, this winter, as we speak. That hasn't happened. I think the story we're trying to tell here is what is happening longer term. And the central story is that because of this crisis, because Europe had to secure natural gas from other places, is that a new source of energy or dependence on natural gas is going to put Europe backwards towards their climate goal or renewable energy goal. That's the real story. Is it that not only that will Europe meet its energy demand, which it seems it will, will it all on the longer term target, but that's the story we're trying to tell. And I think we very do a very good job telling and how does this European interventions and policies how does it impact other places in the world? What happens to India, what happens to Nigeria? What happens with China because of this, and it has huge implications, what I think brought this to me, and I think I told you the story, what really irritated me one morning, was in the front page of a paper, I think the New York Times, the Washington Post, I don't know one of the two papers I look at, was the story of a coal plant being reopened in UK. And it's a terrible story, right? You and I will hate the story of a coal plant opening. But that was the headline. And there was no context of what is going on in Europe. And I felt like everyone will read it and feel that Europe is going backwards. And to me the real story is that's not the case, Europe actually is stronger than ever. European countries have more coordinated energy policy because of this crisis. And their ambition has increased of renewable energy. So I felt that we as WRI owe it to the world to tell a story of the longer term and also tell what the fact is in context of overall what's going on. So I'm actually very happy with that story. I don't know how you feel about it. You worked on it, too.

Nicholas Walton  6:47

As you've said, it's about adding context and asking questions about the future, we can't exactly know what's going to happen. But by adding the context, we can frame the choices and the questions that we have to ask. And I think that the story worked out really well. And that links well to our second story, which is about tropical forests. And the big headline event here was the re election of President Lula in Brazil replacing Bolsonaro. That's what we know. But then it's about adding layers on to that asking what it does mean for tropical forests, in Brazil and ultimately around the world.

Ani Dasgupta  7:17

You know, this is a really interesting moment in the story. The reason it's a story is that two things happened back to back. One is, of course, Lula's election, which is has created a ripple of hope, really ripple of hope and excitement. Because the last four years in Brazil, we have seen a dramatic increase in deforestation. You know, everyone in the world I think who pays attention to this knows the importance of the Amazonian forests. One of only three tropical forests left, only three to six to 7% of the Earth's land has tropical forests left. Actually a lot of Earth was covered with tropical forests in the middle part of the earth. But that's not the case anymore. So there is there's always this angst about that how we know this is a problem, but we haven't able to solve it. So if you remember in last COP, not this one in the last one in Glasgow, 140 countries came together and said we will stop deforestation by 2030. Actually, the numbers didn't show that in a year, but that's fine. It just started. But two thing that's happened is Lula's election gives huge hope. And then just after that when we all were in Montreal for the nature COP, tTo everyone's surprise, that particular COP delivered more than people thought when they were working into that car two weeks back, it delivered a 2030/30 goal it delivered a reversal of extinction by 2030. of species. These two things together created this moment of hope. Oh my God, finally we have things in place. And things will reverse I mean, deforestation will reverse. I think the story we will tell there is that hope is great. We are also hopeful and excited. What is it that it will take for this to actually materialise in reversing deforestation? What needs to happen in Brazil? Lula did win election but didn't win a majority in every part of the government. What does he have to do? What does the world need to do? How would finance work? How would commodity trading work to support it, and how ultimately we argue as you know very well, that we have to stop repeating things we have done before, that we actually need a different approach for protecting forests that takes the whole economy of Amazon and other forests into account and have find a solution that's not just better for trees, but better for people who live there. So the standing forest is more valuable to them destroyed forests and grazing land. So I think that is a story, not only story to watch, it's a very important thing that's going to happen to the world. And we all have to fight, not only just wish for its success, but find ways we can help for it to succeed.

Nicholas Walton  9:57

And on to the third story, Ani and that's about finance. Now finance is an ever present in the environmental space. We do talk about it a lot because it's important. But was it the fully fledged emergence of loss and damage at the COP in Sharm el Sheikh the reason why this story is so vital now? Or were there other things on your mind that you were just when you were discussing it with the rest of the Stories To Watch team?

Ani Dasgupta  10:17

You know, this story is very close to my heart. I worked at the World Bank, as you know, and this story is something that is it's going to unfold over the years going forward. It is fundamental to the work we do. I am convinced right now, Nicholas, that all these promises that countries are making on their NDCs, especially I'm talking of specifically Global South countries, that they will not be able to implement them because there's the money won't flow for it. So all these work everyone is doing to increase ambition, putting things on paper, will be for nothing in the finance doesn't flow and I'm absolutely viscerally concerned about it. This year I think we'll see the beginning of a series of events on this topic. To answer your question, was the loss and damage and Sharm el Sheikh agreement on that, is that the tipping point? Yes and no. I don't think loss and damage, even if it's super successful will solve all problems. That's the no part. The yes, part is loss and damage is a very important signal, a very important symbol for solidarity among rich countries and vulnerable and poor countries that we are in it together. That this is the acknowledgement that the suffering that vulnerable countries are facing today from climate related disasters, they didn't cause it, they didn't produce the emissions in the atmosphere that is causing that disruption in the climate. Rich countries did. It's a very symbolic, but a very important point of departure because ultimately finance between countries, or flowing between rich to poor countries, is really not about that much about finance, it's about justice, it's about agreeing that this is how we're going to solve this problem together. So I personally think that's a really good start. As you know very well, there is no money in it right now. That's what's going to happen this year and next, but lots more needs to happen. It's just the tip of the iceberg as we say in the story. That's a good tip. But there's a lot under the water to fix. To get the finance flow, the countries in the Global South need, both from public sector but most importantly from private capital. Because this amount of money that's needed for the transition, it's simply not possible to fund it through public sources. And that's what we focus on in the story.

Nicholas Walton  12:37

Interesting. And the fourth and final story takes us back to last summer when the two of us recorded a WRI podcast about the Inflation Reduction Act. And this fourth story asks us where this now puts the United States at the start of 2023. Back when we first discussed it for the podcast, you you were really positive about what the Act could do, a real step change in how industries and tech and R&D could be galvanised into action on clean energy, feeding through into supply chains and markets and bringing things to market. In some way this story is a bit of a stocktake on that, asking us where we are and where do we go from here.

Ani Dasgupta  13:12

So, as we remember, you and I talked about how potentially path-breaking this could be, right. That this set of laws at that time and what has happened since then, an indication of its path-breakingness, is one is a huge amount of capital is already flowing in United States and clean capital in anticipation of the subsidies from the government. It will unleash a whole generation of industrial investment in these areas, that is already proving true even in a difficult year. You know, remember this year, the inflation is high, the interest rates are higher, so difficult investment here, but that is very much flowing. And what is already happening I see is the other countries - though there is grumbling, as you know very well between EU and US that this is protectionist - I personally think that grumbling is going to go away because EU and US have actually come closer together last year simply because of the joint response to the Ukraine crisis, that this will be sorted out. But at the same time, the EU actually is doubling down on their green investment. So the answer to your question is, I think we already see the movements that we were hoping to see. But a new thing has come up here, Nicholas that we kind of focus on a little bit in the story, is that these are massive economy-shifting laws. Like massive, unprecedented in scale and scope. Now people are worried about, including us, is the ability to implement them. The permitting process that is needed, the manpower and woman power and people power that's needed to implement them. The materials that are needed to build these things, simply the ability and availability of materials to build solar panels and wind turbines and the transmissions. So it is the question is, interestingly become the ability to implement it. I don't know if you saw it two days back, there was a long front page article in New York Times about the EPA's, which is the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, their ability to pass the regulation they need to pass to make this law's implement. Just the human capacity, because the article was that how EPA got depleted during Trump administration and how they're finding it really difficult. So think about that, that block, that hurdle of implementation, I don't think I appreciate it as much in the enthusiasm, the euphoria when the laws get passed. But now people are thinking, including us, how will these laws get implemented? And how can we make sure the benefits in laws can have that people actually see it, you know, that we all see and the economy shifts. It's a massive enterprise and I actually think that other countries in the world - and we already see early indication of this - will try to emulate to see how other countries pass laws and investments that kind of shape the economy for the future.

Nicholas Walton  16:13

Yes, because it's now being seen so much more as an opportunity, and that brings in political will. And a systemic change, like the shift to a clean energy economy from a fossil fuel economy won't happen, just with small steps like EV subsidies here or, or something small on solar panels there, it needs to be pushed through with a real force of political will, which is what the Inflation Reduction Act demonstrates. And that can only be good.

Ani Dasgupta  16:38

I mean, think about it, it is basically saying we need a different economy. So it invests in energy, invests in consumers actually accepting the solutions like electric cars or heat pumps, then it invests in new areas of technology that are needed for the future, for example, hydrogen. You know it's a very comprehensive set of thought and processes, all of them directed towards creating the new future, new jobs, and investments. So the most interesting story I heard and while we were preparing for this was the story about a South Korean firm, which would have normally built things in South Korea is actually now investing in I think, one of the Southern states - Atlanta or Alabama, I forget which one, I mean, Georgia, Alabama - but in a factory that's going to bring those jobs from South Korea. It's not good story of South Korea. But think about what already is happening within a year you know.

Nicholas Walton  17:40

And that was only Dasgupta on WRI his recommendations for the Stories To Watch in 2023. As mentioned earlier, you can watch Ani's full presentation on our website wri.org. And that's where you can find all our research interactive digital tools, events, insights, articles, and of course, our full back catalogue of podcasts on everything from oceans to cities, food to forests. I'm Nicholas Walton, and goodbye for now.