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 World Resources Institute 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.
HOW GOES THE BATTLE?
June 2012, the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit and the Silver Jubilee of the Brundtland Report, encouraged us to reflect on the meaning and track record of progress. We were reminded that, judged by many measures, progress over the past two decades has been unmatched in history.
Real incomes in developing countries have doubled, global poverty rates have halved, and life expectancy has risen by four years. Africa, regarded as a failing continent at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, has for the past decade been raising living standards more rapidly than today's advanced economies did during their industrial revolutions.
But the 70 percent growth in global GDP footprint over the past two decades has come at a high cost in terms of borrowing from future generations. Debts incurred are not only financial, they are ecological.
Each year, the world has been losing 13 million hectares of forest - an area the size of the U.S. state of Mississippi. A third of the world's population already faces some form of water scarcity, and this is expected to double by 2050. Global carbon emissions continue to rise when they urgently need to fall. Even the conservative World Bank this November projected a rise in average global temperature of 4 degrees Celsius, with massive costs to humanity, especially the poor.
Profoundly disappointing this year was the inability of international diplomats to make deals with bite to address such problems. At Rio in June, the negotiated text was severely inadequate to the task ahead. Those of us who had participated in the original 1992 Rio Summit were struck by just how much weaker the sense of urgency was, and how unproductively politicized the entire process had become.
The Doha climate negotiations at the end of the year just about achieved the minimum required to keep the Durban and Cancun spirit alive. All of us agree that a global deal is more essential than ever, but it will require much greater leadership than is currently evident.
The current inability of the community of nations to make serious decisions on joint action to solve major problems is prompting a growing number of leaders - this year more than ever before - to advocate solutions that don't require universal agreement, but rather seek to build coalitions (clubs) of public and private players who are willing to act. There are many examples. Below are just a few that I have been personally engaged with over the past few months:
--In April the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel on Sustainable Energy for All (of which I was a member) came up with a coherent set of actions to meet the three global goals for 2030. Delegates at Rio+20 were not able to reach agreement on any of these, but in the meantime, more than 60 governments and dozens of major corporations and financial institutions signed up for action. More than $50 billion was pledged from the private sector alone.
--Rio+20 delegates couldn't agree to any commitments with regard to the valuation of natural capital in National Accounts (actually a weaker statement than in 1992!), but more than 50 governments, 50 major corporations, and the major Multilateral Development Banks committed to adopt such approaches as a priority.
--UN delegates weren't able to agree to any significant concrete action on reducing the $500 billion annual fossil fuel subsidies, but the B20 (the business council of the G20, on which I served) called for time-bound, monitored elimination of such subsidies and their replacement with a level playing field and free trade in green technologies. Indeed, in frustration at the politicization of the terms "green growth" and "green economy," the G20 business community established the Green Growth Action Alliance (G2A2) to take forward innovative, pro-growth, pro-planet solutions.
--While official climate negotiators were finding it very hard to agree on concrete definitions, the C40 (a grouping of many of the world's major cities committed to addressing climate change, led by New York's Mayor Bloomberg), and ICLEI (a global sustainability organization of 1,000 cities in 84 countries) agreed on a protocol-designed, incidentally, by WRI and WBCSD-to measure greenhouse gas emissions at the local government level.
--At the Doha COP last year, ministers from Germany, China, South Africa, and Morocco discussed plans to launch a club of leaders for sustainable energy.
Such plurilateral (or "mini-multilateral" or "club") initiatives don't yet add up to anything close to a solution, nor are they a substitute for long-term multilateral agreements. But they do offer hope. With luck and skill, they will demonstrate that success is possible, at reasonable cost, with political and business benefits to those who lead. This in turn can add momentum to the political process towards a global deal.
None of the above should imply we're on a winning path as we enter 2013. We're not. But it does suggest some potential openings that with hard, smart work could lead to breakthroughs.
SEIZING THE DAY
As we enter 2013, each of us needs to think carefully about how we and the organizations we work with can help move things towards-and over- the tipping point. Here at WRI, we've been thinking about this a great deal.
Since joining WRI four months ago, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of the organization's partners and supporters around the globe. Everywhere I have gone, I have seen firsthand the hunger for the kind of things that WRI does best: real-time, user-friendly data; sound analysis; analytical tools; and convening of coalitions to push for action on the ground. In the coming months, we'll be launching some major new tools and initiatives that we believe will move the needle. Included here will be new tools on forests, water, and sustainable food production.
In addition, we'll be giving renewed attention to answering the key exam questions that so many politicians and private leaders are asking: Is it possible to continue to generate jobs, reduce poverty, and grow the global economy, but in an ecologically sustainable manner, respecting planetary boundaries and social cohesion? And how can it be done in a world of vested interests and complex politics?
We believe that there is a sustainable model for continued, rapid progress. And, indeed, it is only by focusing on sustainability that continued, rapid progress is possible at all. To make the needed transition towards a more sustainable future, we need better data and analysis and breakthrough ideas that are demonstrated to succeed, persuasively communicated to citizens and decision makers, then scaled for real effect. This will be WRI's day job for 2013.
Andrew Steer is president of the World Resources Institute. This blog post first appeared on the WRI website.