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Global Energy and Carbon Intensity Continue to Decline

This post is an overview of the Vital Signs Online report available for purchase. Click here for a preview of the full report.

Global energy intensity, defined as worldwide total energy consumption divided by gross world product, decreased 0.19 percent in 2013. Although this may not seem impressive, considering that energy intensity increased steeply between 2008 and 2010, this small decline continues a much-needed trend toward lower energy intensity.

E and C Intensity Figure 1

Although a growing economy generally correlates with growing absolute energy use, energy intensity may well decline. In the 1990s, industrial economies started to turn to a new growth paradigm that relied heavily on service sectors. This “knowledge-based economy” is much less energy-intensive than the economic model that most nations adopted during industrialization. As a result, global energy intensity decreased 13.72 percent during the 1990s—the largest drop in the past 50 years.

The situation has been vastly different in the new millennium, however. While the first decade saw great volatility, with two upward surges during 2002–04 and 2008–10, the period between 2004 and 2008, saw a decrease in intensity of 3.50 percent. In the early years of the decade, large emerging economies like China started investing heavily in energy-intensive sectors, and after the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, many countries implemented massive stimulus packages focused on energy-intensive sectors like manufacturing, construction, and infrastructure. But as the world economy began to recover after 2010, the previous pattern of global energy intensity reductions resumed.

Carbon intensity—defined as total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) divided by gross world product—is another important environmental indicator. Global carbon intensity has followed the same general pattern of energy intensity, dropping 36.62 percent overall between 1990 and 2013, but rising between 2002 and 2004. After 2008, probably because of the impact of the economic recession, the decline in global carbon intensity generally slowed, although 2013 brought a slightly more rapid pace than in previous years. Advanced economies show a steadier decline in carbon intensity than newly industrialized and transitional countries do.

In 2006, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest CO2 emitter. Realizing the risk, the Chinese government has been taking aggressive efforts to slow its CO2 emissions. In its climate action annual report released in November 2014, China claims that its carbon intensity decreased 4.3 percent between 2012 and 2013 and dropped 28.56 percent from the 2005 level. World Bank data show lower drops of 3.61 percent and 24.97 percent, respectively.

At a meeting in Beijing in November 2014, President Obama and President Xi issued a joint announcement in which China proposed to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. The critical question is at what number this peak will be achieved. Further reducing the economy’s carbon intensity will help to achieve a lower peak than otherwise possible.

Global energy intensity and carbon intensity are essentially measuring the efficiency with which human economic activities interact with nature. To ensure a sustainable development path globally, these two indicators need to be watched closely.

To access the full report and download the data, visit Vital Signs Online.


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Vital Signs Online provides business leaders, policymakers, and engaged citizens with the latest data and analysis they need to understand critical global trends. It is an interactive, subscription-based tool that provides hard data and research-based insights on the sustainability trends that are shaping our future. All of the trends include clear analysis and are placed in historical perspective, allowing you to see where the trend has come from and where it might be headed. New trends cover emerging hot topics-from global carbon emissions to green jobs-while trend updates provide the latest data and analysis for the fastest changing and most important trends today. Every trend includes full datasets and complete referencing.

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Greenhouse Gas Increases Are Leading to a Faster Rate of Global Warming

This post is an overview of the Vital Signs Online report available for purchase. Click here for a preview of the full report by guest contributor Joel Stronberg.

According to the most recent estimates, 2014 emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main contributor to global climate change, are projected to be 2.5 percent higher than 2013 levels, which translates into the release of 37 billion additional tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. As negotiators wrap up their talks at the international climate conference in Lima, Peru, there is no indication that this trend will change soon. Scientists estimate that future emissions should not exceed 1,200 billion tons of CO2, in order to keep Earth’s temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius and to avoid severe and irreversible environmental effects. Yet at the current rate of emissions, this remaining “quota” would be used up in less than a generation.

GHG Emissions Figure 1

As in 2013, the primary emitters in 2014 from the combustion of fossil fuels are expected to be China (28 percent), the United States (14 percent), the European Union (10 percent), and India (7 percent). In emissions per person, however, the United States ranks first with more than twice the per capita emissions of China, ranked second. There is a continued geographic shift in emissions from industrialized to developing countries.

The three other major greenhouse gases responsible for climate change are methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons. Natural gas production and agriculture are major contributors of methane, a super-potent gas that traps 86 times the heat of CO2. Satellite photos show that methane leakage from the drilling and pipeline delivery of natural gas offsets any CO2 benefits that natural gas may bring over coal during combustion and use.

Energy supply, industrial processes, forestry, agriculture, and transportation account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. An expanding world population and the growth of developing-country economies contribute to the rising slope of emissions. And deforestation not only generates carbon emissions from the burning of forest residues, but also reduces the capacity of forests to capture carbon. Flattening the emissions curve to slow the rate of global climate change requires increasing the efficiency of energy production, transmission, and consumption; switching to renewable energy sources for electricity generation and transportation; and using non-fossil-fuel-based feedstocks for chemical production, among other actions.

Efforts to meet previously established climate goals have failed for a variety of reasons, including the falling prices of coal, natural gas, and petroleum due to changed global economic conditions, and the increasing supplies of oil and natural gas available through hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The slowdown in global economic growth and a movement toward austerity measures has led some industrialized nations to limit or consider limiting their near-term support for clean energy alternatives, particularly given currently depressed fossil fuel prices.

Although rising greenhouse gas emissions may be an intractable problem in the near term, the means to significantly reduce both emissions and the rate of climate change are available. The rapidly falling costs of clean energy alternatives such as solar and wind power reduce the need for government subsidies to make them competitive with fossil fuels. Innovative financing mechanisms are making solar systems more accessible to consumers everywhere. New storage technologies help address the problem of intermittency of wind and solar power. Particularly in remote areas of developing countries, mini- and micro-grids can be deployed more rapidly than building or expanding a centralized electric grid. And at the corporate level, companies worldwide are committing publicly to increasing their investments in de-carbonization and reducing their carbon footprints.

Increasingly, the world has the means to achieve the needed emissions reductions. Whether or not the delegates to the 2015 climate conference in Paris can agree on a global accord, individuals, corporations, and national and subnational governments are showing greater willingness to take some needed actions. The important question is, will the required steps be taken rapidly enough to avoid crossing the 2 degrees Celsius threshold?

To access the full report by Joel Stronberg and download the data, visit Vital Signs Online.


About Vital Signs Online:

Vital Signs Online provides business leaders, policymakers, and engaged citizens with the latest data and analysis they need to understand critical global trends. It is an interactive, subscription-based tool that provides hard data and research-based insights on the sustainability trends that are shaping our future. All of the trends include clear analysis and are placed in historical perspective, allowing you to see where the trend has come from and where it might be headed. New trends cover emerging hot topics-from global carbon emissions to green jobs-while trend updates provide the latest data and analysis for the fastest changing and most important trends today. Every trend includes full datasets and complete referencing.

Subscribe today to Vital Signs Online!

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Chronic Hunger Falling, But One in Nine People Still Affected

Although the proportion of people experiencing chronic hunger is decreasing globally, one in nine individuals still does not get enough to eat. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 805 million people were living with undernourishment (chronic hunger) in 2012–14, down 209 million since 1990–92 (Figure 1).

Hunger Figure 1

Undernourishment is defined as an inability to take in enough calories over at least one year to meet dietary energy requirements. It can lead to undernutrition, a broader term that describes a condition caused by a deficient or imbalanced diet or by poor absorption and biological use of nutrients within the body. Undernutrition can in turn lead to impaired physical functions and has high social and economic impacts. The combined cost of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies is equivalent to US$1.4–2.1 trillion per year, or 2–3 percent of gross world product.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies because of biological differences (such as pregnancy or rapid growth) and social inequities. Women’s low educational levels, unequal social status, and limited decision-making power can influence both their own nutritional status and that of their children. Globally, undernutrition contributes to more than one third of child deaths.

Climate change presents an unprecedented challenge to nourishment through associated disruptions in supply chains, increases in market prices, decreases in assets and livelihood opportunities, reduced purchasing power, and threats to human health. The market sensitivity to climate change was highlighted recently by several periods of rapid increases in food prices following climate extremes–such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires–in key producing regions. Food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems due to climate change disproportionately affect poorer populations.

Because poverty is the main determinant of hunger, access to food is determined by incomes, food prices, and the ability to get social support. Food prices have fluctuated greatly, although they generally have been rising since the late 1990s.

Food aid programs peaked in 2000–01. The 1999 Food Aid Convention (FAC), a multilateral donor cooperation treaty that aimed to contribute to world food security, saw a drastic drop in annual food aid shipments from 10.5 million wheat ton equivalents in 2000–01 to 5.7 million wheat ton equivalents in 2011–12. The Food Assistance Convention, which replaced the expired FAC in 2013, includes not only commodities (such as food and seeds) but also cash-based assistance. The impacts of the Food Assistance Convention remain to be seen.

The hunger target of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 1c (MDG-1c)—to halve the proportion of the population in developing countries who are hungry from the 1990 base year to the 2015 target year—is within reach. The prevalence of chronic hunger has fallen from 18.7 percent in 1990-92 to 11.3 percent in 2012–14, less than 2 percent above the MDG-1c target. The world is not on track to reach the more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit target, which aimed to reduce the actual number of hungry people to 412 million by 2015 (from a 1996 baseline of 824 million).

The fundamental human right to food, which is codified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must be protected through social, economic, and political policies on food and health. Through investments, sound policymaking, strong legal frameworks, stakeholder involvement, and evidence-based decision-making, the food security and nutrition environment can be improved to eradicate hunger worldwide.

Regional Highlights:

  • Latin America and the Caribbean has shown the greatest reduction in undernourishment, with the prevalence of chronic hunger falling by almost two thirds since the early 1990s. Economic growth, political stability, and agricultural and economic incentives have helped Latin America reach its hunger reduction target.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has by far the highest prevalence of undernourishment of any region. While this share has declined from 33.3 percent in 1990–92, one in four people is still chronically hungry. High poverty rates, deteriorating rural infrastructure, and slow income growth contribute to ongoing low food availability and distributional access, resulting in the greatest food security challenge worldwide. Inadequate safe drinking water and sanitation facilities have limited people’s ability to absorb and use the food that is available.
  • In 2014, certain areas of West Africa experienced restricted trade flows and market disruptions due to the Ebola virus outbreak. The effects of Ebola on food prices are not yet clear in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the most affected countries.
  • Because of Asia’s large population, the region is home to two out of three of the world’s undernourished (526 million people). In West Asia, political and economic instability, due mainly to conflicts in Iraq (where the proportion of chronically hungry surged from 7.9 percent in 1990–92 to 23.5 percent in 2012–14) and Syria, have contributed to an increase in the prevalence of hunger.

The full data and analysis are available for purchase through our Vital Signs Online website.

About Vital Signs Online:

Vital Signs Online provides business leaders, policymakers, and engaged citizens with the latest data and analysis they need to understand critical global trends. It is an interactive, subscription-based tool that provides hard data and research-based insights on the sustainability trends that are shaping our future. All of the trends include clear analysis and are placed in historical perspective, allowing you to see where the trend has come from and where it might be headed. New trends cover emerging hot topics-from global carbon emissions to green jobs-while trend updates provide the latest data and analysis for the fastest changing and most important trends today. Every trend includes full datasets and complete referencing.

Visit Vital Signs Online to subscribe today.

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Green Beans Aren’t the Only “GREEN” This Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, consider joining me in adding our planet to your list of things to be thankful for. Given all that the Earth provides for us (like the tasty food we’re about to enjoy), here are some ways you can make your Thanksgiving holiday more sustainable and give some appreciation back to our planet.

  1. Welcome sweaters.

Encourage your holiday guests to bring a sweater, and maybe even hold a fun sweater competition! The extra layer will let you lower your home’s thermostat. This way you’ll use less energy for heat, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air.

Did you know? According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, you can save about 3 percent on your heating bill for every degree you turn down your thermostat.

  1. Boost conversation.

To cut your energy consumption, limit the amount of electronics used on Thanksgiving Day. Want to watch football or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Invite friends and family and gather around a single TV. One challenge that my family holds every year is to create a cellphone pile in another room. Whoever touches their cell phone first has to clear the dinner table following the meal. Not only does this encourage more meaningful conversations, but it also helps sustain the environment by using less energy for electricity, again lowering the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air.

Did you know? In the United States alone, 38 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions come from combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity, making electricity the largest source of emissions in the nation.

  1. Check the label.

When making your cornucopia or cooking for your T-Day meal, embrace sustainable food sources. Organic fruits and vegetables are pesticide-free and use, on average, up to 50 percent less fossil fuel energy than conventional farming. Also consider buying your turkey from a local small farmer, which can lower the amount of antibiotics used to raise your food.

Did you know? On average, food travels 1,500 miles from the farm to reach the consumer. By choosing to buy local, you can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released from transport emissions.

  1. Cut the waste.

Coordinate among your guests who will bring what food item, if you aren’t making the entire feast yourself. Check your refrigerator and pantry before going out and buying all-new food. This helps eliminate any replicated food items and the amount of food waste. Following your delicious meal, any uneaten fruit, vegetables, or coffee grounds that you can’t save can be thrown into a compost pile.

Did you know? Food scraps and yard waste tend to make up about 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away. Composting these materials keeps them out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

  1. Keep it reusable.

When making your meal, try to use as many reusable containers, dishes, and cloths as possible. Cook your turkey in a pan that can be used again instead of in a foil one that you will throw out. Use washable plates and silverware instead of buying paper or plastic ones. Aim for using cloth tablecloths and napkins to eliminate paper waste as well. Ask your invited guests to help you clean up following the meal and make the task seem less daunting. Using reusable products can be more sustainable for the environment by cutting down the amount of waste.

Did you know? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paper makes up about 30 percent of Americans’ waste each year. Plastic makes up about 12 percent. Both of these materials take up space in landfills and further diminish our supply of resources.

  1. Don’t need it? Don’t buy it.

Even on Black Friday, if I don’t need an item, I don’t buy it. Instead, I use the opportunity of having friends and family gather to do an item swap and reuse unwanted things. One person’s trash could be another one’s treasure!

Did you know? If all 7 billion people on Earth consumed like Americans, we would need 4.1 Earths to have enough land and resources to sustain ourselves.

Ilana Creinin is an intern at the Worldwatch Institute. She is currently studying political communication and sustainability at George Washington University.

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Has China’s Economic Shift Really Ended the Commodity Super-cycle?

This post is an overview of the Vital Signs Online trend “Commodity Prices Kept Slowing in 2013 but Still Strong Overall

The most recent economic “super-cycle,” a decades-long trend of rising commodity prices, has been influenced by the surging growth of China since the turn of this century. Now, as China begins its shift from an export-led growth model to a model based on internal investment and consumption, the super-cycle has slowed. Despite this shift, however, commodity prices suffered a notable drop in 2013 but remained high compared to historical averages, suggesting that the super-cycle may have been and continues to be driven by other substantial global factors,  write Worldwatch Institute’s Mark Konold, Caribbean Program Manager, and Jacqueline Espinal, intern with the Climate and Energy Program.

Commodities markets are composed of physical goods and raw materials that are bought and sold in large quantities on exchanges around the world. Global commodities markets fell an average of almost 9 percent in 2013, continuing the 2012 slowdown of the most recent super-cycle. Critical commodities groups—including energy, metals, and foodstuffs—are closely watched as a bellwether of the overall commodities market (Figure 1).

Commodities Figure 1

Since introducing environmental targets to reduce carbon emissions, China has been diversifying its energy sources. However, recent price stability in the oil market continued in 2013, despite uncertainty regarding output from conflict-stricken producers such as Iraq and Libya. Further, widespread use of fracking technology, although contentious, has significantly reduced the price of natural gas. So while China may have affected global energy markets, many factors may be playing a role in determining overall prices.

Metals prices continued their recent downward trend, sliding 33 percent since 2011. Last year, gold saw its biggest annual drop since 1981. China’s economic rebalance was supposed to usher in lower demand for imports, including metals like copper and iron ore. But an additional 260 million rural citizens are expected to relocate to urban areas in China, which will sustain a higher need for such resources. Geological factors and higher energy prices, the latter being a main input for metals production, also have contributed to this sustained price level.

Despite a 7.1 percent drop in 2013, food prices remain at historic highs. In China, environmental strain has led to increased imports of wheat, corn, and rice to support a growing population. Although this does affect global markets, it appears that a wider range of factors is keeping food prices up, including high demand for livestock feed, renewable fuel standards (supporting fuels that rely heavily on agricultural products as inputs), declines in global buffer stocks, and policy choices such as export bans in some regions. Further, increasing extreme weather events due to global climate change have negatively affected agricultural yields, exacerbating high prices.

Clearly, China’s choice to become a more consumer-driven rather than an export-driven economy has affected areas such as energy, metals, and food. However, data from all countries continue to suggest that more than just one factor creates a “super-cycle,” as price levels remain significantly higher than they have been in decades past.

For more information, purchase the full Vital Signs analysis.

About Vital Signs Online:

Vital Signs Online provides business leaders, policymakers, and engaged citizens with the latest data and analysis they need to understand critical global trends. It is an interactive, subscription-based tool that provides hard data and research-based insights on the sustainability trends that are shaping our future. All of the trends include clear analysis and are placed in historical perspective, allowing you to see where the trend has come from and where it might be headed. New trends cover emerging hot topics-from global carbon emissions to green jobs-while trend updates provide the latest data and analysis for the fastest changing and most important trends today. Every trend includes full datasets and complete referencing.

Visit Vital Signs Online to subscribe today.

 

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Digital Dilemma: Is the Internet Killing (or Saving) the Planet?

Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014 explores the benefits and challenges that digital technologies offer for sustainability  

Washington, D.C.cover_2014SoW—With resource-saving notions like “the paperless office” and “telecommuting,” the digital age holds great environmental promise. But have digital technologies really helped to improve global sustainability? In the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, Richard Worthington, professor of politics at Pomona College, posits that a dose of healthy skepticism regarding emerging digital systems may safeguard our environment and our democracy (bit.ly/SoW2014).

When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, the collection of ideas and artifacts that is now known as the Internet was only a research and development program at the U.S. Department of Defense. Meanwhile, environmental advocates of the era were fighting large, complex technological systems, such as nuclear power and industrialized agriculture, as threats to both the ecosphere and democratic self-governance. Yet when big digital systems began to take hold in the 1980s, these expanding pervasive and powerful technologies were rarely criticized. Today, a true understanding of their environmental and social impacts is urgently needed in order to navigate—or resist—technology’s growing influence. notebook-405755_1280

Sustainable production. Studies that directly link the impacts of digital technologies to environmental benefits have yielded ambiguous results because of the difficulties in measuring these impacts. For example, it is difficult to isolate and track the Internet’s contribution to energy efficiency during a time where other changes (such as energy-efficient appliances and insulation for buildings) are also unfolding.

A “‘rebound effect’ in which the gains of, say, telecommuting are offset by increased consumption afforded by the savings, such as taking an overseas vacation,” further complicates the measurement of digital technology benefits, writes Worthington.

Although some studies address the digitization-environment link by offering projections of future savings to be had through the use of digital technologies, much of this research is sponsored by global corporations in the technology industry, leaving one to question its credibility.

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Digital democracy. Among digital enthusiasts,technology is depicted as the key to creating new democratic practices. Indeed, the lower communications costs afforded by digitization have made it possible for groups to become engaged that previously had lacked the resources to participate in campaigns or policy development.

Yet many other digitally influenced developments have either resulted in very limited democratic gains or exacerbated undemocratic tendencies. In U.S. politics, for example, the use of digital systems has not increased the number of engaged citizens. Rather, it has widened the information and engagement gap by providing more opportunities for those already engaged, biasing them further toward their views. In some cases, digital technologies also have eroded the quality of political communications by generating floods of impersonal, easily ignored appeals or by shifting engagement toward event-driven, short-term responses.

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Funding sustainability. Since the late 1990s, digital technology has accounted for about a third of private investment in the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, investment in sustainability, such as the support needed to set the United States on track for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is grossly underfunded.

“At its core, investment capital is a measure of a society’s freedom, representing the resources to address urgent issues and to enhance prosperity,” writes Worthington. “The large claim that digital industries have on these resources in a global society that faces severe ecological disruption warrants closer attention than it has received to date.”

Looking ahead. Profound changes in environmental governance have already occurred since the advent of digitization. There are no unambiguous answers about whether or how much digital systems have added to ecological destruction and sociopolitical polarization. One fact is certain, however: digital technologies cannot be ignored.

“There is little choice about engaging digital systems in environmental governance, but naïve attachment to them will perpetuate distorted patterns of investment and other features of the socioeconomic model that has generated the environmental crisis,” writes Worthington. “Critical engagement, careful strategizing, and most of all a commitment to profound change are preconditions for using these systems for different ends.”

Worldwatch’s State of the World 2014 investigates the broad concept of governance for sustainability, including action by national governments, international organizations, and local communities. The book highlights the need for economic and political institutions to serve people and preserve and protect our common resources.

State of the World 2014’s findings are being disseminated to a wide range of stakeholders, including government ministries, community networks, business leaders, and the nongovernmental environmental and development communities. For more information on the project, visit http://www.worldwatch.org/state-world-2014-governing-sustainability.


 

Notes to EditorsTo schedule interviews, obtain a review copy of State of the World 2014 or for more information, please contact Gaelle Gourmelon at ggourmelon@worldwatch.org.

About the Worldwatch InstituteWorldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State of the World report is published annually in multiple languages. For more information, visit www.worldwatch.org.

 

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