(Dual Selection) Worldwatch Institute
SOTW 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity & Vital Signs 2012

Prepared by Michael Marien



 April 2012


Vital Signs 2012: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future.  Worldwatch Institute (Michael Renner, Project Director). Washington: Island Press, April 2012, 130p, $19.95pb.
State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity. Worldwatch Institute (Eric Assadourian and Michael Renner, Project Directors). Washington: Island Press, April 2012, 241p, $15pb. (See chapter summaries at www.worldwatch.org.)


The latest volume of Vital Signs is the 19th in a series begun in 1992, while State of the World is the 29th in a series begun in 1984, both initiated by Lester W. Brown, founder of Worldwatch and now head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.
Vital Signs discusses 24 key trends in 3-4 page signed essays (earlier volumes covered more trends in shorter 2-page essays), tracking “developments in the environment agriculture, energy, society and the economy to inform and inspire the changes needed to build a sustainable world.”  It serves as valuable background to State of the World, which explores a different topical theme every year (e.g., State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet was devoted to an overview of eco-agriculture and ending hunger.)  The current volume is timed to coincide with the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, commemorating the landmark Rio Earth Summit of 1992.  It provides a “Year in Review” timeline of selected events, and 17 chapters by Worldwatch staff members and invited experts on such topics as “degrowth” in overdeveloped countries, sustainable transport and urban development, new global architecture for governing sustainability, sustainable agriculture and buildings, food security, strategies to slow population growth, etc.  The SOTW report is published in 18 languages.  This is the first volume, along with the new Vital Signs, to be published by US eco-publisher Island Press, rather than the long-time Worldwatch publisher W.W. Norton.
These two highly recommended volumes offer authoritative and well-written overviews of selected indicators and paths to sustainability.  Nevertheless, a summary chapter in each book, synthesizing all of these important indicators and ideas, would make both overviews even more useful.



Oil.  Global oil consumption recovered by 3.1% in 2010 to reach an all-time high of 87.4 million barrels per day.  Global proven oil reserves have increased since 1980, reaching an estimated 1,383 billion barrels in 2010 (or 1,526 billion including Canadian oil sands).  The Middle East holds 54% of this total, and was the largest exporter of oil in 2010, with 35% of total exports, followed by the former Soviet Union with 16% of total exports.  [Note to “Peakists”: no mention of Peak Oil here!]

Natural Gas.  In 2010, natural gas was 24% of global primary energy use, up slightly over 2009.  Production of shale gas is expanding rapidly worldwide, and there may be as much recoverable gas in these unconventional formations as in conventional ones.  Natural gas is likely to play a major role in filling the gap left by idled and phased out nuclear plants. 

Nuclear Power.  There were 433 nuclear reactors operating worldwide as of Oct 2011, down from 441 at the beginning of the year.  Nuclear construction starts in 2010 reached their highest levels since 1980, with 16 new reactors beginning construction at 15 locations, but starts decreased to only two in 2011.  There are 65 reactors now under construction in 14 countries, but 12 of them have been “under construction” for >20 years.  Nuclear power’s share of world commercial primary energy fell to 5.2% in 2010 from a peak of 6.4% in 2001-2002, and is likely to continue its decline, even with recent construction starts, due to decommissioned reactors.

Wind Power.  The global market for wind power grew  31% in 2009 and 24% in 2010.  Installed capacity is now three times greater than in 2006, and nine times what it was a decade ago.  The EU had 43% of this capacity, China had 23%, and the US had 20%, with Texas as the leading state and Iowa a distant second.  Total world wind power capacity was 197,000 megawatts in 2010; China plans to connect 90,000 MW to its grid by 2015. 

Solar Power.  The photovoltaic and electric solar power thermal markets had another record year in 2010.  PV dominates the solar landscape, with some 16,700 MW of capacity installed in 2010 (Europe was responsible for >13,000 MW, with Germany accounting for more than half).  But PV growth is expected to slow in EU markets, due to reduced incentives, particularly in Germany.  Some 500 MW of solar thermal electric power plants came online in 2010, bringing total operating capacity to 1,100 MW.

Biofuels.  Global biofuel production grew by 10% in 2009 and by 17% in 2010 to an all-time high.  The world produced 86 billion liters of ethanol and 19 billion liters of biodiesel.  The US led the world in ethanol production in 2010 at 49 million liters, primarily from corn feedstock.  Brazil was the second largest producer with 28 billion liters from sugarcane (it plans to increase capacity 66% by 2019).  Many observers still look to cellulosic biofuels for future growth, but the US/EPA has reduced the US production target for 2011 to 25 million liters, rather than the 950 million liters originally required in 2007.

Hydropower.  Global use of hydro increased by at least 3.5% annually during five of the seven years between 2003 and 2010.  Hydro accounted for 16% of electricity use and 3.4% of overall energy use worldwide in 2010, with 87.5% from plants in non-OECD countries.  Micro-hydro is growing in popularity, and is effective for electrifying small communities off the grid.  Hydro will likely continue to grow, with very large projects in China and Brazil accounting for most of this growth.

Energy Poverty.  According to the IEA, >1.3 billion people are currently without any access to electricity, and another 1 billion people have unreliable access.  Some 2.7-3 billion people lack access to modern fuels for cooking and heating.  The UN General Assembly has designated 2012 as the International Year for Sustainable Energy for All, but lack of access will not improve without substantially increased funding.

Energy Intensity.  Worldwide total energy consumption divided by GWP increased 1.35% in 2010.  Rising energy intensity since 2008 reverses the broader trend of the last three decades, when energy intensity decreased by 0.79% per year in the 1981-2010 period.  Global energy intensity is likely to keep rising in the next few years, as the world continues to rely on large-scale infrastructure development to create more jobs.  In the long term, more countries will have a stronger incentive for a green transition that would resume the declining trend.

Auto Industry.  Car production rose from 45 million in 2009 to 55 million in 2010, with sales of all light vehicles rising from 72.2 million in 2009 to 75.4 million in 2010.  Industry analysts expect strong growth, with output of 93.5 million light vehicles by 2015 (China’s output will reach 21.4 million units, far ahead of the US at 10.5 million, Japan at 9.2 million, and India and Germany at about 6 million each).  An estimated 670 million passenger cars are on the world’s roads; with light and heavy trucks included, the number is 950 million.  Hybrid and electric vehicles are expected to be 9% of global car production by 2020.  “Most scenarios discount the likelihood that electric vehicles will surpass 25% of new sales even by 2050 in the absence of sufficient technological improvements, cost reductions, and strong policy incentives or regulations.”

High-Speed Rail.  The number of countries with HSR is expected to grow from 14 in mid-2011 to 24 in the next few years.   The number of kilometers of high-speed track grew from 10,700 km. in 2009 to almost 17,000 km. in 2011.  Another 8,000 km is under construction, and about 17,700 km more are planned for a total of nearly 43,000 km, or 4% of all rail lines worldwide.  Current high-speed leaders are China, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany (soon to be surpassed by Turkey).  France has the greatest number of trains sets (494), followed by China (406) and Japan (359).  The global fleet has grown from 1,737 trains in 2008 to 2517 in Jan 2011, with >3,700 units expected by 2015.



Carbon Markets.  Between 2008 and 2009, the volume of global carbon transactions increased 80%, reaching 8.7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.  The EU Emissions Trading System is the world’s largest and most mature example of this, driving market tends and influencing system design.  Phase II of the EU-ETS covers about 11,000 medium-size and large emitters in industrial and energy sectors responsible for some 45% of the EU’s CO2 emissions.  Planning has begun for Phase III, which will likely extend from 2013 to 2020 and cover the aviation sector.  Also discusses ETS schemes in New Zealand (the first mandatory economy-wide system outside Europe, launched in 2008), Alberta (2007), California (2012), and China (under development).  Japan has pulled back from a mandatory ETS in 2013, but is still planning to implement a carbon tax on fossil fuels.

Carbon Capture and Storage.  As of March 2011, the Global CCS Institute has identified 79 large-scale CCS projects in 17 countries at various stages of development, but only 8 were operational.  CCS can cut CO2 emissions in coal-fired power plants by 85-95%.

Forests.  The world’s forests shrank by 1.3% from 2000 to 2010—an area roughly the size of France.  In total, forests now occupy 31% of Earth’s land surface.  Deforestation, mainly to agricultural land, continues at a high rate in many countries.  But the rate is declining: from around 83,000 square km/yr in the 1990s to 52,000 square km/yr in the 2000s.  Primary forests, especially tropical moist forests, now account for 36% of world forest area, but their areas has decreased at the high rate of 0.4%/yr over the last ten years—three times faster than the annual loss for all forests.  Driving forces behind taking more forestland to produce timber, food, and biofuel, along with rising world population, may make it difficult to preserve forests and natural habitats.

Ecosystem Services Payments.  The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, conducted by some 1,360 scientists in 2005, estimated that 60% of all ecosystem services were being degraded or used unsustainably.  Payment schemes for watershed and biodiversity services (PES) had a combined global value of >$11 billion in 2008.  The largest market for this was in China.  Smaller markets exist for forest carbon sequestration programs and water quality trading.

Fossil Fuel Subsidies.  Global fossil fuel consumption subsidies fell from $558 billion in 2008 to $312 billion in 2009, primarily due to changes in energy prices.  Common means of subsidizing energy include trade instruments, regulations, tax breaks, credits, grants, and energy-related services.  Sources most heavily subsidized are oil ($312 billion in 2008), natural gas ($204 billion in 2008), and coal ($40 billion).  The IEA shows that a cut in fossil fuel subsidies will reduce CO2 emissions by 5.8%  in 2020.  At the Seoul G-20 Summit in 2010, the heads of government renewed their pledge to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and several governments have plans to do so.



World Grain.  Maize, rice, and wheat are the three major grain crops, accounting for almost two-thirds of humanity’s staple food intake.  In 2010, production of maize and rise set record levels, but a significant drop in wheat output left overall grain totals slightly below 2008 levels.  FAO recently forecast that cereal output in 2011-12 will be 3% higher than in 2010-11.  FAO’s Cereal Price Index, using 2002-04 as the baseline of 1000, recorded a record of 265 in April 2011 and 253 in August 2011.  “It is likely that this trend will continue and that tighter supplies and higher prices can be expected to become the norm for all grains.”

Organic Agriculture.  Organic farming was practiced on 37 million hectares worldwide in 2009, a 5.7% increase from 2008 and a 150% increase since 2000.  In 2009, the organic area amounted to 0.85% of global agricultural land.   Oceania managed 12.2 million hectares of organic farmland in 2009, followed by Europe (9.3 million hectares), Latin America (8.6 million hectares), Asia (3.6 million hectares), and North America (2.7 million hectares in 2008).

Fish Production.  Global fisheries reached 145 million tons in 2009, with a forecast of 147 million tons in 2010.  Wild capture accounted for about 60% of all fish production, but aquaculture is set to surpass wild fisheries output in a few years.  Inland aquaculture accounted for 88% of the total growth in global fish production in 2008.  With growing world population and demand for dietary protein, human consumption of fish is bound to continue to rise.  Despite more seafood from fish farms, marine ecosystems are under tremendous pressure, and many fish stocks are in decline.  Over 5,000 Marine Protected Areas existed in 2008 to restrict or forbid ocean fishing, and much more coverage is needed for sustainable fisheries management.

Meat Production.  Global meat production increased by 2.6% in 2010, and worldwide production has tripled since the 1970s.  Pork is the most widely produced meat (38% of world total in 2010), followed by chicken (the fastest-growing of all sectors) and beef (holding steady).  Raising livestock accounts for 23% of all global water use in agriculture, and for about 18% of all human-caused GHG emissions.  Livestock produces nearly 40% of the world’s methane (25 times more potent than CO2) and 65% of nitrous oxide (300 times more potent than CO2).

Overweight People.  The number of adults worldwide who are overweight jumped from 1.45 billion in 2002 to 1.93 billion in 2010.  Much of this change occurred in the industrial world, because wealthier people often have access to more and possibly less-healthy food, and have less physically demanding work and more leisure time.  Some 59% of adults in the 34 OECD countries are overweight.  Worldwide, “some 75% of adults in the 10 richest countries are overweight, while in the 10 poorest, only 18% are.”  In turn, overweight adults increase preventable medical problems.



Making the Green Economy Work for Everybody by Michael Renner (SOTW Project Co-Director) states that “Humanity is confronting a severe and complex crisis (where) mounting ecosystem stress and resource pressures are accompanied by growing socio-economic problems.”  He advocates transition to a Green Economy, decent green jobs, a green and equitable energy transition, a network of cooperative green innovation centers, global Top Runner efficiency standards, green financing (preferential interest rates and loan terms for green products), tiered pricing for sustainable well-being (steeply rising prices beyond a certain basic needs threshold), and economic democracy.  [ALSO SEE State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy (Worldwatch Institute/W.W. Norton, Jan 2008), with essays on conceptual reform in economics in seven areas, the Genuine Progress Indicator as replacement for the GDP measure, building a low-carbon economy, improving carbon markets, pricing water and ecosystem services, investing for sustainability, and new approaches to trade governance.]

Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries by Erik Assadourian (SOTW Project Co-Director) notes the Second Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity (Barcelona, 2010), seeking a planned and controlled contraction of economies beyond the limits of their ecosystems, so as to create a steady-state economic system in balance with Earth’s limits (similar to a healthy diet to improve a person’s well-being).  Discusses the curse of overdevelopment, reducing individual and collective consumption by overconsumers, redistributing tax burdens, sharing work hours to reduce poverty and unemployment and improve quality of life, and cultivating a plenitude economy that decouples growth and prosperity.  ALSO SEE www.degrowthpedia.org, announcing the Third International Conference on Degrowth (Venice, Sept 19-23, 2012) and crediting Serge Latouche as the “main intellectual force behind popularization of decroissance (degrowth)” stemming from his Farewell to Growth (Polity Press, 2010), first published in Paris in 2007.

Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development by Eric S. Belsky describes the rapid growth of megacities, shifting attitudes and priorities (growing importance of inclusive and sustainable development), how to strengthen planning (a new paradigm is emerging that is both top-down and bottom-up, and that tries to facilitate directed private investment and a truly coordinated effort of all levels of government; it would be transparent and accountable, and fully engage the poor); major barriers include political ambivalence toward improving slums, the dearth of resources, and lack of capacity to make and implement comprehensive plans. 

Sustainable Transport by Michael Replogle and Colin Hughes  encourages transition away from “unmanaged motorization” with subsidies for public transport and cycling, real-time traffic managements, development oriented to public transport, and more equitable access for the poor, disabled, young, and old.

Technologies for Livable, Equitable, and Sustainable Cities by Diana Lind (of Next American City) on smart cities aided by ICTs, data-driven cities, and new civic media that link people and government.

Measuring U.S. Sustainable Urban Development by Eugenie L. Birch and Amy Lynch (both U of Pennsylvania) on the Partnership for Sustainable Communities created in 2009, livability principles, national indicator systems, and the Partnership’s policy roadmap.

Reinventing the Corporation by Allen L. White and Monica Baraldi (both Tellus Institute) on the ascendance of transnationalism, state capitalism as a major force, emergence of “soft law” (voluntary initiatives such as the UN’s Global Compact), growth in Global Reporting Initiative reports (launched in 2002 by CERES and the Tellus Institute, some 2,000 companies are now registered as users of the GRI guidelines, and Corporation 20/20’s six Principles of Corporate Redesign (e.g., to harness private interests to serve the public interest, to distribute wealth equitably, to operate sustainably).

 A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance by Maria Ivanova (of UMass-Boston) on environmental summits such as Rio+20, Maurice Strong’s original 1971 vision for UNEP, enhancing or transforming UNEP, and internal UNEP actions to enhance authority, financing, and connectivity.


(Nine short chapters on “some of the policies needed to build a sustainable and prosperous global economy”)

 Nine Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion by Robert Engelman (president, Worldwatch Institute): universal access to safe and effective contraceptive options for both sexes, guaranteed education through secondary school for all, eradicate gender bias, age-appropriate sex education for all, end all pro-natalist government policies, teach about population/environment issues at all levels, put prices on environmental costs and impacts, adjust to population aging rather than boosting childbearing, end population growth through exercise of human rights and human development. Most of these policies are already moving forward, albeit sluggishly; if all were somehow put in place quickly and were well-supported by the public, population momentum would be slowed significantly, “well short of the 9 billion so many believe is inevitable.”

 From Light Green to Sustainable Buildings by Kaarin Taipale on the recent rush to market everything “green,” best policies for cheapest and most effective means, core indicators for sustainable buildings, and policy packages that “combine sticks, carrots, and tambourines (awareness-raising tools).”

Policies for More Sustainable Consumption by Helio Mattar (Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption, Sao Paulo) on the Happy Planet Index that compares well-being levels of countries with their ecological impacts, putting pressure on corporations and purchasing by governments, providing information on sustainability of products, Japan’s transition to a “sound material-cycle society” as a top policy priority,  and education for conscious consumption as an “absolute necessity.”

Mobilizing the Business Community in Brazil and Beyond by Jorge Abrahao et al. (Ethos Institute of Business Social Responsibility, Brazil) on the limits of the 1992 Rio conference (which produced a robust set of agreements but has not helped turn humanity away from the unsustainable path it is on) and elements of a “road map toward a green, inclusive, and responsible economy” (a new accounting standard that redefines prosperity, pricing carbon and ecosystem services, a new education model to develop a culture that values the environment and promotes responsible citizens, a global fund to support national sustainability plans, and more).

Growing a Sustainable Future by Monique Mikhail of Oxfam on the increasing consensus that the world’s food and agriculture system is broken, the key role of small-scale producers and ecological approaches, the importance of addressing gender inequity, improving access to information and credit, and equitable principles of partnership between private-sector actors and small-scale food producers.

Food Security and Equity in a Climate-Constrained World by Mia  MacDonald (Brighter Green, NYC) notes the global expansion of industrial-scale livestock production (which requires 2-10 times as much grain as direct consumption) at a time when food production must increase by 70% by 2050 while water is increasingly scarce and polluted, land is degraded, and global warming shifts climate patterns.  Governments should provide incentives to cultivate foods that provide key nutrients with less water, ensure equitable access to such foods, support campaigns such as Meatless Monday and healthy eating, revitalize overgrazed and overharvested lands, and pass legislation on animal welfare.

Biodiversity: Combating the Sixth Mass Extinction by Bo Normander (Worldwatch Institute Europe) on the “dramatic and continual loss of biodiversity” since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the Living Planet Index of >2,500 vertebrate species (showing a decline of biodiversity by 12% at the global scale and by 30% in the tropics since 1992), the “sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history” (the rate at which species are becoming extinct is up to 1,000 times higher than in pre-industrial times), why biodiversity matters, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 (not yet followed up by national action plans), and successful protection of terrestrial and marine biodiversity (“it is absolutely key that already designated as well as newly assigned areas are far better protected”).

Ecosystem Services for Sustainable Prosperity by Ida Kubiszewski and Robert Costanza (both Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Portland State U) on the importance of valuing natural capital and ecosystem services (and factoring this value into all policy and business decisions), the need for new types of institutions such as “the commons sector” and “common asset trusts” that manage common assets and create new ones, and a more sophisticated suite of property rights regimes.

Getting Local Government Right by Joseph Foti (World Resources Institute) on local democracy as critical to sustainable development (especially in cities), Rio+20 as a platform for innovative commitments to better government by local authorities, barriers to transparency and inclusiveness at the local level, promoting access to information and justice, and working collaboratively across sectors.



For those who wish to follow up on any of the many State of the World sustainability themes, plus several others, www.GlobalForesightBooks.org has recorded more than 100 books on sustainability published in the 2009-2012 period.  Unlike SOTW, which synthesizes a broad range of sustainability topics, most of these books focus on a single theme.  Popular topics include sustainable cities, energy, transport, and economics.

Other topics include agriculture, diet (the vegetarian imperative), fisheries, forests, tourism, development (World Bank), infotech, eco-innovation (OECD), regional planning, green jobs, green business and public administration, philosophy, ethical transformation, resource circulation, design, fashion, art and sustainability, humanities, teaching, responsibility of universities, sustainable management, and politics of sustainability.

ALSO SEE GFB Update newsletter (1:5, May 2011) for BOOK OF THE MONTH on Paths to a Green World and 50 books on sustainability arranged in five categories and briefly described.

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