During these unprecedented times, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about the future. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the effects of climate change are already being felt worldwide, and people across the planet continue to face inequity. And that’s just what’s happening on the global stage, not to mention how all these issues impact each other. In this rapidly changing world with stories emerging and evolving daily, which ones will have the biggest impact on people and the planet?
WRI’s annual Stories to Watch highlights this critical question. The event is fueled by the belief that understanding today’s most urgent stories — and the moments that could change the narrative — empowers people to shape a more sustainable world.
In the 19th annual event, Stories to Watch 2022 focused on one of the most important questions in this decade of climate action: Will this be the year that leaders turn promises into action? In his first time hosting the event, WRI President and CEO Ani Dasgupta explored recent commitments and upcoming moments that will determine whether the world will finally get on a more sustainable path.
Here are the six most critical questions for 2022, as well as the moments and actions that will help answer them:
1. Will World Leaders Act on Their Net-zero Commitments?
The latest climate science paints a clear picture: the world is massively off track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Reaching this goal is still possible, but only if the world reaches net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century.
Net-zero commitments have gained traction in the past few years. The COP26 climate summit at the end of 2021 brought further optimism, with 81 countries, hundreds of companies and over a thousand cities communicating net-zero commitments by the close of the summit. However, many of these commitments have come under scrutiny over concerns that they lack credibility and accountability.
This year, leaders across sectors must back up their commitments with strong actions. One of the big questions is what G20 countries — which represent 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions — will do to make progress on their goals ahead of COP27, including whether China will strengthen their 2030 climate commitments and whether the United States will enact the Build Back Better Act. Additionally, this year will bear witness to whether more companies make net-zero commitments and financial institutions slash finance for fossil fuels.
2. Will We Finally Have a Smooth and Fair Transition from Coal to Renewable Energy?
The energy sector, particularly its current reliance on coal, will be a determining factor in the world’s ability to achieve net-zero by mid-century. Coal causes 40% of global CO2 emissions, making it the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions.
While it’s clear that the world must move away from coal, this is not a simple task. Coal is responsible for 25% of global energy, primarily for electricity, and energy demand has increased significantly over the past decade. At the same time, nearly 760 million people around the world still lack access to electricity, so demand is likely to continue growing. Additionally, 7 million workers globally work with coal and will be impacted by the clean energy transition. Ensuring these workers have training and are supported as coal declines will be essential.
2022 will help reveal whether the world will continue to transition from coal to clean energy. Critically, this year will reveal if countries will follow through on their commitments to end coal finance, including the 39 countries that committed to the clean energy transition at COP26. This year will also show whether finance for clean energy will increase, whether investments in the electrical grid will ensure a smooth transition and whether workers will be supported in the clean energy transition.
3. Will Shifts in Decision-making and Finance Advance Climate Justice?
While climate change impacts the entire world, it does not impact everyone equally. Climate change disproportionately affects non-wealthy countries, despite these countries contributing a small share of global emissions. At the same time, climate change could push up to 130 million more people into poverty by 2030. Within climate-vulnerable countries it is low-income communities — often marginalized due to systemic inequalities — that are more likely to be impacted by the extreme weather disasters and resource scarcity that is exacerbated by climate change.
Climate justice addresses these inequities through four critical questions about climate impacts: Who is impacted, who is responsible, who has resources and who has power? And while climate justice is getting more attention, real shifts in resources and decision-making power are still lagging behind. One of the most important areas is whether support for local communities will increase, recognizing that these communities are often best equipped to find and develop solutions.
Shifts in decision-making power and finance can make 2022 a pinnacle year for climate justice. These shifts should include support for locally led adaptation and ecosystem restoration, finance for loss and damage from climate change, and a recognition of Indigenous land rights. As with all these climate stories, leaders must follow through on commitments to climate justice with meaningful, effective implementation.
4. Will 2022 be the Year We Turn the Tide on Deforestation?
2021 ended on a high note for forests. COP26 was the stage for the biggest commitment to stop deforestation in history, with 141 countries pledging to halt and reverse forest loss and degradation by 2030. Countries and foundations also pledged $19.2 billion to protect and restore forests, and financial institutions committed to eliminate deforestation from their portfolios.
While these commitments are promising, deforestation remains a persistent concern. In 2021, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of forest cover, and only one of three main tropical forests in the world remains a carbon sink. This forest loss has devastating consequences, as without them the world cannot limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, not to mention the immense toll it has on people and biodiversity.
The commitments from COP26 are strong, but they are certainly not the first. For 2022 to be the year that truly breaks the cycle of deforestation, much needs to change. Consumer countries must close commodity markets linked to deforestation, while companies must remove deforestation from their supply chains. Additionally, countries must turn their no-deforestation commitments into actual policy. Finally, money must flow into forests through mechanisms like funding for forest projects and high-quality forest carbon credits.
5. Will Leaders Step Up to Prevent Future Pandemics?
For the past two years, pandemics have grabbed global attention and dominated everyday life. While the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose major challenges everywhere in the world, it will not be the last.
Pandemics are not just a health issue, they are an environmental issue. Deforestation is a driver of infectious disease; up to 75% of infectious diseases are the result of pathogen transmission from an animal to a human, and the habitat loss from deforestation pushes humans and wild animals closer together. As a result, funding to protect forests could also aid in pandemic prevention and cost significantly less than the reactive approach to recovery from pandemics like COVID-19.
The public health and environmental sectors should use this year to break down existing silos and prevent future pandemics before they begin. March and August of this year will be major moments for this work, as the World Health Assembly will hold meetings to draft an international pandemic treaty. Additionally, governments can adopt a Global Biodiversity Framework to help protect wildlife habitats and, as a result, prevent the risk of animal-to-human transmission.
6. Will the World Embrace Pathways to Decarbonize Transport?
The world is experiencing a massive surge in electric vehicles (EVs). In 2021, electric vehicle sales were roughly 83% higher than in 2020, and 168% higher than in 2019, which greatly outpaced traditional vehicles. About 12 million passenger EVs are on the road now, and more than 500 zero-emission vehicle models are available today.
Yet, these electric vehicles represent just 1% of today’s car fleet. The share of EVs needs massively increase in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. At the same time, EVs alone will not decarbonize the transport sector. The transport sector accounts for nearly a quarter of direct CO2 emissions from the energy sector. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, CO2 emissions from the transport sector need to drop by 90% by 2050.
To build on momentum from recent electrification, leaders need to take bold steps to decarbonize the transport sector in 2022. This includes actions to speed up the shift to electrification of all vehicles, get the infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles and ensure that EVs are powered by clean energy. We must also shift away from a car-based culture to look at cities and transport as a whole. Outside of EVs, leaders should invest more in public transportation, walking and cycling infrastructure and build more compact, accessible cities.
Actions Today for Years to Come
2022 will undoubtedly be filled with moments that will shape the world this year and for years — and perhaps decades — to come. WRI will be observing each of these stories closely, tracking progress and advocating for the changes the world so desperately needs. The answers that emerge this year will reveal whether the world will remain business-as-usual, or whether leaders will take the necessary steps to move past promises and put the planet on a more sustainable path for all people.
Listen to the recent episode of WRI’s “Big Ideas Into Action” podcast, where Ani Dasgupta looks at the background of the Stories to Watch for 2022, and the big changes in the world that have informed them:
Sadof Alexander is a Digital Writer and Editor at World Resources Institute.