Climate Change Focused Attention on Sustainable Development in 2012

December 21, 2012


The dangers posed by climate change and opportunities for cleaner, more inclusive growth drove the World Bank’s work in sustainable development in 2012. 

Bunyad Dinc/World Bank

  • Climate change threatens to roll back decades of development progress.
  • To stop the world from warming to dangerous levels and to move forward in a sustainable way for future generations, development must be clean and inclusive.

Climate change is changing lives around the world, from the heat waves and droughts of 2012 that raised global food prices and increased hunger across the Sahel to flooding that damaged homes and businesses in the Philippines. The world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt of it, and the impact threatens to roll back decades of development progress.

This threat and the opportunity for greener, more inclusive growth drove the World Bank’s work in sustainable development throughout the past year.

The World Bank report Inclusive Green Growth: The Pathway to Sustainable Development set the course early in the year, providing a practical guide with steps all countries can take, no matter where they are on the development trajectory. The Bank carried that message into Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June, along with a focus on natural capital accounting, the importance of cities, oceans and landscapes in sustainable development, and sustainable energy for all. In the fall, it added a warning from scientists about the dangers ahead if the world fails to take action on climate change.

Building resilient cities

The Inclusive Green Growth report – followed by reports on topics including water in Africa’s cities, low-carbon development in China, and low-carbon transportation – detailed opportunities leaders must take now to build climate-smart cities for the future. Paths for mass transit, regulations that support energy efficient buildings and communities, and  policies that reduce the human impact on the climate can all help cities become part of the solution.

More than half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the number is headed for close to three-quarters of the population by 2050. The fastest growth has been in developing countries, where many cities already struggle to provide access to water, sanitation, and power for the poorest, as well as safety from natural disasters. The Bank's Water and Sanitation Program and energy partnerships work to improve access to services. To help lower the disproportionate impact of natural disasters on the poor, the Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)’s Sendai Dialogue and report encouraged leaders to integrate disaster risk management into development work and donors to increase funding for prevention and preparedness, currently less than 4 percent of all disaster-related funding.

The Bank also issued a warning to cities about another increasingly costly challenge: the volume of urban waste is forecast to rise from 1.3 billion tonnes per year today to 2.2 billion per year by 2025, with the cost to cities rising from $205 billion to $375 billion. The report What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management offered policy recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the amount and cost of waste at the same time. 

Innovative financing

With many international donors facing economic crises at home, the World Bank explored new ways of financing much-needed work, from urban development to support for agriculture to renewable energy projects.

In Kenya, for example, the Bank worked with social connections and microcredit to help pipe water to homes where residents couldn’t afford connection fees on their own. The Bank also combined its financing with long-term debt options from the IFC and political risk guarantees for commercial financiers from MIGA to draw in $623 million to expand Kenya's energy infrastructure, including geothermal power.

The Bank’s carbon finance unit and its work through the Climate Investment Funds provided support for innovative programs such as methane capture practices on farms, renewable energy projects, and forest conservation by providing carbon credits and financing.

Through the Water and Sanitation Program, the World Bank provided education, policy advice, and powerful economic arguments for increasing access to sanitation.

Natural capital & agriculture

The past year also brought natural capital accounting and landscapes to the fore.

Starting in Botswana and moving around the world, countries and corporations committed to incorporating natural capital accounting and announced their support for the valuing of environmental services in economic decisions. Thirty-six percent of low-income countries’ total wealth is in natural capital, yet that value is hidden in today’s planning and economic decision making. The Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services Partnership helps leaders find ways to factor natural capital into their economic plans.

Forestry, agriculture, and water practitioners also began to see their work from a new perspective, expanding their view beyond their own fields of work to see the entire landscape and its many interactions, an approached championed by the World Bank. Climate-smart agriculture, a way to improve livelihoods and yields and reduce emissions, is not yet fully embraced in the climate negotiations but must be for the future.

Through the partnerships CGIAR and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), the World Bank continued its strong support of agriculture research and food security efforts, which gained prominence mid-year as severe heat waves devastated crops and raised food prices. Prices eventually stabilized, but they remained dangerously high for the 870 million people who face hunger every day. Food price volatility is the new normal for the foreseeable future, and a development challenge.


It was a year of exciting glimpses into the future, particularly for technology and its ability to connect people with knowledge, advice, their governments, and one another.

Three-quarters of the population now has access to a mobile phone, and the technology’s development uses are expanding fast: farmers receive and contribute to weather forecasts and groundwater measurements; the spread of mobile money has opened new opportunities for businesses and consumers alike; citizens are able to use the power of social media to make their voices heard across government – and governments are increasing their openness and responsiveness as a results.  

Armed with their own mobile devices, over 1,000 technology developers joined forces in cities around the world in December to begin creating apps aimed at solving a problem that puts 2.6 million people at risk of potentially deadly illnesses every day: access to sanitation. Their work that started with the Sanitation Hackathon is continuing into the new year. The Sanitation Hackathon built on the success of the Water Hackathon, the first such gathering of software developers convened by the World Bank. Its aim was to increase awareness of water sector challenges facing developing countries, and it resulted in more than 60 prototype solutions, some of which are already in use.

The World Bank through its partnerships in Lighting Africa and Lighting Asia also helped to bring solar lighting to off-grid areas around the globe, from lighting gers in Mongolia to stores and homes in rural communities of Africa and Southeast Asia, where a few extra hours of light allow children to study and shop keepers to increase their earnings.

Increasing access to sustainable energy will be an important focus for the future as the World Bank works to lift millions of people out of poverty – 84 percent of the Bank’s new lending for power generation in 2012 went to sustainable energy projects. It’s part of the foundation of inclusive green growth, the pathway to sustainable development.

Looking ahead

The year 2012 brought an increasing focus on “coalitions of the working” – groups of like-minded governments, companies, and non-profit organizations that pulled together to begin solving complex development problems. These groups, several of them involving the World Bank, were often the success stories from the sidelines of international conferences.

The Global Partnership for Oceans is becoming a model for global collaboration. Scientists, governments, and civil society groups from around the world joined forces early in 2012 to tackle a silent problem that worsens by the day, the state of the world’s oceans. They drew global attention to the devastation – 85% of  ocean fisheries over-exploited, fully exploited, or depleted; 20% of coral reefs and 35% of mangroves lost – and vowed to work together to restore the oceans’ health.

In 2012, World Bank Group President Jim Kim also joined UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as co-chair of the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, and the World Bank joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to reduce the use of short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane, HFCs, and black carbon. The Bank will be moving that work forward in the coming year.

In the absence of global agreements, these coalitions and others like them offer hope that we can make real progress toward sustainable development.  As the report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4˚C Warmer World Must Be Avoided reminded us, we are on course for a 4˚C warmer world if action is not taken to stop climate change. The scenario is avoidable, but the public and private sectors need to move at speed and scale toward lower emissions and climate-smart, sustainable development.

In 2013, the World Bank will continue to step up its support for sustainable development at greater speed and scale. In everything we do we must ask ourselves, “What will it take to build a shared prosperity and inclusive green growth? What will it take to avoid a 4˚C warmer world?”