The Worldwatch Institute

The Worldwatch Institute

Through research and outreach that inspire action, the Worldwatch Institute works to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world that meets human needs. The Institute’s top mission objectives are universal access to renewable energy and nutritious food, expansion of environmentally sound jobs and development, transformation of cultures from consumerism to sustainability, and an early end to population growth through healthy and intentional childbearing.

Founded in 1974 by farmer and economist Lester Brown, Worldwatch was the first independent research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental concerns. Worldwatch quickly became recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues. Today, Worldwatch develops innovative solutions to intractable problems, emphasizing a blend of government leadership, private sector enterprise, and citizen action that can make a sustainable future a reality.


Can cities shift their systems and structures to become sustainable? This is the first of two  sneak peeks into the newest State of the World publication, ...

This post originally appeared on and has been published here with permission.

Can cities shift their systems and structures to become sustainable? This is the first of two exclusive sneak peeks into our newest State of the World publication, Can a City Be Sustainable?. Here we feature perspectives from five chapter authors: Richard Heinberg, Betsy Agar & Michael Renner, Gregory Kats, and Andrew Cumbers.

What could changes in energy supply mean for cities?

Heinberg: Ongoing urbanization means that societies need to keep providing more goods to growing ranks of city dwellers. Urban provisions require energy. But our current fossil fuel-based energy regime faces two serious challenges: depletion of the “low-hanging fruit” of global petroleum supplies, and the need to reduce carbon emissions to avert catastrophic climate change.

Energy challenges may result in systems that are more expensive to operate than current ones or that simply fail to deliver all the services that we currently expect. Such challenges could cause the current trend toward urbanization to taper off or even reverse itself. It is impossible to know how close we may be to that tipping point, but it could well occur during this century, and a decline in available energy is likely to be the key driving factor.

“It is possible to imagine a non-catastrophic pathway to de-urbanization. For optimum success, however, it almost certainly would need to be guided by sound policy.”

Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow-in-Residence at the Post Carbon Institute, in Chapter 5: The Energy Wildcard: Possible Energy Constraints to Further Urbanization”


Is 100 percent renewable energy in cities really feasible?

Agar and Renner: Committing to 100 percent renewable energy means significantly more than flipping a few switches. It requires making strong commitments to energy efficiency as well as to renewables in the three major urban energy-use sectors: electricity, heating and cooling, and transportation. Beyond these sectors, the commitment drives social change, animates a diversity of actors, demands innovative policies, transforms economies, and develops knowledge and skill capacities.

Around the world, many cities are taking steps to put their energy supplies on a more sustainable footing. Now, more than ever, cities have the planning tools, financial incentives, technical know-how, and public support to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. All that this movement needs is leadership from cities to lend their political, legislative, and financial weight. The world is ready.

“With a little creativity, cities are finding countless ways to overcome the many obstacles they may face in integrating renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Betsy Agar, Research Manager at Renewable Cities at Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, Canada, and Michael Renner, Worldwatch Senior Researcher and Co-director of the State of the World report, in “Chapter 10: Is 100 Percent Renewable Energy in Cities Possible?”


What solutions exist to move urban energy systems toward sustainability?

Kats: The energy efficiency industry faces a crisis of opportunity. Energy efficiency is increasingly recognized as indispensable if we hope to avoid the most-severe climate change costs. But energy efficiency is underfunded and is treated as a second-class energy choice.

To meet emissions reduction targets, new buildings must become far more energy-efficient, with a rapidly growing portion of new buildings achieving zero or near-zero net emissions—primarily through energy efficiency. Even more importantly, retrofits need to go from being relatively shallow today to being deep—achieving 40-plus percent reductions in building energy use rather than the 10–20 percent reductions that are the norm today. How we finance and motivate energy efficiency must change rapidly for energy efficiency to deliver on its promise of anchoring the global transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective and largest path to CO2 reduction in existing buildings.”

Gregory H. Kats, President of Capital E and Managing Director of ARENA Investments LLC, in “Chapter 9: Energy Efficiency in Buildings: A Crisis of Opportunity”


Cumbers: The term “remunicipalization” has become associated with a global trend to reverse the privatization wave that swept many countries—both industrialized and developing—in the 1980s and 1990s. Global privatization initiatives have not delivered the cost efficiencies, performance improvements, and infrastructure investment and modernization that their advocates had promised.

The remunicipalization trend is associated primarily with the water sector; however, the push to take back formerly privatized resources and services into local forms of public ownership and control is happening in the transport, waste management, energy, housing, and cleaning sectors as well. Reclaiming public services could lead to the development of integrated local strategies to tackle climate change, encourage energy efficiency, and advance renewable energy solutions.

“It is important to develop new and decentralized forms of public ownership that engage citizens and social movements in the battle against climate change.”

Andrew Cumbers, professor of regional political economy at the University of Glasgow, in Chapter 16: Remunicipalization, the Low-Carbon Transition, and Energy Democracy”


The responses above are excerpted from chapters by contributing authors in Can a City Be Sustainable?, a State of the World report. Want to hear from these and other urban experts? Join us on May 10, 2016 for the launch symposium in Washington, D.C. or livestream online.

#ForewordFriday: Threats to Sustainability Edition

Did you see this week's blog post from The Worldwatch Institute about how urban communities are...

Did you see this week's blog post from The Worldwatch Institute about how urban communities are growing green spaces? As we look forward to the launch of State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable? this spring, it's nice to take a look back at other editions of The Worldwatch Institute's flagship publication. In State of the World 2015: Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability, experts explore hidden threats to sustainability and how to address them. How will nations deal with migration as climate change refugees cross borders in order to escape flooding, drought, or other extreme weather events? What will happen to the price and availability of fossil energy—the foundation of industrial civilization--as these resources oscillate between surplus and scarcity? If perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is impossible, what are the alternatives? Can national governments manage the transition? Eight key issues are addressed in depth, along with the central question of how we can develop resilience to these and other shocks.

Check out an excerpt of the book below.




Parks or People? Five Cities that are Choosing Both

The world’s expanding cities are in a delicate balancing act. If they do not embrace strategic, high-density development, urban areas will increasingly encroach on surrounding farmland and natural spaces.

This blog originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute's blog and is reposted with permission.

Cities are the world’s future. Today, more than half of the global population—3.7 billion people—are urban dwellers and that number is expected to double by 2050. There is no question cities are growing; the only debate is over how they will grow. Will we invest in the physical and social infrastructure necessary for livable, equitable, and sustainable cities? Follow the Worldwatch Institute as we prepare for the May 10, 2016 release of State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable? 


As increasing numbers of people squeeze into cities, where can urban communities grow green spaces?

The world’s expanding cities are in a delicate balancing act. If they do not embrace strategic, high-density development, urban areas will increasingly encroach on surrounding farmland and natural spaces. This, in turn, creates the need for additional energy and transit infrastructure and widens their climate impacts. But if cities develop without green or open spaces, urban residents risk suffering from health problems, deteriorating social cohesion, and the loss of economic opportunities as the appeal of urban life fades.

Luckily, landscape architects and urban planners are finding innovative solutions to pack more green spaces within city boundaries, without pushing out existing living and working spaces. Below are five examples of stunning parks that incorporate green spaces into the fabric of urban life.

Blight to Beauty

The Atlanta BeltLine, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
Rendering of the Atlanta BeltLine (Ryan Gravel).


Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
The splashpad at Historic Fourth Ward Park. Left photo: Christopher T. Martin. Right photo: Atlanta BeltLine, Inc

The Atlanta BeltLine is a prime example of “upcycling” underutilized urban space. Initially a hypothetical thesis project by a student at Georgia Tech in 1999, the project has become one of the largest urban redevelopment programs in the United States. It boasts a planned 520 hectares (1,300 acres) of new parkland—that’s more than the 340 hectares (840 acres) of New York City’s Central Park. Add the 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of remediated brown fields and 5,600 units of affordable housing, and the scale of the project becomes clear. The BeltLine rings the center of Atlanta using an existing 35-kilometer (22-mile) rail corridor that fell into disuse when the city grew beyond its initial boundaries. Today, the rail line links 45 neighborhoods, providing both transportation corridors and public space complete with an arboretum and spaces for fitness, play, art, and special events.

The Lowline, New York City, United States

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
Rendering of the Lowline.

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
The Lowline Lab before installation (Brandt Graves). The existing Lowline Lab.

Like its New York City cousin the High Line, the Lowline takes advantage of neglected transit routes to add a vertical dimension to public green spaces. Although it is still in its concept phase, the Lowline proposes an innovative design in an abandoned trolley terminal. What makes this project so intriguing is its use of passive solar technology to illuminate the space and provide light to plants and people below street level. A solar reflector dish guides sunlight from above to an underground dome that scatters the light.

Prioritizing People Over Cars

Madrid Río, Madrid, Spain

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
Rendering of Madrid Río (CityLife).

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
Madrid Río in 2004 and 2011, before and after burying the highways.

After a massive highway was built on both sides of the Manzanares River in Madrid in the 1970s, nearby neighborhoods declined and most Madrileños avoided the region entirely. In 2003, however, Mayor Alberto Ruíz-Gallardón implemented his vision to bury the highways and move traffic through tunnels instead (not without great political pushback). Ultimately, however, the river banks were freed for pedestrians and more than nine kilometers (six miles) of the Madrid Río Park were designed with playgrounds, ball fields, bike paths, and a wading pool known fondly as “the beach.”

Cheonggyecheo, Seoul, South Korea

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
Cheonggyecheo Stream Park (Kimmo Räisänen).

Photo Courtesy of Worldwatch Institute
Cheonggyecheo Stream before and after highway removal (Intermediate Landscapes).

Peeling back the 5 kilometers (three miles) of elevated highway that covered the once-polluted Cheonggyecheon Stream has turned a congested area in Seoul into a green haven for picnickers and pedestrians. While the park is far from perfect in its environmental design (water is pumped through 11 kilometers, or seven miles, of pipes from the Han River to feed the stream), some wildlife has returned, pollution has decreased, property values have gone up, and some 90,000 people visit daily. Combined with expanded bus service, higher parking fees, and restrictions on cars, nearby congestion has gone down and reduced small-particle air pollution along the corridor. The area also experiences lower local temperatures compared to those of nearby areas, a boon as climate change extremes are likely to increase in frequency.

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