Manish Bapna addresses the 2012 environmental "Stories to Watch" at the National Press Club in Washington. (Jaclyn Skurie/Medill)

WASHINGTON — The global think tank World Resources Institute hosted its ninth annual “Stories to Watch” event at the National Press Club on Tuesday, connecting trends and observations from last year to predict the key environmental issues of 2012.

Manish Bapna, WRI’s interim president, anticipates that economy and equity will be the two fundamental themes dictating the major environmental stories this year.

Many countries are debating whether sustainable energy benefits or impedes efforts to strengthen the economy. One side sees green markets as a boon for job creation and high economic growth rates, but others consider investing in sustainable energy adverse to economic growth.

“Then how does this play out? Which side is right? This will in no small part depend on how large and how profitable green markets become,” Bapna said.

These five issues were addressed by WRI as predictions for environmental policy highlights in 2012:

U.S. Climate and Energy Policy during an Election Year

In 2008, the Obama administration set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. Bapna said that target is still inattainable. One of this year’s big questions is how much action states and the federal government will take to carry out climate policies as a means of meeting the 2020 goal.

Power transitions in China

In the next 18 months, there will likely be some changes in Chinese leadership. Setting a cap on energy consumption, a clean energy trade war and provincial carbon trading systems will become central sustainability stories.

“The Chinese have been growing their renewable energy by leaps and bounds,” said Paul Joffe, senior foreign policy counsel at WRI, “which is still just a sliver of the overall energy picture.”

Global Food Shortages

“The demand for food is accelerating at a remarkable rate and how we respond to this will have profound implications for biodiversity, for forest cover, for the global climate,” Bapna said. “The story to watch in 2012 is to look at the choices governance, businesses and consumers make in response to accelerating food demand.”

Economic Benefits of Renewable Energy

According to Bloomberg L.P., investments in renewable energy nearly overtook fossil fuels in 2010. The story to focus on this year will be whether investments in renewable energy – such as solar and wind power — will actually exceed the amount invested in oil, gas and other fossil fuels, Bapna said.

Production of shale gas is another key issue. Although shale is cheap to extract, some scientists say the process releases more greenhouse gases than natural gas, according to Kevin Kennedy, the director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at WRI.

“A lot of the uncertainty of the studies that have been done have to do with variation in understanding about what methane emissions look like.”

The Rio United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

In June, over 40,000 people from around the world will attend the U.N. conference in Brazil to discuss a green economy and a global policy for sustainable development. WRI predicts energy access, food security, water and governance to be the most critical issues addressed at the conference.

Bapna said many places around the world are heading in the direction of sustainability – generally defined as conserving resources at the rate they regenerate.

“It’s collapsing fairly artificial boundaries between the economy, between the environment,” Bapna said. “It’s redefining the concepts of what constitutes quality of life, of national security.”

To follow Twitter conversations relating to the event, search hashtag #stw12.