The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its 2009 Year Book last month to relatively little fanfare. Here are a few highlights, in case you’re behind on the State of Things (and missed the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, President Obama’s unofficial state of the union speech last month, Stephen Faris’ Forecast of the immediate consequences of climate change and the Pacific Institute’s report that parts of California will drown if sea levels rise unchecked).

The UNEP year book summarizes a year’s worth of climate-science findings, tallies the amount of global waste produced annually (two billion tons), and checks in on the conditions of the world’s largest carbon sinks — oceans, forests, and permafrost. Naturally, it’s a gloomy picture.

But the report details some real innovation too. It finds energy efficiency measures gaining a foothold in the building and construction industry. It finds another bright spot in industrial dematerialization (report-speak for producing less junk, such as unnecessary packaging materials). The official summary highlights the 8,000 companies participating the U.K.’s National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, noting:

It has diverted more than four million tonnes of business waste from landfills.

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Eliminated over 350,000 tonnes of hazardous waste from the environment.

Saved over nine million tones of water, avoided the use of 6.3 million tones of virgin raw materials and reduced carbon emissions by over 4.5 million tonnes.

Generated $208 million in new sales for members and saved them nearly $170 million.

The book also finds progress in industrial water use, such as a Finnish paper mill that cut back 90 percent of its water use by switching from chemical to thermo-mechanically treated pulp and by installing a biological wastewater treatment facility. Exciting stuff!

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Also highlighted are nifty advances via biomimicry, or imitating nature:

The Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe, has passive, self-cooling systems modeled on termite mounds. The building, a mixture of offices, shops and car parking, uses an average of 90 per cent less energy than a comparable structure saving more than $3.5 million since opening in the 1990s.

And one more sobering note on arctic melting:

For the second year in a row, there was an ice-free channel in the Northwest Passage through the islands of northern Canada.

2008 also witnessed the opening of the Northern Sea Route along the Arctic Siberian coast — the two passages have probably not been open simultaneously since before the last ice age some 100,000 years ago.

As with other macro-level environmental reports, the amount of data can be dizzying, and like other reports, UNEPs concludes with an urgent call for a low-carbon economy.

The Year Book serves as a reminder to the international community as to why a Green Economy is so urgently needed from the bubbling up of methane gas in the Arctic to the shrinking availability of croplands, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a release. But it is also about optimism and the power of positive policies.

Inside the year book’s cover, UNEP added, “It’s been SO great having algebra with you this year. You’re super sweet! Don’t ever change!!

Get it? Because it’s a yearbook? Nevermind.