10 June 2015

Interview: The World in 2050

Options Magazine Summer 2015: In an interview, Stockholm Resilience Centre Director and IIASA Distinguished Visiting Fellow Johan Rockström described his optimistic view for the future of our planet, which is the subject of a new research collaboration, The World in 2050 project.

© IIASA | Matthias Silveri

© IIASA | Matthias Silveri

"My vision for the world in 2050 is a world where all citizens on Earth thrive, enjoy wellbeing, access to education, health, and development, on a stable and safe planet. That is a new definition of sustainable development: meeting human aspirational goals for everyone on Earth, remembering that the population is projected to be 9 or 10 billion at that time, while at the same time respecting the fundamental life support systems on Earth.

The interesting thing about that vision is that it can actually be operationalized with a set of very tangible goals. We know we want to eradicate poverty, eradicate hunger, secure economic development, provide access to education and health for all. But now we can increasingly knock on science’s door to ask specific questions about what is sustainable for our planet. What’s the goal for climate? It’s a carbon budget of a thousand gigatons of carbon dioxide. What’s the goal for biodiversity? Well, that’s zero expansion of agriculture because we have to sustain the remaining ecosystems on Earth. What’s the goal for oceans? Again, we can set a target acidity; we can set a target for eutrophication and overfishing. Essentially in all the components of the Earth system, we can today in fact define a science‑based vision of where we want to be in 2050. There’s uncertainty, of course, but there’s always uncertainty, in the social, economic, and biophysical domains.

There is no science to suggest that we cannot succeed in the most fundamental of those transitions, which is a transition to a decarbonized economy. From an economic perspective, a decarbonized world economy has perfect substitution. We can have good economic development powered by solar, wind, biomass, and hydro. It’s much more difficult for biodiversity, freshwater, land, and air quality because there we have zero substitution. There we simply have to become stewards of the biosphere in a sustainable way. In this area, the most important factor will be a transition to a sustainable healthy food future for humanity. If we could feed humanity through sustainable and healthy food systems, and if we can power the economy through renewable energy systems, we would actually be on a home run.

The challenge and excitement here is to understand that a transition to sustainable development cannot be accomplished only through policy, economics, or technology. It needs to also address the deeper human dimension of equity, moral values, and religion—issues related to how we share the remaining space on Earth. These are deep philosophical, historical, economic, and political science questions that need to be integrated with the natural science questions if we are at all going to find, not only immediate but also lasting solutions." Johan Rockström

Further information

The World in 2050 project was launched in March at IIASA.

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Last edited: 17 June 2015

Options Summer 2015

Special Public Event: Towards a Sustainable Future

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