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A public policy process for Vision 2050

The Vision 2050 project addressed three questions:

  • What does a sustainable world look like?
  • How can we realize it? 
  • What are the roles business can play in ensuring more rapid progress toward that world?

Vision 2050 is an optimistic, strong business perspective on what a sustainable world could look like. Designed as a constructive platform for dialogue about the future of the world, Vision 2050 outlines a world where every human can live well without harming the ecosystems that support us now and in the future. This presents the biggest economic opportunity ever. However it cannot be achieved under current mainstream business, consumption and policy conditions.

As desirable and coherent as it seems, Vision 2050 will neither happen spontaneously nor by the good words and deeds of a group of global companies. Actually most of todays’ progress is off or behind the Vision 2050 trajectory. Every year lost makes it harder to create the sustainable world.

Business cannot succeed in a world that fails and it cannot avoid failure on its own. Its fundamental purpose is to provide continually improved goods and services for an increasing number of people, at prices they can afford, without unsustainable impacts and in ways that create jobs and economic value. It is the role of governments to arbitrate between the needs of their citizens and societies, and the security and conservation of public goods; they must set the rules that define the priorities, the objectives of growth and purchasing power as well as determine how to get there. This role is ever more difficult: policy decisions are complex, from the vulnerability of local ecosystems and societies to the swelling of megacities and the global circulation of capital, information, goods and greenhouse gases. At the same time, scientists and economists warn about the increasing risks of severe systemic failures. Such systemic failures also threaten our global economy.

As we near a major multilateral conference – Rio+20 – to review and revive progress on the path to sustainable development, a path that closely guided the formulation of our Vision 2050, we felt a responsibility to clarify the policy options that business recommends and endorses to accelerate progress at the necessary scale and with the right momentum. This companion document to Vision 2050 is neither a program nor a positioning platform, but an offer to engage and contribute to complex and urgent policy solutions.   

Taking population dynamics and ecological boundaries as given constraints, the WBCSD is convinced there is a path of decisions, precautions and innovations that will ensure economic growth and human development. Twenty years ago, we called this path eco-efficiency. It inspired our members, many other companies, cities and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to embrace practices that start to decouple economic growth, human development and well-being from negative environmental and social impacts. We stressed that eco-efficiency “is also about redefining the rules of the economic game in order to move from a situation of wasteful consumption and pollution to one of conservation, and to one of privilege and protectionism to one of fair and equitable chances open to all[1]”.

In retrospect, the economic game has largely been redefined in favor of short-term wins and unfettered speculation, deferring externalities to future generations and boosting economic growth with cheap credit for non-essential goods to maintain enough employment and social stability. As a result, the global economy has taken a turn to the worse. In this context, eco-efficiency delivers much less than intended. Only countries that introduced supportive policies in the form of environmental taxes, subsidies, standards and labeling schemes have somewhat “decoupled” GDP growth from energy, water, mineral consumption and wastes, toxic and greenhouse gases production. But most efficiency gains are absorbed in further growth of local or export demand. Thus, at the global scale, this local and relative progress is overwhelmed by the growing flows and impacts of fossil fuels, materials, water and wastes through the entire world economy.

WBCSD believes that, in the right policy framework, education, empowerment, entrepreneurship and globalization can eliminate poverty and inequity to create sustainable livelihoods. For nearly a decade now, the promotion of inclusive business has been a major goal of our work: shaping core business activities into solutions that empower poor people to gain access to the formal economy and quality of life.

In the more recent drive for green growth in a Green Economy we recognize continuity and coherence with our eco-efficiency and inclusive business focus that in turn flowed from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and its Agenda 21. Challenges are similar, only more urgent and difficult today because of the weak and or delayed action during the last two decades. By analyzing the green growth strategy – that emerged from OECD Ministerial Council Meetings – through the lens of our Vision 2050, we see good alignment between the business quest for competitiveness and progress on three vital fronts: poverty eradication and managing ecosystems sustainably and better quality of life for all. This also holds for the United Nations Environment Program’s work on the Green Economy where we recognize, along the environmental challenges, the wider scope of inclusive, sustainable growth.

Far-sighted entrepreneurs and corporations everywhere are joining an unprecedented “green race” for climate-friendly, energy-, water- and resource-efficient technologies. In several countries, the fiscal and funding measures to stimulate an economic recovery specifically aim to create a groundswell for this green race. Yet, more is needed to sustain and amplify the movement. In particular, stimulus packages should be turned into stable public policies that value natural assets to reflect their growing scarcity and reward the green race innovations with cost advantages in the market. Innovations’ success is neither spontaneous nor secure unless public policies create a strong and long-lasting coherence between the interests of all: government, business and consumers.

We acknowledge the difficulty to solve global issues by top-down agreements and global rules. Even though, in theory, this seems the logical way to proceed, sovereign states have not delegated to their multilateral institutions the power to arbitrate and force binding consensus. Decisions are too slow and are often uncertain and hamper progress. But we can nonetheless build a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives that address local problems with local actors who define their own stretched and binding goals. This pragmatic approach creates meaningful progress and competitive potential. It also builds experience and goodwill that can benefit multilateral frameworks. Because of their global ramifications, sustainability and poverty issues must ultimately be resolved through international exchanges of finance, technologies and human expertise towards accepted common objectives.

In this document, we take stock of the 2011-2012 contexts for each main element of the pathway to test whether the assumptions are still accurate and cover all the important angles. We then identify specific government decisions and policies that we deem most helpful, from now on, in our common journey to 2050. They can apply at all levels, from cities and regions to states and their unions.

When we consider these public policies options, we find a number of important connections and complementarities. They reflect the fundamental linkages between food, water, energy, materials, finance, quality of life and human values. Although implementation will have to vary depending on the context, we can nonetheless propose overarching policy architecture with a process to secure the promises of Vision 2050.

In Vision 2050, we adopted a powerful chart that shows the relation between the two key indicators of sustainability; Human Development and Ecological Footprint (Figure 2).  It illustrates the challenge of ensuring that our present progress trajectories focused on increasing human do not clash with the ecological capacity of our planet. Rich nations have achieved a high Human Development Index but exceed the ecosystems carrying capacity. Many developing countries, on average, have not yet reached environmental boundaries but also fail to provide the desired human development. This is why the sustainable living box remains empty. Yet this is where all nations must urgently converge and be before 2050 to avert irreversible environmental degradation and severe social conflicts and breakdowns.

In Vision 2050, we adopted a powerful chart that shows the relation between the two key indicators of sustainability; Human Development and Ecological Footprint. It illustrates the challenge of ensuring that our present progress trajectories focused on increasing human demande do not clash with the ecological capacity of our planet. Rich nations have achieved a high Human Development Index, but exceed the ecosystems carrying capacity. Many developing countries, on average, have not yet reached environmental boundaries, but fail to provide the desired human development. This is why the sustainable living2 box remains empty. Yet this is where all nations must urgently converge, and be prepared to avert irreversible environmental degradation, severe social confl icts and breakdowns before 2050.

The proposed Green Growth Policy Accelerator Model is therefore aimed at drawing every national economy into the sustainable living zone by or before 2050. It relies on the interaction of seven key categories of government decisions and actions. The seven categories are dynamically linked; they cover functions that are all necessary and complement each other to achieve progress.

Policies for Vision 2050

Governments need to create an enabling policy framework to support companies dedicated to move faster toward sustainable development. For each of the nine elements of the pathway described in Vision 2050, we put forward clear and concrete public policy recommendations.

People's values

Human Development

Economy

Agriculture

Forests

Energy & power

Buildings

Mobility

Materials

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