By Owen Gaffney, Stockholm Resilience Center (excerpted from a post on

What will the world be like in 2050?

Of course, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, as the Danish proverb goes.

Part of the difficulty is that we – individuals and the institutions that allow us to act collectively and in the long term – routinely assume the future looks very much like the past. Just as routinely, though, this assumption is flipped on its head. Think of the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, Brexit, or the recent US election.

But what if we already know what we want the world to look like in 2050. How do we get there?

By Andrew Hitchcock - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Dusk on Chang Jiang (Yangtze) Credit: Andrew Hitchcock | Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

I was reminded of the Danish proverb as I arrived at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) outside Vienna earlier this month for a three-day meeting of The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative. This was the third such scientific meeting hosted here at the home of some of the leading economic, demographic and energy modellers.

TWI2050 is arguably the most ambitious research being undertaken in the world today. At its heart is an ambition to map out the pathways for a sustainable planet. As with the previous meetings, it attracted about 130 complex-systems thinkers and computer-modelling experts.

Unlike other international modelling initiatives, TWI2050 was not created to explore a range of possible utopian to dystopian scenarios focusing on energy prices or climate change. The baseline assumption is a single scenario: successful completion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by all nations in 2015, and arriving in 2050 with a global economy operating within planetary boundaries – the limits of natural systems that keep Earth in a relatively stable state, relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation, and fertilizer use, among others.

The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets are extremely ambitious. Buried in the detail are many trade-offs but also potential win-wins. Meeting the climate goal means reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, and this could affect the energy, biodiversity, or consumption goals either positively or negatively. The goals and their inherent trade-offs are already catalyzing research and the results show how challenging this will be.

This month, scientists publishing in the journal Nature explored Australia’s land-use trade-offs to reach the goals. The team, who were not at the TWI2050 meeting, used a massive computer simulation called Land Use and Trade Offs (LUTO) to see how factors such as climate policies or crop prices could shape Australia’s landscape by 2050. Exploring 648 scenarios, researchers Brett Bryan and Lei Gao found just 1% of scenarios achieved five goals simultaneously. However, some goals seemed to go better together than others. Achieving targets related to food, water, and biofuel production was possible in 6.5% of scenarios, for example. The authors, whose work contributes to Future Earth’s Global Land Programme, conclude that national policymakers need more of this type of analysis to elucidate trade-offs and avoid conflicting policies. Moreover, they argued for more scientific coordination internationally for a global perspective on implementing the SDGs.

Other research groups have also begun exploring the world in 2050. Recently Karl Heinz Erb from the Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna, who attended the TWI2050 workshop, and colleagues explored 500 scenarios to assess options for feeding 9 billion people in 2050 without further deforestation .

Their work, which also supports the Global Land Programme, concluded that it was possible, but would likely mean low meat, vegetarian, or vegan diets globally. Meanwhile, Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, also attending, and colleagues showed that by 2050 a global vegetarian diet would reduce diet-related global mortality by 6-10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70% – contributing to several goals. This type of research is essential to understand potential win-wins but these examples do not provide the pathways to arrive at these scenarios.

So, are computer models powerful enough to capture essential elements of incremental and disruptive change across complex issues relating to poverty, equality, education, technology, policy, energy, food, water, and climate? Read more on the website

This article is excerpted from an article on the website. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

*The Stockholm Resilience Centre is one of the founding partners of The World in 2050 alongside the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and IIASA. Contributing organisations include the European Commission, Future Earth, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Future Earth. Check out the website for details.


1. Nilsson M, Griggs D, Visbeck M (2016). Policy: Map the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals. Nature 534:7607 PDF for download
2. Nilsson M, Griggs D, Visbeck M, Ringler C (2016). A draft framework for understanding SDG interactions. ICSU – International Council for Science. PDF for download
3. Stafford Smith M, et. al. (2016). Integration: the key to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability Science DOI:10.1007/s11625-016-0383-3
4. Gao L, Bryan BA (2017). Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability. Nature 544:217–222 DOI:10.1038/nature21694
5. Bryan BA et al. (2016). Land-use and sustainability under intersecting global change and domestic policy scenarios: Trajectories for Australia to 2050. Global Environmental Change 38:130–152 DOI:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.03.002
6. Erb K-H, Lauk C, Kastner T, Mayer A, Theurl MC, Haberl H (2016). Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Nature Communications 7 DOI:10.1038/ncomms11382
7. Springmann M, Godfray HCJ, Rayner M, Scarborough P (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS 113:15(4146–4151)DOI:10.1073/pnas.1523119113
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