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sustainability | nexus

The roads to 2050

By Owen Gaffney, Stockholm Resilience Center (excerpted from a post on Rethink.earth)

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1708457

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.

#winwin
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 Rethink.earth website

This article is excerpted from an article on the Rethink.earth 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.

References

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

Interview: An occasion for innovation

Pascal Lamy was the director general of the World Trade Organization from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves as a president emeritus of the Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute. On 28 and 29 August he is taking part in a meeting of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, focused on new models for sustainable business development.

Pascal Lamy ©The Jacques Delors Institute

Pascal Lamy ©The Jacques Delors Institute

As the former director general of the WTO, you have extensive experience in global trade and economic development. How does this background inform your perspective on the issues of the sustainable development?
To put it very simply, there is a very well-understood interaction between trade and growth, starting in the 18th century until now. The understanding of the relationship between global trade and sustainable development, i.e. including the environment dimension, is much more recent, understandably because environmental issues only came into the picture much more recently than the 18th century.

The reality is today that the communities working on trade and environmental issues are rather poorly connected. You belong either to one or to the other. There are not that many people who have feet on both sides, which does not help because the issue  is complex.

In theory it’s very simple. Take climate change for instance: If you put the carbon price at the proper level, i.e. the one that takes into account the externalities of climate change and CO2 emissions, all you have to do is price CO2 properly, and problem is solved: markets will reallocate production factors accordingly.  That’s what theory tells us. The little problem is actually agreeing on a set price for the entire planet. And this triggers a lot of suboptimal propositions, solutions.

I think that the overall stance now is that that trade is not an end. Trade is a means to improve growth in climate, welfare, sustainability, including environment sustainability. This was in fact part of the WTO charter from 1994. When I was DG of the WTO we did quite a lot of work in collaboration with environmental international organizations such as UNEP for instance. We looked into the big question on this topic: Is the expansion of trade good or bad for the environment? There are arguments on both sides, and it is a vast set of issues. But overall I think there are ways and means to reconcile, to synergize the benefits of trade opening for a more environmentally sustainable world.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
It’s a very long and vast set of issues. So it’s not a single thing—what you have to address issues on inequality, on education,  on oceans, on poverty—it’s a lot of different things.

But overall, I think the biggest challenge—and this is why a number of us are working on that—is to properly organize the accountability of these SDGs. That means providing proper metrics, proper review, proper debate, and proper public accountability. Now that the goals have been agreed by the UN, the issue is whether or not they can be achieved, and whether we can properly organize public pressure on sovereign nation states, through civil society, involvement of businesses. So in my view the main issue is building and agreeing on a proper follow up transparency system.

Pascal Lamy talks with other members of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group at a retreat on 29 August. ©Matthias Silveri | IIASA

How do you think that the private sector could help in achieving the SDGs?
In doing what private businesses have been doing increasingly, which is integrating this sustainable development focus into their global strategies. Most big businesses now have a set of principles, a set of values that include sustainability.

What’s happening for instance around the push towards green finance, notably since the COP21 in Paris, is a good example of how some businesses can be on the front line of a larger coalition. We need coalitions like this to bind public authorities at the national, regional, and city levels, to civil society organizations focused on sustainability, climate, environment, biodiversity, and development, and businesses, whether big or small.

So from your perspective it sounds like business is already on the right track. What further changes would be needed in the private sector in order to fully embrace the SDG agenda?
It will happen if and when businesses realize that it matters to their consumers, to their staff, and to their shareholders, or their finance providers more generally. This is the frame within which they have to optimize what they do—clients, consumers, their people, and where they get their financial resources from. And if these various sides of the triangle push in that direction, inevitably businesses will push in this direction. They’ll have to.

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type?
What’s unusual is that it links you with people whom you may not meet every day, so it’s an occasion of diversity connecting on a topic. Plus, there is something which tends to come out of this sort of environment, which is innovation. People exchanging ideas, not just theoretically, “What should we do?” “Where are we?” “Where are we going?” but, “This is what I suggest to do,” “This is what I tried and it worked,” and “This is what I tried and it didn’t work.” It’s  more about experiences on the ground, which may then inspire more general conclusions.

Further reading
Pascal Lamy (2016). “Négociations climatiques et négociations commerciales : antinomie évidente ?“. Speech delivered at the 24th Meeting about Risk Management, AMRAE, at Lille, France, February 5th 2016. Download speech (PDF)

Pascal Lamy (2013). The Geneva Consensus: Making trade work for all. Cambridge University Press  http://www.cambridge.org/ao/academic/subjects/law/international-trade-law/geneva-consensus-making-trade-work-all

Interview conducted and edited by Katherine Leitzell, IIASA science writer and press officer

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Flourishing within limits to growth

By Brian Fath, IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program and Towson University

Brian Fath. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Brian Fath. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

The seminal book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and colleagues was a first attempt to make a world model that integrated environment, economics, population, and industrial pollution. Without drastic changes to curb human population growth, consumption of non-renewable resources and industrial effluence, the model scenario projected a collapse of the world social-industrial system, because physically it is not possible to keep growing on a finite planet.  This important message spurred many people in the environmental sciences, but was largely ignored, or worse ridiculed, by the dominant economic and political leaders.  Perhaps their work was too pessimistic (although some could say realistic) and called for change for which society was not yet ready.

My co-authors and I  feel their message was interpreted incorrectly.  The restrictions imposed by The Limits to Growth do not entail stagnation and strife but rather give us an opportunity for new priorities, greater equity, and greater well-being.  Living within the limits can offer agreeable, pleasant, even thriving and wonderful living conditions.

Therefore we have written a book, which shows that following nature provides guidance and pathways to Flourishing within Limits to Growth.

People today are confronted with a number of very serious problems: poverty, increased inequalities among countries and people, refugees, regional conflicts and civil wars, global climate change, accelerating exploitation of the global non-renewable and renewable resources, rapid land use change and urbanization, and increased emissions of harmful chemicals into the environment. History has shown us that we cannot solve these problems using traditional methods based on short-sighted economic growth.

Additionally, we know from natural laws that continuous growth in a finite environment is not possible. How can we ensure sustainable development for society on Earth? It would be possible by imitating the system that understands how to sustain long-term development: to learn from nature and follow nature’s way. Nature shifts from quantitative biomass growth when the resources become limiting to qualitative development by increasing resource use efficiency, in terms of both improved network connectivity and information on process regulation and feedbacks. The two main ecosystem functions, flow of energy and transfer of nutrients, are accomplished by renewable energy and complete recycling of the needed elements.  Nature also originated and perfected the use the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

“The restrictions imposed by The Limits to Growth do not entail stagnation and strife but rather give us an opportunity for new priorities, greater equity, and greater well-being" Innsbruck Austria - architecture and nature background. ©Nikolai Sorokin | Dollar Photo Club

“The restrictions imposed by The Limits to Growth do not entail stagnation and strife but rather give us an opportunity for new priorities, greater equity, and greater well-being” Photo: Innsbruck, Austria ©Nikolai Sorokin | Dollar Photo Club

Our book employs a global model to experiment with applying these properties of nature in society. Using global statistics, the model considers how the development will change if:

  • A revenue-neutral, resource-based Pigovian tax is increased significantly and along with commensurate tax reduction to enhance recycling and application of renewable energy
  • We increase investment in education, innovation, and research significantly to raise the level of understanding by the population and to develop new progressive ideas to address our global problems.
  • We increase pollution abatement considerably to reduce its negative impacts on our health, nature, and production.
  • We increase aid from the developed to the developing countries to 0.8% of GNP, which would enhance the cooperation among countries, reduce poverty and population growth and thereby also the number of refugees. In this context, it is important that the aid is given as support to education, health care, and family planning and not at all as military aid.

flourishingbookThe model calculations show that it is possible to obtain a win-win situation, where both industrialized and developing nations can achieve a better standard of living – the developing countries mostly quantitatively and the developed countries mostly qualitatively. The calculations are compared with scenarios based on “business as usual” practices. The business as usual scenario shows a major collapse around the year 2060, which is in accordance to the Limits to Growth results from 1972 and the follow-up-publications from the Club of Rome.

Furthermore, the book demonstrates calculations of ecological footprints and sustainability by assessing our consumption and loss of work energy due to our use of resources and destruction of nature. These calculations lead to the following conclusions:

  • Maintain natural areas and the ecosystem services they provide.
  • Improve agricultural production by increasing efficiencies and technologies.
  • Shift our thoughts and actions from quantitative growth to qualitative development, for instance by using the three R’s.
  • Shift to renewable energy.
  • Leave today’s policy focused entirely on short-sighted economic considerations and start to discuss how we can improve environmental management, increase the level of education and research, and achieve greater equality in society.
  • Develop and promote alternative measures of welfare and well-being.
  • Reduce, rather than reward, financial speculations, exorbitant profits, and stock market gambling.

More information: Listen to an interview with Brian Fath on WCBN Radio.

References
Jørgensen SE, Fath BD, Nielsen SN, Pulselli F, Fiscus D, Bastianoni S. 2015. Flourishing Within Limits to Growth: Following nature’s way. Earthscan Publisher.

Meadows, DH, Meadows, DL, Randers J., Behrens, W.H.  III, (1972) Limits to Growth, New York: New American Library.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Countdown to zero?

By Nebojsa Nakicenovic, IIASA Deputy Director General/Deputy Chief Executive Officer (originally published in UNA-UK’s report: Climate 2020: Facing the Future)

Zero net global greenhouse gas emissions must become a reality before the end of the century if humankind is to stave off the worst effects of climate change. How can this be achieved?

This is a big year for embarking on transformational change towards a sustainable future for planet Earth. Three major global events are taking place, on financing and investments in Addis Ababa, sustainable development in New York and climate mitigation in Paris.

Energy futures are a major challenge on the way forward. In September the UN General Assembly in New York will focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which emphasise an enabling environment and economy for human development.

According to Kandeh Yumkella, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All), the proposed SDG 7 on energy (‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’) is “the golden thread that links poverty eradication, equitable economic growth and a healthy environment”.

SE4All calls for universal access to energy services, doubling the rate of energy intensity improvement and doubling the share of renewable energy, all by 2030. These goals are based on the Global Energy Assessment (GEA), coordinated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the result of five years’ work by 500 experts worldwide.

The Paris climate meeting in December aims for a major climate agreement. What will it take? Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

The Paris climate meeting in December aims for a major climate agreement. What will it take? Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

The world is also going to have to introduce a workable, implementable scheme to stave off the possibility of runaway climate change, one with the objective of keeping the average global surface temperature increase to within 2°C over the pre-industrial average. It’s doable, but requires a high level of ambition to achieve immediate and vigorous emissions reductions.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 is aiming for – and will hopefully get – a climate agreement based on the 2°C limit that will be legally binding on every nation. To come near to achieving this target will require addressing energy systems, which is central to greenhouse gas emissions mitigation – 80 per cent of global energy is derived from fossil fuels. Limiting emissions will involve a major transformation of energy systems toward full decarbonization.

Stabilization scenarios
But we need to move urgently. IIASA research has shown that to meet the 2°C target and avoid dangerous climate change, emissions will need to peak by 2020. By 2050, they will have to be reduced by 30 to 70 per cent compared to today’s levels, and then they will need to go down to zero well before the end of the century.

The reason is that the amount of carbon that can be emitted in the future is limited if we are to restrict climate change to any given level. For example, to meet the 2°C target, humanity has a total carbon budget of some thousand billion tons of carbon dioxide.

This budget needs to be allocated along possible emissions pathways, which explains the need for achieving a peak as soon as possible followed by a decline to zero emissions. Should the emissions peak be late or decline rate too slow, humanity is likely to exceed the cumulative carbon budget. If this occurs, negative emissions would be required: namely, carbon removal from the atmosphere, so that excess emissions are offset rendering stabilization at 2°C possible despite an emissions overshoot.

The question is how could this be done. In stabilization scenarios, the negative emissions are achieved, for instance, by combining combustion of sustainable sources of biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Both technologies are difficult from the current perspective and would require further development and vigorous deployment to reduce the costs and improve their performance.

CCS will presumably be developed anyway to decarbonize fossil fuels in those parts of the world where a transformation toward renewable, and possibly also nuclear, energy is delayed.

So we can decarbonize fossil fuels or switch to a higher percentage of carbon-free energy sources, such as many forms of renewable energy, to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions. What else can we do? GEA findings show that emissions could be reduced by up to half by efficiency improvements in energy, especially in end-use. This means looking at reducing emissions from areas such as transport, buildings, heating and cooling, urbanisation and electric appliances. It means changing mindsets, getting people and policymakers engaged in the emissions-reduction process.

Not all emissions come from sources that are judged to be a sign of development. In many developing countries, cooking over smoky fires burning traditional biomass (or coal) causes small particle pollution that adversely affects the health of women and children. IIASA research is analyzing how to introduce clean modern energy for cooking to millions of people and to cut indoor and outdoor pollution from these sources.

Improving air quality in cities with ground-level ozone, or smog (which results from chemical reactions between polluting compounds in the presence of sunlight), has clear synergies for human health, reducing cardiac, pulmonary and other diseases. It can increase human capital, too. One line of IIASA research shows that implementing a stringent climate policy could reduce globally aggregated lives lost due to indoor and regional air pollution by up to four million.

Sectoral interdependencies with respect to emissions are increasing. For example, reducing carbon and particle emissions to keep climate change in check has enormous implications for the food and water supply. Staggering amounts of water are needed to grow food but are also needed for sustaining energy systems. The productivity of land areas depends on climate and soil conditions. California is entering its fourth year of severe drought, raising concerns for agriculture and wildlife. Unsustainable water use in the state is draining aquifers containing ancient water that will take centuries to replenish.

All water systems – not simply those in traditionally arid or developing areas – are vulnerable to the changing climate. Reducing water use immediately reduces demand for electricity, as well as the fuels required to generate electricity. Water is needed to grow crops for biofuels, but fuel transport costs can be reduced by co-locating biofuel cultivation close to the communities that use them – another IIASA research result. Water can also produce plenty of hydroelectricity. Renewable energy technologies can be utilised to provide heat and electricity needs for water desalination. Water and energy use have almost boundless synergies and have to be analysed from an integrated perspective, which is why at IIASA examining the energy-water nexus is such a priority.

Complex problems
Stringent emission-reduction policies can also help to bolster the energy security goals of individual countries and regions. Such policies promote energy efficiency, the diversification of the energy supply mix and the increased utilisation of domestically available renewable energy sources. The result would be energy systems that are more resilient and simultaneously have a higher degree of sovereignty, especially compared to those so reliant on imports of fossil energy commodities, such as North America, Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China.

The international community has also woken up to the significance of climate-relevant emissions from deforestation and land degradation. The UN’s REDD+ initiative (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is one of the more promising areas of agreement in global climate negotiations. Felling a tree always releases carbon, stored over its lifetime in its roots, leaves and branches. Large-scale deforestation therefore is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Nitrogen emissions from agriculture, wastewater management and industrial processes are also produced by human activities and need to be mitigated.

 Felling a tree always releases carbon, stored over its lifetime in its roots, leaves and branches. Large-scale deforestation therefore is a major contributor to carbon emissions.  Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Felling a tree always releases carbon, stored over its lifetime in its roots, leaves and branches. Large-scale deforestation therefore is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Photo Credit: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

These are complex problems and huge investments are needed to solve the energy challenges society faces today. The ostensibly single aim of reducing emissions will, in fact, require a multiple paradigm shift affecting every domain simultaneously. There are many golden threads, and they are very entangled.

To fund the transformation to sustainable energy services for all, including the three billion ‘left behind’ without access and living at or below the poverty line, the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa in July will need to dig very deep into its collective pockets. To transform the global energy system, the volume of investment will have to almost double over the next three to five decades, from about $1.3 trillion to some $2.5 trillion.

The money is available. Insurance and pension funds control $50 trillion. Governments can help catalyse other kinds of private investment by providing research and development and early deployment, and by helping to de-risk investment. The cost savings of these climate policy synergies are potentially enormous: $100-600 billion annually by 2030 in reduced pollution control and energy security expenditures (0.1-0.7 % of GDP) could be achieved by combining climate mitigation with combating air pollution rather than pursuing the two goals independently.

For emission reductions to be successful, these practical and financial considerations will need to be supported by a new ethical awareness that will temper our relationship with each other and our planet. Sustainability in every aspect of human life means a shift to equity and inclusion.

With the fast-growing population and the need for universal development, the requirement to control emissions is extremely urgent. The golden thread described by Yumkella with respect to the energy sustainable development goal encompasses the notions of both opportunity and fragility, but it binds us all.

Read the full publication: Climate 2020: Facing the future (PDF). 

Interview: Sustainable development—the challenge of our generation

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network is an expert on economics, development, and sustainability, and a founding member of IIASA and European Forum Alpbach’s Global Think Tank, which is holding its first meeting in Laxenburg this week.  

On Wednesday, 12 March Sachs will give a public lecture on the topic at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna.

Jeff Sachs speaks at the 2013 Alpbach Forum. Photo Credit: European Forum Alpbach

Jeff Sachs speaks at the Alpbach Forum in 2013. Photo Credit: European Forum Alpbach

IIASA: Your work spans a large area of research: from economics, to Earth science, to sustainable development. What is the common thread that ties all this together?
JS: The common thread is the challenge that we face on the planet. We can no longer separate economic, environment, and social challenges because we find that if we try to pursue any one of those alone, we end up jeopardizing the others.

For too long, economists have focused simply on economic growth, and clearly that strategy by now has put Earth and humanity at great peril. There’s no shortcut anymore. We have to be able to combine a vision that includes all the major dimensions of the complicated global reality that we face. Economics, divided societies, environmental crises, and rapidly changing geopolitics. It’s not simple to integrate all of these different areas. Our traditional intellectual disciplines do not accomplish that.

IIASA has been one of the world’s leading champions of this kind of integrated vision. Systems thinking applied to massive human problems, bringing together very diverse areas of natural science, social science, and I would say ethical considerations as well. This kind of holistic approach is central to IIASA’s whole strategy. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of my connection to the Institute.

What do you see as the biggest problems facing our planet?
We have become an enormously crowded and interconnected global society overnight, because of the technological reach of our economies and because of the remarkable growth of the world’s population during the last century. With 7.2 billion people on the planet now, we are putting vast parts of the biosphere and human well-being at dire risk. We are only slowly waking up to this reality.

All of history, humans have faced local challenges, but we have never faced such a confluence of massive global challenges at the same time. We don’t yet have the institutions, the insight, or the moral outlook to handle this set of challenges, and yet they are bearing down on us very fast.

In your lecture you’ll argue that it is realistic to think we could solve many of these challenges, for example, ending extreme poverty. What would need to be done to accomplish that goal, and why do you think it can be done?
When one thinks about the challenge of ending poverty you quickly realize that while the challenge is great, we also have unique positive opportunities. With the revolutions in communications technology, communities that until five years ago were isolated, impoverished, and with little prospect of escaping from poverty are now connected to global information, as well as to local markets and health clinics. Schoolchildren can get access to the world of information online. Finance has come to rural areas through mobile banking. All of these are examples of the kinds of breakthroughs that are now possible in addressing what have been extraordinarily tough problems of poverty.

We also see the poverty rate coming down now at an unprecedented speed, even in some of the poorest places on the planet. Major advances have been achieved in East Asia during the past quarter century, and increasingly, Africa too is now finally turning the corner on extreme poverty. I have argued that we could mobilize technologies and use directed investments in public health, education, infrastructure, and agriculture to make a decisive breakthrough within our generation.

In my book, “The End of Poverty,” I said that by 2025 we could end extreme poverty. I am afraid that the date is slipping a little because of the lack of concerted effort, but it’s notable for me and gratifying that the World Bank this past year adopted formally the goal of ending extreme poverty by the year 2030. And I believe that the United Nations member states will also adopt such a goal next year when they create the new Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

There are two huge risks that could absolutely defeat this possibility. One is the still greatly excessive population growth in some of the world’s poorest countries. The second is climate change, which left out of control will devastate large parts of the world including regions where many of the world’s poorest people live, for instance the arid regions of the world.

What about climate change? Do you think it’s really possible, at this point, to limit climate change to the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees?
I believe that we are at the very last chance to reach that goal. We have cliff ahead of us, with a sign that says, “Do not go beyond this point.” This point is the 2 degrees centigrade limit. We know from all the physical evidence and all the economic trends that we’re just within a hair’s width of exhausting the possibility of meeting that goal. And I worry that if we fail to achieve that goal we are going to slide very far and very fast down the mountainside, as it were.  The world is negotiating a climate agreement in Paris in December 2015, and I believe that’s the very last chance to achieve the 2 degree centigrade goal.

I am not especially optimistic, but I don’t think that all is lost yet. Much depends on a much greater seriousness in the next year and ten months than we have shown in the last 22 years since the climate treaty was adopted.

Your lecture is entitled “The Age of Sustainable Development” what do you mean by that term? Why is now the time to be thinking about these topics?
I argue that we have entered an era when the concept of sustainable development has become the necessary concept for our time. When I say sustainable development, I mean on the analytical side the integrated vision of economic, social, and environmental dynamics; and on the normative side the shared goals of economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. I believe that we have a reasonable chance that this will be formally recognized by the UN member states in 2015, when they formally adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals.

My talk in Vienna is about why the concept of sustainable development is so important, and what it means. It’s not a household phrase, and I think there is a tremendous amount of public education that will be needed to understand what the opportunities are and what the threats that we face in this generation are. My basic point is that every generation faces its distinct challenges and sustainable development is our distinct challenge.

What do you see as the role for researchers and for institutions like IIASA in solving these global challenges?
I believe that these problems are inherently complex because they are about managing interconnected complex systems. There’s nothing simple about the world economy, nothing simple about global social dynamics, and nothing simple about interconnected Earth systems. And yet we have to master the risks that attend to each of those and the interconnections among them. It’s quite obvious in that regard that IIASA has a unique role to play. IIASA has been in the forefront of climate modeling, demographic modeling, and agricultural modeling for many years. I’ve been a huge admirer of the Institute’s work, and I look forward to working more closely with IIASA in the future.

I’ve been tasked by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with helping to organize a global network of problem solving on sustainable development. This initiative is called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). IIASA will be a very important member and I would say leader of that effort, and IIASA’s Director General, Pavel Kabat, is a member of the leadership council of the SDSN. We have already begun to strategize on this with Pavel Kabat, IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and many of IIASA’s world class researchers. There’s a tremendous timely opportunity to work with governments around the world and work with the United Nations to help identify safe pathways ahead.