The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by all countries in 2015, called for shifting the world economy towards a sustainable path by 2030. While an increasing number of countries, businesses and cities take action, the key question now is how to drive changes at the required scale to meet the SDGs by 2030 and avoid a catastrophic climate scenario while it is still possible.
More than 800 decision-makers, innovators, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens gathered last week in Bonn to address that question at the first Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development, an event co-organized by the UN SDG Action Campaign and a group of think tanks, including WRI. The Festival was dubbed a “playable” conference: It brought together a diverse set of actors to share ideas through interactive discussions and simulation games on critical decision-making processes for the SDGs. During three days, participants brainstormed solutions that could scale up progress on three key challenges: reducing inequalities, fostering sustainable growth and mitigating crises.
One message strongly came out during the day organized by WRI’s SDG Delivery Team: There is a robust economic case for shifting towards sustainability, and now is the time for disruptive, monumental changes—not incremental ones.
Participants flagged four major shifts urgently needed to foster a sustainable economy:
1. Governments can’t drive economic transformations without transforming their policy-making frameworks.
Long-term strategies forecasting the desired situation in 2050 so you can backcast to required policies now are instrumental for planning policy and investment choices necessary for achieving the SDGs. Governments are also responsible for setting sustainable development targets that send clear signals to all economic sectors and can be regularly upgraded based on technological progress. Moving beyond limited consultations to ensure inclusive vision-setting and policy-planning is also essential to build national consensus, especially in a context of rising populism.
Society’s Commitments to Sustainable Development: Finland We Want in 2050 reflects this new approach to policy-making. Unlike a traditional government-centered, short-term strategy, the government developed this plan with companies, civil society actors and citizens to create a shared vision for a common future, which enables long-term planning and assigns responsibilities to all actors. Putting sustainability at the core of all policies also requires whole-of-government approaches and the systematic consideration of policy interlinkages. Sri Lanka’s planning strategy, which maps linkages between national sustainable development targets and fosters coordination between all ministries and local governments, as well as Mexico’s screening of potential trade-offs and co-benefits between existing policies and sustainable development and climate goals provide inspiring models.
2. We can’t wait any longer to build natural capital into economic metrics and accounting.
Environmental sustainability, together with human well-being, should be integrated in the definition and traditional measures of growth, such as GDP. Kumi Naidoo, launch director of the Africa Civil Society Centre and previous international executive director of Greenpeace, referred to GDP as a “Gross Domestic Problem,” the title of Lorenzo Fioramonti’s 2013 book, because this metric tells us nothing about the sustainability of our development models and how they could improve the quality of our lives. Mainstreaming carbon pricing, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, and natural capital accounting (which measures a country’s natural assets and includes ecosystems’ values in national economic accounts) are needed to provide a level playing field for all competitors. These practices would benefit sustainable businesses, address the short-term bias of investors’ decisions, and make sustainable products affordable for all.
3. Innovations should be radical – not incremental.
If 9.5 billion people adopt existing consumption and production patterns by 2050, we would need four Earths to sustain them. In other words, we need to fundamentally change the way businesses, cities, agriculture and consumers use resources.
New business models have to respond to this massive demand increase through disruptive innovations, like the product-service economy, which shifts focus from producing new goods to offering services, and the collaborative consumption model, which challenges the assumption that consumers should own rather than rent or share their goods. Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, called for urban planning strategies that would turn cars into tomorrow’s cigarettes. The French Ministry of Agriculture also presented its 2014 Act for agroecological farming, an initiative that reduces the use of pesticides, fertilizers and antibiotics; promotes natural growing methods; and supports biodiversity and organic production. Participants also expressed the need to shift diets away from the most environmentally destructive foods like beef toward plant-based, sustainable options.
4. Consumers should be more empowered to take action.
Participants called for better information—such as clearer labels or ingredient lists on food products—and greater consideration of users’ roles in shaping business models and co-designing solutions. For instance, the EU pilot project, Showe-it, conceived an app for energy efficiency based on the findings of sociological analysis of households’ expectations and needs to monitor and adjust their energy consumption. While similar tools are quickly abandoned within a few weeks, this app has been effectively used to lower household energy use.
This first edition shows this annual event can play a strong role in raising awareness, spreading solutions, building partnerships and enhancing scrutiny of government actions. It is worth exploring how its outcomes could inform the UN’s High Level Political Forum, which annually reviews countries’ progress towards the SDGs, as well as how it could catalyze new initiatives for the SDGs, just as the Global Climate Action Agenda does for the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Tackling big problems requires big ideas—so let’s keep them coming.