No one can lead sustainability, it is a collective effort of every individual, government and corporation, says Professor Neboijsa Nakicenovic, who co-authored a new report “Transformation to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. The Deputy CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is one of 60 top experts who formulated a roadmap to a liveable future by 2050. But can participation alone achieve a revolutionary transformation already falling seriously behind?


Ralitsa Vassileva discussed the new report with Professor Nakicenovic. You can hear her interview here: 

No one in charge

Professor Neboijsa Nakicenovic says sustainability is a leaderless revolution which defies conventional thinking. This fundamental social transformation is so complex, we are all leaders of our own agenda. Politicians need to set the right incentives, businesses to invest with a sustainable mindset and society commit to specific goals. Sustainability, he insists, is a movement from the bottom up.   

“In the community where I live in Austria, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of the overall strategy for the development of our village. Whether the community will be successful or not I don’t know, but that there is a discussion, is already important.”    

The new report outlines the steps decision-makers and the wider public need to take to transform society and the economy in an unprecedented way. It channels action into six disruptive transformations which include digital revolution, smart cities, decarbonization and responsible consumption.  

Professor Nakicenovic says fundamental change requires placing the UN SDGs at the top of the agenda of every government, business and individual. And the goals need to be kept constantly in the world’s focus. He is pleasantly surprised to see the SDGs where he least expected, like the duty-free shop at St. Petersburg airport last December.

“The SDGs should be a topic at every dinner table… And I think businesses, they will find solutions if it’s on the agenda. If it’s not on the agenda then it will be an evolutionary process who knows in which direction.”

Setting the right direction

Despite the growing awareness, sustainability is off track, having achieved only one-third of what is needed by 2030. So some are asking what is the point of extending the deadline to 2050? Professor Nakicenovic argues taking a longer view helps guide decisions for maximum impact from the start.   

“If you have a long-term vision where humanity should be, because we are not going to achieve everything by 2030, then we can work with more clarity on the short-term policies, measures and actions to be implemented, otherwise you drop off the hill in 2030.“

“I am really worried about chopping up the world into units that work without each other. I think this is going to be a huge barrier to achieving this agenda.”

Taking the right action now also saves money in the long-term, the IIASA scholar insists. He points out how tackling energy transformation without considering related factors like pollution and climate change increases overall costs. A longer view also helps solve social problems like the digital divide which is leaving many behind, he says.

“Whether much of humanity is left behind means that many people will be even worse (off), because they will not have (internet) access themselves. So the digital revolution has to be steered in the right direction.”

Professor Nakicenovic insists helping those losing out is key for the UN agenda. The global problems are so intertwined they require unprecedented cooperation on all levels from the local to the international. And that takes broad public support. That is why he worries about the growing isolationist tendencies around the world.

“I am really worried about chopping up the world into units that work without each other. I think this is going to be a huge barrier to achieving this agenda. Then it doesn’t matter if you pollute lots of carbon dioxide in your country. It’s a small contribution, if you forget that we live on one planet together.”   

Business needs right policies

The 2050 report is one of many dire warnings about the world’s unsustainable path. Course correction is still possible, but delayed action is increasing costs to avoid the worst damage as danger grows. A new study by the UN scientific panel on climate change (IPCC) found the world faces destructive impacts from rising temperatures much sooner than previously expected. The growing risks have prompted business leaders like Unilever chief Paul Polman to call on CEOs to take the lead. Professor Nakicenovic agrees the private sector can turn things around, but on one condition – the public sector creates policies to spur business action on the Sustainable Development Goals. Government incentives must steer investment into key priorities like building infrastructure, environmental protection and public services for a liveable future.

“We need to look beyond the next 12 years to 2050.”

“If you look for example in the energy sector renewable investments are exceedingly high but at the same time we are still investing in the fossils, not investing enough in efficiency. ”

Professor Nakicenovic sees the world at a crossroads: it can take decisive action on the sustainable goals now or continue on its perilous course. But he wants everyone to know industry has revolutionized the global economy before and can do it again. He points out how at the turn of the 20th century, the U.S went from horse buggies to automobiles in just 12 years. New York’s Easter parade was driven by horses in 1901, while it moved with horsepower in 1913. That year was not the end but rather the beginning of the grand transport transformation, he points out. That’s why today we need to look beyond the next 12 years to 2050.