It is easy to be pessimistic about our future as democracies struggle to deal with a rolling polycrisis and ignore existential challenges.
But despite the huge risks, we are optimistic about the long-term future for humanity. Why? At the start of the recent New York Climate Week, we presented a new analysis to the UN, SDGs for All, that outlined what it would take to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. The first point we made was that it is possible to achieve the goals. Certainly, we can’t achieve them by 2030 given current progress, but the goals are feasible.
Fifty years ago when The Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth the world had no idea how to end poverty. We do now. We had no idea how to end hunger. We do now. We had no idea how to prevent exponential population growth humanely. We do now. And we had no idea how to run a global economy on clean energy. We do now. This should be empowering. As John Maynard Keynes often said, whatever is technically possible is economically possible.
Of course, there is no denying that the world currently faces profound risks. Our work shows two potential future scenarios. In the first scenario, Too Little Too Late, the world continues pretty much as today, making incremental progress on poverty and climate change. The resulting climate change is catastrophic for humanity. We almost certainly cross dangerous tipping points with consequences for humanity lasting thousands of years. While we know the temperature will keep rising, what is less known or understood is that inequality, too, will keep rising within countries contributing to rising social tensions. This will render democracies more fragile and make it more difficult to govern effectively. These two factors – climate and inequality – interact to create a vicious cycle of despair and dysfunction. This is the future we must avoid.
In the second scenario, the Giant Leap, the world invests 2-4% of GDP in five extraordinary turnarounds relating to gender empowerment, ending poverty, reducing inequality, creating a sustainable global food system with healthy diets, and of course, moving to clean energy.
In this scenario, an additional $8.8 trillion is spent globally on public services per year by 2050, for example on health, education, social security and infrastructure compared with Too Little Too Late. This is important. If we do not address the root causes of social dysfunction – profound economic insecurity – we will be unable to build stable democracies with governments empowered to take long term decisions that benefit people and the planet. Everyone must feel the benefits of the world’s enormous wealth. And everyone must feel economic security during a time of unprecedented transformation.
Equally, key mechanisms to reduce inequality include progressive income tax, a wealth tax and global approaches to corporation and personal taxation to avoid a race to the bottom. We also propose a universal basic dividend. The companies and consumers most responsible for depleting the global commons should pay for it and the money raised distributed to all in society.
In the Giant Leap scenario, poverty reaches a record low of just 7% of the global population compared with an unconscionable 20% if the world continues on today’s economic path. This is achieved by essential reforms of the international finance system. We strongly endorse Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s proposals to make the International Monetary Fund and World Bank fit for the 21st century.
Greenhouse gas emissions fall precipitously, stabilising temperature at a level significantly below the Too Little Too Late scenario. However, despite these positive outcomes, we emphasise that even with a Giant Leap, the world is unable to stabilise temperatures close to 1.5°C, in our model at least. This may not come as a great surprise given the world is now dangerously close to this temperature today. However, stabilising below 2°C is certainly attainable and easily affordable. While any overshoot of climate targets is alarming, the Giant Leap scenario puts the world in a better position to eventually remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to lower global temperature to close to 1.5°C.
We cannot promise utopia and we certainly cannot achieve the SDGs by 2030, but, with economic systems change, we strongly believe we can create societies more resilient to shocks. We can build robust democracies able to take long-term decisions for the benefit of the majority of people. And we can dramatically reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.
Essentially, we argue the SDGs can largely be achieved through the Earth4All turnarounds and the policy levers we outline to drive those turnarounds. These are the essential elements of a global rescue plan for the SDGs. However, we cannot cherry-pick the policy turnarounds. If they are to generate real impact, they must be implemented simultaneously and synergistically, and at a speed and scale that we have never seen before.