World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Vision 2050, 2012

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Once in a while something really pulls you up short. For us, the central graphic in Vision 2050 was such a moment.

Once in a while something brings you up short. The graphic above, adapted from the centre-fold of WBCSD’s Vision 2050 was such a moment for us. Vision 2050 presents a clear vision for global sustainability by 2050, and nine parallel paths towards it, along with an extraordinarily demanding list of “must haves” required for each by 2020. All of the above graphic was explored in the report.

By 2010 we were well aware that the responses to the global challenge over the coming decades lacked firm goals, and fell woefully short of what was required, and we were looking for viable interim steps along the way to focus effort and measure progress. Vision 2050, we felt, made a good start. Two additional points struck us about this chart: first, just how tough the 2020 “must haves” would be to deliver, and second — given its radical message — that Vision 2050 was published on behalf of some of the largest companies on the planet, the WBCSD being the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. It is a useful starting point for working out goals, “must haves” and the role of ‘Future Business’ in bringing about a world where 10 billion people can live well. Vision 2050 is summarised below as analysed in the project Future Business, Long Finance.

Vision 2050’s Vision Summary

… there will be a different economic reality, with economic growth decoupled from ecosystem destruction & material consumption. Notions of personal prosperity will have changed, anchored in long-term considerations such as personal and societal well-being. Global trade, finance, innovation and governance will all be spread more equitably …

WBCSD’s vision is of 9 billion people living well, and within the limits of one planet by 2050 (we use the same UN projections, but emphasise the core range, of 9–10 billion). Everyone will be able to satisfy their needs, live ‘a good life’, participate in the community, and better control their fate. Diverse and interdependent countries and cultures will be universally connected, knowledgeable about one another and, in consequence, more empathetic. Societies will be forward looking, problem solving, resilient and experimental, working together and adaptable in a fast-changing world.

According to WBCSD, there will be a different economic reality, with economic growth decoupled from ecosystem destruction and material consumption. Notions of personal prosperity will have changed, anchored in long-term considerations such as personal and societal well-being. Global trade, finance, innovation and governance will all be spread more equitably. Multi-partner governance occurs at citizen, stakeholder, community, city and regional levels, with nations pooling sovereignty to manage international challenges. Such governance frames market-based innovations and deployment of solutions and ensure that those who benefit also pay the costs. Businesses will compete over sustainable solutions delivering better value to users. Society will deal with climate change through integrated strategies that include agriculture, forestry, water, urban transport, energy and communications. Unrenewable resource use will be substituted with renewable resources used at renewable rates. Closed loop networked designs will help people live well off one planet, reducing the need for primary resource extraction. Ecosystem services are valued, maintained and enhanced, and biodiversity flourishes. Companies prospering in this evolving workplace will have done so by leading a radical transformation of corporate values and market structures, and by helping to nurture a more creative, talented and flexible society where ‘Social enterprise’ business models have become widespread.

Vision 2050’s Way to 2050

Having a clear vision is important, but difficult to relate to current reality. So a path is required, with stepping stones to the destination, each of which is economically and socially viable in its own right. WBCSD identified two phases (the turbulent teens to 2020, and the transformation time 2020-2050), with essential 2020 ‘must have’ milestones along nine paths (ranging from people’s values to materials) in this transition. As outlined below, the implications are challenging.

Two phases

… timely action is only likely if, during this decade, there is a growing and widely shared sense of crisis.

WBCSD called this decade the ‘Turbulent Teens’ requiring three sequential stages of crisis, clarity, and action. The success or otherwise of this response will shape events over the following thirty years. According to Vision 2050, timely action is only likely if, during this decade, there is a growing and widely shared sense of crisis arising from recognition of the scale of the problem; of the multiple changes simultaneously required; and of long lead-in times and hence urgency of action now to minimise later disruption.

Following to the route-map offered by WBCSD, Turbulent Teen concepts will mature into solutions during the Transformation Time of 2020-2050. During these three decades growing confidence in the true value-based economy catalyses an era of innovation and social change. A different perspective amongst businesses leaders becomes increasingly obvious. Co-creation, open source, and other types of intellectual property regimes will exist alongside traditional licensing and patenting. Successful businesses adapt to changing markets and regulatory environments, learning when to lead and when to follow. The need for closed-loop systems creates new business opportunities. There are continuing shifts in governance systems, markets and business models.

Success will breed further success. Newly competitive, cleaner and more decentralised energy technologies will be developed and disseminated, complementing innovations in centralised systems. There are more efficient homes, farms, buildings and vehicles, more low carbon and renewable energy systems, and smarter electricity grids. Increased food production efficiency, healthier diets and reduced footprint will all help societies to meet rising overall demands for food. More water is recycled, and human activities in ecosystems are better understood and better managed.

… promises on the social dimensions of sustainable development will come good between 2030 and 2050 …

According to WBCSD, promises on the social dimensions of sustainable development will come good between 2030 and 2050. Former least-developed countries thrive in open trading regimes. Education, healthy living and inclusion accelerate this change. There are sufficient jobs and high levels of productivity, achieved via technical advances and more skilled labour. Lifestyles will increasingly and demonstrably be able to support ‘living well within the limits of one planet’.

Nine Paths

WBCSD breaks down ‘the path’ to 2050 into nine parallel paths, each with a vision; with ‘must haves’ to be achieved during the turbulent teens to 2020; and with the follow through over 30 subsequent ‘transitional’ years. These are paths for people’s values, for human development, for the economy, for agriculture, for forestry, for energy and power, for buildings, for mobility and for materials. These are summarised in the graphic at the top of the page, and listed below.

The headline points for WBCSD’s ‘nine paths’. There is much more about why WBCSD came to these conclusions in the original report.

  • The WBCSD’s 2050 vision for people’s values is that of ‘one world, people and planet’ lifestyles; the necessary achievement during the turbulent teens will be understanding and encouraging change through co-operation. The 2020 ‘must haves’ are of changing attitudes to success at personal, national and international levels, with the transforming result that sustainable living becomes mainstream.
  • For human development, the vision is that at least the basic needs of all are met; the turbulent teens are a period of building trust, and developing entrepreneurialism and inclusiveness. The 2020 ‘must haves’ are improved legal, governance and educational systems where people can readily work and create businesses, without being exploited or exploiting others. The transformation time involves human development working ‘with the grain’ of ecosystems services, knowledgeable use of renewable resources, and the evolution of social enterprises, to create sustainable value.
  • The economic vision is one of true values, true costs and true profits that reflect well-being and sustainability. The turbulent teens redefine ‘progress’ resulting in a 2020 ‘must have’ framework of ‘true value’ metrics of resource use, environmental and social impact ratings integrated into supply chain and consumer product evaluation, and company and national accounts. These true value metrics and methods are used during the transformation time to increasingly drive inclusive markets.
  • The agricultural vision for 2050 is of enough food, water and biofuels for everyone; the turbulent teens and the 2020 ‘must haves’ concern the cultivation of a new ‘knowledge-intensive’ green revolution (focussed on skills and techniques rather than access to materials, machinery etc.), rather than its input-intensive predecessor.
  • The forestry vision is one of recovery and regeneration, with the turbulent teens seeing carbon incentives driving progress; the 2020 ‘must haves’ are of a wider appreciation of the importance of forests for climate and natural resources; leading to a growing momentum during the transformation time for forest protection and efficient production.
  • The vision for energy and power is a secure and sufficient supply of low carbon energy, with the turbulent teens seeing a tilting and levelling of the energy playing field; with a 2020 ‘must have’ of an international agreement early in the decade on managing greenhouse gases and setting a global price for carbon; and with the transformation time seeing a peaking and decline of greenhouse emissions.
  • The vision for buildings is of close to zero net energy constructions, with the turbulent teens seeing a decisive turn towards energy efficiency, driven by the 2020 ‘must have’ realisation that buildings last a long time, requiring an early framework that anticipates the needs of 2050, with the transformation times seeing smarter buildings and wiser users.
  • The WBCSD vision for mobility is less overall need, and universal access to safe, low-impact mobility. The turbulent teens adopt a truly holistic approach, with 2020 ‘must haves’ of infrastructure investment responding to changing demand for passenger and freight transport, along with better integrated urban planning, and alternative drive-trains and fuels. This is fully delivered during the transformation time.
  • And the vision for materials is not a particle of waste, with the turbulent teens doing more with less, driven by the 2020 ‘must have’ of a carbon price and increasing use of other forms of true-value pricing, this continuing through the transformation time, effectively closing the loop by 2050.


… the challenges … will have been for ‘sunset’ industries … For those who displace them … it will be their making & opportunity … & they will be bemused about the hesitation

If the transition is successful, and looking back from 2050 the challenges we now see will be only for ‘sunset’ industries; those with vested interests in the status quo; or those fixed in the past and unable to adapt — in the same way as we now look at slave-owners; for those who didn’t care about health and safety in the nineteenth century; or who opposed better working conditions, pensions,in the early twentieth, or flexible working conditions and parental leave more recently. For those who displace them, and who will occupy the key positions in the 2050 economy and society, it will have been their making and their opportunity. They will then represent conventional wisdom, and simply be bemused about the hesitation: why it took so long to take what is to them the obvious action. Vision 2050 is upbeat in its presentation: the path to 2050 is as much about opportunities as much as it is about problems, and in making sure that those with vested interests do not succeed in portraying these as common interests.

Vision 2050, coming from a business perspective, also has a lot to say about the shape of Future Business. Entrepreneurs come from all walks of life, looking for simple opportunities to disruptive reshuffles that create new ways of doing, from which they can generate income and security — whether they are setting up as a local baker or as a multinational venture. More specifically, WBCSD’s Vision 2050 argues, as pressure increase, that the business environment will increasingly favour those who take ethical, social and green behaviour as the norm, convinced these produce the greatest opportunities for long-term wealth generation for society as a whole, wealth itself being defined in such terms. Trend bending imperatives are a major disruptive reshuffle so, providing the responses are credible and policy is consistently applied, Social Entrepreneurs and business in general stand to play a powerful future role.

WBCSD’s Vision 2050 explores these opportunities in three ‘domains’: The first is ‘Building and transformation’, the second — overlapping the first — is ‘improving biocapacity and managing ecosystems’ (subdivided into Cities, Infrastructure, and Living and Livelihood). The third, encompassing the first two, but also with wider opportunities, is ‘helping change happen’. These are summarised in the graphic and list below.

WBCSD broke down their analysis of the opportunities into three areas: Building and Transformation, Improving biocapacity and managing ecosystems and Helping Change Happen.

Building and Transformation

Building and transformation can further be broken down into three areas: cities, infrastructure, and ‘livelihoods and lifestyles’.

The need to renew old cities, and to create anew, has massive infrastructural investment implications, with expenditure of perhaps US$ 40 trillion by 2030, including water, energy and communications. When it comes to renewal, one size does not fit all. WBCSC came up with four types of cities, Brown, Red, Green and Blue, with different challenges and opportunities. Older Brown Cities, such as London and Seoul, will see gradual development, replacing outdated infrastructure. Their assets are their cultural history, and adequate infrastructure and buildings. The opportunities include new construction and retrofitting of buildings, water and sewerage, and cleaner energy. Explosively growing Red [hot] Cities, such as Mumbai and Soweto, have had rapid unplanned development in response to economic growth, population expansion or influx. Housing and infrastructure are inadequate. Their assets are their resilience, diversity and ability to manage scarcity. The opportunities are affordable and low ecological impact housing, water and sewage, and access to reliable energy. Green Cities, such as Masdar and Dongtang, are new constructions designed with the environment in mind and optimised for sustainability. Their asset is a clean start. The opportunities are for holistic design, closed loop water and sewerage, and smarter systems for energy. The development characteristics of Blue Cities, such as New York and Dhaka, come from their at-risk locations, on the coast. You could say their ‘asset’ is the necessity to prepare for climate change, and the opportunities are adapting buildings, and maintaining supplies of water and energy. All cities will see opportunities for waste mining, recycling and collection.

Beyond cities, many trillions of dollars of global infrastructure investments will be made, this decade alone, in energy, water, waste management and transport.

And beyond physical infrastructure, we also need to build and transform livelihoods and lifestyles. Education needs to create local capacity, take advantage of latent talent, including women, and develop higher education. Health needs to focus on preparation, prevention and care. Products and services need to be adapted so that older people can use them more easily, and generally there is a huge amount that needs to be done to make sustainable choices easier.

Improving biocapacity and managing ecosystems

Improving biocapacity: If population and diet projections materialise, agriculture must grow at 2% per annum to feed and cloth the world’s population in 2050, an extraordinary rate similar to that of the green revolution of the 1950s and 60s. Such increases may be impossible, but is aspiring to obesity-inducing western diets an essential goal? The projections imply an agricultural and forestry increase of 70–100% in currently developing countries by 2050, and investment roughly 50% greater than today. It will require extraordinarily efficient water and fertiliser use, new machinery and farm infrastructure (such as irrigation, eliminating soil erosion and damage), new markets for farmers (implying better logistics), beyond farm gate infrastructure (including restoring aquifers), new crop varieties and crop diversity (resistant to pests, drought, disease, and generally less demanding of resources) and new land brought into cultivation (without causing other harm). Forestry will be important for raw materials, carbon capture and biodiversity.

Protecting and restoring nature True value pricing creates space for biodiversity. Precedents include certified products in forestry and agriculture, carbon capture for forests, soils and other habitats, biodiversity offsets (providing these are unambiguous net gains, independently assessed and widely endorsed, from improving one area in exchange for degradation elsewhere), payments for ecosystem services (such as water and nutrient retention, watershed, storm and erosion protection) and for genetic resources (including access and benefit sharing). According to Vision 2050, managing for biodiversity can also address rural poverty, and create employment ranging from unskilled to professional. Greater awareness at a personal and business level, stimulates responses ranging from (economically valuable) wildlife enterprises through to quantitative environmental accounting, certification, labelling and training. More directly, the availability of local ‘green lungs’ and ‘blue ribbons’ are important for physical and mental health, in turn creating primary and secondary economic opportunities.

Helping Change Happen

Going beyond the changes discussed already, two overarching mechanisms are required for Vision 2050, to which we devote separate sections on this website:

First is a need for a ‘long finance approach to investment, and new forms of risk sharing and transfer (going beyond traditional insurance).

Second is the emerging need for ‘change-makers, who actively and strategically act as match-makers, bringing together businesses, investors, philanthropists, researchers and other actors, providing a framework to help partners realise necessary but often challenging opportunities.

Beyond Vision 2050

WBCSD accepted that implementation of Vision 2050 is far from certain; and that risks abound. It would be naïve to believe it will be easy or quick to agree common action. Some of the hurdles and challenges .

WBCSD accepts that there is no precedent for Vision 2050; that implementation is uncertain; and that risks abound. It would be naïve to believe it will be easy or quick to agree common action. Climate change demonstrates that more or better information does not necessarily result in agreement. Proxy arguments over facts may not resolve disputes that are really about underlying values, beliefs and power. Incorporation of externalities into price is unlikely if current economic, policy and social paradigms prevail. Fear of unemployment could lead to social unrest. Technological lock-in may come from ‘hard wiring’ over zealous policies that attempt to ‘pick winners’, and innovation can increase social division and risk. Global governance is required to address global problems: but can we agree on how the system should work? Can everybody be a winner? Will historic winners believe they gain more than they risk by change?

Vision 2050 assumes that global food production and trade are essential, and that local subsidies and trade protection undermine this. Water is crucial, yet climate change may reduce availability in some regions, including parts of Africa and Southern India. Halting deforestation may not be possible. Even with political will, action requires innovations at unprecedented rates, and needs public support. The demand for solutions could lead to the reckless selection and implementation. Market failure and a lack of incentives could result in buildings built or maintained to unsustainable standards. Vehicle technology may be insufficient to overcome the impact of freight and passenger growth, behaviour may not change, integrated transport and urban planing may be insufficient, and good communications may not reduce travel. The vision requires material efficiencies to improve at extraordinary rates by 2050 but high costs and recycling difficulties may prove insurmountable.

Excerpts from Future Business, Long Finance, 2012, MMG