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Ten years of the WBGU’s (German Advisory Council on Global Change) flagship report ‘World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability’ – a constructive critique and a look at the dynamics of change over the past ten years

Designing transformation processes requires knowledge of the times and own dynamics of the systems concerned

Ten years ago today, the German Advisory Council on Global Change published the flagship report ‘World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability’. The report was well received at the time and regarded as a catalyst for a transformation towards a sustainable world. The recent discussion paper – Grundlagen sozial-ökologischer Transformationen: Gesellschaftsvertrag, Global Governance und die Bedeutung der Zeit. Eine konstruktive Kritik des WBGU-Gutachtens ‘Welt im Wandel – Gesellschaftsvertrag für eine Große Transformation’ (Fundamentals of Social-Ecological Transformations: Social Contract, Global Governance and the Meaning of Time. A Constructive Critique of the WBGU Flagship Report ‘World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability’) – by ZEW Mannheim together with the German Energy Agency (dena) and authors from Heidelberg University shows which of the required changes have been implemented and how the report is to be assessed.

The discussion paper takes a close look at what has changed in the past ten years and to what extent the core demands of the WBGU report at the time have played a role in this. The aim of the report was to lay the foundation for a world of sustainable economic activity. To this end, it formulated a catalogue of urgently needed changes in order to initiate a Great Transformation similar in scope to the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society during the Industrial Revolution. For this purpose, the plan was to establish a global social contract and implement comprehensive sustainable policies within ten years – that is, by today.

Neither the establishment of a global social contract nor the high expectations placed on global governance have played a decisive role in shaping the climate policy successes of the past decade. These expectations failed due to their lack of feasibility. The Paris Agreement on climate change, which was adopted in 2015, and its subsequent successful measures were able to take effect precisely because they abandoned demands of this kind. For example, the discussion paper shows that the Paris Agreement adopted a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down approach. This has allowed the participating states to choose and shape their own path towards achieving the goals.

Understanding time is crucial
When assessing the WBGU’s approach to shaping transformations, it is important to look at its understanding of time. For the WBGU, there is only one linear, homogeneous time that applies equally to nature and to all societies. This narrow understanding of time means that within the dynamics of nature, economy, politics and society, neither the possibilities for action nor the limitations on action can be realistically assessed. All we need to do is see that it is literally ‘five minutes to midnight’ and time is running out and questions about the political and economic feasibility of the necessary measures in the given time are pushed into the background, as is the challenge of gaining social acceptance for these measures within a short period of time. When it comes to environmental and climate policy, it is crucial that the ecological, economic and social contexts are shaped by their own intrinsic times. This means that social, economic and ecological processes have their own dynamics, time structures and time requirements. Achieving a democratic majority for measures takes a certain amount of time, the restructuring of an energy system takes decades (even in a modern society) and the development of new, climate-friendly technologies can also take a long time – not to mention the changes in ecological systems.

These intrinsic times need to be taken into account in order to find good solutions for climate policy challenges that meet the complex requirements. This makes it clear that shaping a sustainable economy is not one Great Transformation. Instead, different actors in different places are working at different speeds on many socio-ecological transformations that need to be understood and shaped. This analysis not only allows us to derive a perspective for the challenges ahead; it also raises the hope that the challenges can be successfully overcome.

Andreas Kuhlmann, Chief Executive of dena and one of the co-authors of the discussion paper explains: ‘The authors of the WBGU report are key drivers of the energy transition and climate protection. From today’s perspective, it is worth carrying out in retrospect a constructive and critical analysis of this widely perceived and discussed report. It is important to look back, particularly with regard to everything we have planned for the future. In doing so, the real dynamics become apparent and you can see which commitments and specifications might stand in the way of these. To look ahead, it is important to open our eyes to the actual diversity of the dynamics of change and the associated requirements for the economy, science, politics and society. The path towards climate neutrality requires us to make the effort to deal with all the dynamics of complex systems.

A look at the past ten years shows how dynamic, ramified and complex the energy transition and climate protection are. The term ‘Great Transformation’ alone cannot capture this. Important driving forces such as Greta Thunberg are not adequately taken into account in such a concept.’

Download discussion paper:

"Groundwork for Social-Ecologi-cal Transformations: The Social Contract, Global Governance and the Meaning of Time.Constructive Criticism of the WBGU Report World in Transi-tion – a Social Contract for a Great Transformation", by Reiner Manstetten, Universität Heidelberg; Andreas Kuhlmann, dena; Malte Faber, Universität Heidelberg and Marc Frick, ZEW.

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