Famous physicist Niels Bohr once said “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
Through foresight, instead of doing the impossible and predicting a single plausible future, we imagine different alternative scenarios of a sustainable EU in 2050. Imagining alternative paths towards 2050 helps us to draw up strategic areas of interventions to reach our goals in 2050.
Sometimes the journey is even more important than the destination. This is especially true for far reaching transformations that are needed in our societies, economies and governance systems as we engage in our fight against climate change while ensuring a fair and prosperous EU. Globally, the EU is in the driving seat of this combat with its ambition of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, but what exactly this sustainable EU will look like and how we will reach it, is not yet fully known. While there are several clear-cut targets for the green transition, as well as the limits set by nature itself, we are still reckoning with the social and economic changes needed for sustainability.
To aid policymakers in designing resilient and future-proof strategies, researchers have embarked on an innovative foresight process, envisioning four distinct versions of a sustainable EU in 2050 and the different pathways to get there starting from today. These visions and pathways shed light on the trade-offs and synergies, providing invaluable insights for the path before us. The results of this remarkable thought experiment, outlined in great detail in this recently published Science for Policy report, which fed into this year’s Strategic Foresight Report.
Four types of a sustainable EU in 2050
The four versions of a sustainable EU in 2050 invite us to imagine different possible futures. In one of these potential future worlds, change is driven by strong state intervention, with a focus on sustainability, social and economic policies enforced through tight regulation and ample social services. Conversely, another future scenario describes a society where the private sector’s individualist, entrepreneurial spirit spearheads sustainability transition efforts through technological innovation, in which the state assumes a guiding, incentivising role.
A third vision presents a world grappling with ongoing, permanent crises, where the EU's primary objective revolves around mitigating and managing climate change risks within a deteriorating geopolitical reality. In stark contrast, the fourth scenario envisions a society driven by citizens taking matters into their own hands, striving for an egalitarian society centred on wellbeing and sufficiency. This vision emphasises local solutions, solidarity, and direct democracy as fundamental principles.
But what do these four, very different futures have in common? By analysing the possible pathways that can take us there, JRC researchers revealed some common key areas of intervention, which can allow the EU to reach sustainability by 2050.
Strategic areas of intervention
One critical aspect is the need to address growing discontent and inequality with a new social contract, which can help tackle pressing challenges and transform the economy. This radical shift is crucial for the wellbeing and participation of all members of society, while ensuring intergenerational fairness and thus taking into account the needs of future generations.
To achieve this, redefining wellbeing is paramount, by moving beyond material wealth and considering quality of life, health, social life and environmental factors. Developing and prioritising essential public services and improving working conditions can pave the way for fair and sustainable economic development.
Governance plays an equally pivotal role in this transformation. To achieve sustainability, public policy would need to undergo a revamp, with redesigned finance and tax systems to tackle climate change, inequality, and phase out unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Embracing and innovating multi-level governance and collaboration with the private sector can effectively harness resources and promote the systemic change necessary for a sustainable EU.
People and the economy become key drivers of sustainability. Embracing circular and collaborative business models can help drive the green transition, requiring changes in current practices and supported by adapted policies. Education must equally adapt to equip individuals with the skills and competencies needed for sustainable lifestyles and to adjust to the coming transformations, ensuring equal opportunities for all Europeans.
From a global perspective, the EU must navigate a complex world with evolving economic and geopolitical dynamics. Industries must adapt to new value chains, promoting resilience and exploring emerging sectors. We can navigate these challenges and take advantage of the opportunities by developing the skills of citizens and relocating strategic activities. Through reforming multilateralism and international partnerships, we can pave the way for global sustainability transitions and sustainable development in a decolonised context.
To reach these results, JRC researchers used an inclusive and participatory foresight process including two in-person workshops with a broad range of experts, online workshops, consultations with representatives from Member States and Commission services, and bilateral meetings with experts from various organisations.
The 2023 Strategic Foresight Report
Building on the results on this work, the Commission adopted the fourth annual Strategic Foresight Report, [link towards the Report webpage], focusing on ‘Sustainability and wellbeing at the heart of Europe’s Open Strategic Autonomy’. This political communication provides an overview of the intertwined social and economic challenges the EU will encounter in its path towards sustainability. On this basis, it highlights ten areas for action where the EU needs to act to successfully navigate the transition. This should ultimately bolster Europe’s open strategic autonomy and global position in a race towards a net-zero economy.
This analysis is particularly relevant, as the EU is engaged in a profound and ambitious transition to achieve climate neutrality and sustainability in the next few decades. To succeed on this pathway, the EU will need to address several challenges. This will require making choices that will affect our societies and economies at an unmatched pace and scale. At the same time, the transition will create new opportunities for European citizens and businesses.
The purpose of Annual Strategic Foresight Reports is to conduct foresight exercises on forward-looking issues to explore ways to achieve the aspirations outlined in the Commission’s political priorities, analyse key trends, risks and emerging issues and define topics of critical interest for the EU. They are linked with the priorities of the annual State of the Union addresses, subsequent Commission Work Programmes and multi-annual programming.
- Publication date
- 6 July 2023
- Joint Research Centre
- JRC portfolios
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