“We have waited far too long for politicians to act”

There are many reasons why implementation of the 2030 Agenda is stalled. One reason, believes CDE Director Thomas Breu: “We don’t just need alarm bells – we also need positive stories and narratives that show something is possible.” Science can and should play a strong role in providing such stories. In addition, a coalition of science and society is required to bring about the necessary sweeping changes.

“We lack the knowledge of how to get from the current state to the target state”: Thomas Breu. Photo: zvg

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Five years after the 2030 Agenda was adopted by the UN, you asked the following rhetorical question in a scientific publication on implementing the Agenda: “Where to begin?” That was just before the Covid pandemic. Why did you ask a question then, instead of launching a call like “Let’s get started!”?

It was already clear at that time that implementation of the Agenda was way behind schedule and that, at the current rate, 50 per cent of the goals would not be achieved. Even the question “Where do we start?” remained open. What was and is certain, however, is that the 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda cannot all be tackled at the same time. So, priorities must be set. With our contribution, we wanted to identify which system-relevant targets have the greatest positive effects, but also which targets have a negative impact on other targets. That was one consideration that led us to choose this title. Additionally, it was apparent that no one truly felt responsible for working directly towards implementation of the 2030 Agenda. So, it was also important for us to discuss who should become active in what way, and how we can forge coalitions between politics, business, civil society, and science.


“In terms of implementing the 2030 Agenda, we’re flying blind”


So, 50 per cent of the goals of the 2030 Agenda are achievable?

If we continue to push recent developments forward, there’s a chance. In reality, however, we’re flying blind with implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The monitoring systems are insufficient and often operate with indicators that are simply unusable. But our main criticism is that there is no reliable relative metric showing us where we ought to be versus where we actually are in implementing the 2030 Agenda.

It can hardly be due to lack of knowledge that this is the case and that we’re not really making progress towards the sustainability goals. Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said recently: “Humanity has the knowledge and the skill to get out of the trouble we’re in.” So, what’s holding us back?

As we know, more knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to more action. And: I’d outright disagree with Dan Smith’s statement. It is incomplete. We do have lots of knowledge that isn’t put to good use. But this knowledge is often descriptive: We analyse how things were in the past, make calculations – and, at most, draw conclusions and make future projections, for example regarding global warming. This is all great. But – and this the real problem: We don’t know how to get from the current state to the target state – that is, if we even know the target state in the first place.


“Change can’t be implemented without societal agreement”


At least with the climate, the 1.5 degrees Celsius target is well known.

Yes, 1.5 degrees is a social and political target that is backed by science. But such clear numbers exist for only a few of the 2030 Agenda goals. Even with respect to 1.5 degrees, we still haven’t clarified how we achieve a net-zero society that’s capable of mitigating or managing the climate crisis. It is exactly this knowledge – the transformation knowledge – that we lack. It’s crucial that we identify the possibilities for action and simultaneously evaluate the acceptability of different options for all sectors of society. Change can’t be implemented or enforced without societal agreement.

How can we generate acceptance for sweeping changes when facts are increasingly less likely to be recognized as such?

If we look to the past, to points where something really moved or transformed, what we see are instances of “frequency densification” (German: Häufigkeitsverdichtungen), as historian Jürgen Osterhammel calls them. In other words, particular ideas are taken up with increasing frequency and in more and more places until a tipping point is reached, and a new normal emerges.

In terms of sustainability, we have waited far too long for politicians to act, and we’re still doing it. But politics alone don’t initiate anything – at most they react to social movements and new narratives. To date, however, these narratives – including in science – have focused too much on sounding the alarm. This is important, but it’s not enough to motivate people to do something new.


“Science barely registers in politics and society”


Then what do we need?

People are distressed and overwhelmed by all the crises. They bury their heads in the sand and hope the politicians will do something. These, in turn, think the business community should act, and so on. So, we have to ask ourselves – especially in science – how we can come up with positive stories and narratives, which are inspiring and show that something is possible, and even fun.

What would be a positive narrative that could set something in motion?

I have to admit that this example surprised even me: reducing working hours to a four-day week, with the same pay. When the first studies on this were published at CDE – focusing on Switzerland – I thought the idea was really convincing, especially because it goes to the root of the problem: our model of endless quantitative growth. At the same time, I was sure it had no chance in Switzerland. But apparently there was enough momentum to make the idea socially acceptable. Iceland adopted the model in 2021, Spain and New Zealand are testing it, and now even various companies in Switzerland are implementing it.

You call upon science to develop positive narratives. Why science?

To put it simply: science barely registers in politics and society, and societal and political debates make it into science far too infrequently. I think this is because the scientific community understands little or nothing about how politicians function and what they need. Politicians, on the other hand, mainly focus on short-term goals and fear that science might undermine the power of politics. Both understand too little about the others’ needs and the contexts in which they operate.


“We have to be careful not to get stuck putting all our faith in purely technical solutions”


One part of the scientific community seeks to continually supply innovations in the form of new technologies that are intended to promote sustainability. There have even been announcements that the climate crisis can be solved by means of technology.

New technologies play a key role in addressing the challenges of sustainable development. However, especially in the West, we have to be very careful not to get stuck putting all our faith in purely technical solutions. On the one hand, new, interesting technologies from science often give rise to spinoffs that fuel new consumer desires. On the other hand, we can’t simply rely on technologies, like geoengineering, which are still in their infancy. Examples include “solar radiation management”, where aerosols are released in the stratosphere to reduce the amount of solar radiation hitting the earth – or ocean fertilization with CO2-binding algae. Trying to “save” the climate this way bears completely unpredictable risks, as recently stated by the German Federal Environment Agency.


“The economy displays the biggest dynamism in terms of the 2030 Agenda”


You don’t hope for much from politics, and you call on science to increasingly generate knowledge to serve the “great transformation”. What about the economy, decidedly one of the main drivers of our current crises?

The economy has long since given up its role as a servant to society. At least up to now, it has pursued endless growth and profit maximization as an end in itself. But at the same time, when it comes to change, I consider it to be the most dynamic partner of the 2030 Agenda. The business community now recognizes that resource-conserving production methods and models are economically appealing. Examples include the circular economy and other efforts to decouple growth from consumption of resources. So, there’s a lot of good things happening. But does it really go beyond tweaking the growth-dependent economic model? With the exception of a few SMEs, there is a lack of courage to address the transition from maximizing short-term profits to optimizing long-term benefits.

Let’s return to a positive narrative: Where do you see the biggest chances for making a difference?

I believe the greatest potential lies in a coalition between science and civil society, combining theoretical and practical knowledge – for example, in citizen councils or forums that collaborate with science. Then science, too, would better understand societal concerns.

Half-time for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

In 2015, UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. What is the status of implementation at half-time? Is there need for a break or must we speed up the pace for the remaining time? In a short interview series, we explore these questions and shed light on certain discussion points from a scientific perspective.


Breu T, Bergöö M, Ebneter L, Pham‑Truffert M, · Bieri S, Messerli P, Ott C, Bader C. (2020). Where to begin? Defining national strategies for implementing the 2030 Agenda: the case of Switzerland, in: Sustainability Science
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