Designing Transformation Processes Requires Knowledge of the Time Structures and Dynamics of the Systems Concerned


ZEW Study on the Tenth Anniversary of the WBGU Flagship Report

A ZEW study examines which measures proposed in the WBGU report have been implemented and how the report is to be assessed in retrospect.

In April 2011, the flagship report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) was published. The report was hailed at the time as an important impetus for a transformation towards a sustainable world. A recent study by ZEW Mannheim together with the German Agency for the Applied Energy Transition (dena) and researchers from Heidelberg University shows which of the demanded measures have been implemented and how the report is to be assessed in retrospect.

The study takes a close look at what has actually changed in the past ten years and to what extent the WBGU report has contributed to greater sustainability. The goal of the report was to lay the foundation for a sustainable economy. To this end, it defined a catalogue of urgent changes that would ultimately trigger a Great Transformation. This transformation would be as comprehensive as the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in the Industrial Revolution. For this purpose, the plan was to establish a global social contract and to effectively implement comprehensive sustainable policies within ten years.

The authors criticise the report by taking stock of the postulated major shift in climate policy. Neither the establishment of a global social contract nor the high expectations placed on global governance have played a decisive role in achieving climate policy goals in the past decade. They failed due to their lack of feasibility. The Paris Agreement in 2015 and its subsequent measures were able to take effect because they abandoned demands of this kind. Studies by ZEW, among others, show that the Paris Agreement adopted a bottom-up approach instead of a top-down approach. In this way, the participating states have been able to choose and shape their own path towards achieving the goals.

Understanding of time is crucial

When assessing the WBGU’s approach to shaping transformations it is crucial to look at its understanding of time. For the WBGU, there exists only one linear, homogeneous time that applies equally to nature and to all societies. This narrow understanding of time leads to the fact that within the actual dynamics of nature, economy, politics and society, neither the proposed actions nor the constraints on action can be realistically implemented. By turning the transformation process into an eleventh-hour issue, 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 in a short time. It is crucial for environmental and climate policy to acknowledge that the ecological, economic and social contexts concerned are shaped in their own time. This means that social, economic and ecological processes’ own dynamics, temporal structures and time requirements need to be taken into account. “Achieving a democratic majority for measures requires a certain amount of time. Even in a modern society, the restructuring of an energy system takes decades; think of the expansion of power grids in Germany or the development of hydrogen technology and infrastructure. The development of new, climate-friendly technologies can also take a very long time – let alone changes in ecological systems,” explains Marc Frick, academic assistant at ZEW’s “Environmental and Resource Economics, Environmental Management” Research Department and co-author of the study.

These different dynamics must be taken into account in order to find targeted solutions for climate policy challenges that meet the complex ecological, social, economic and political requirements. With a view to the different temporal structures and specific contexts, it becomes clear that the shaping of a sustainable economy is not one Great Transformation. Rather, different actors in different places are working at different speeds on many socio-ecological transformations that need to be understood and shaped accordingly.