Humans are interfering significantly in the way the Earth's ecosystems function, and this on a global scale, which is why the present period is being referred to as the Anthropocene. A peaceful future for our societies depends to a large extent on whether human development and our prosperity models can be redesigned in such a way as to ensure the regeneration of ecosystems, thus sustaining humankind's natural life-support systems. The Agenda 2030 with its global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which has been adopted by the United Nations, lays down the political framework here. A fundamental departure from previous development pathways is needed in order to achieve these goals – the WBGU speaks of a global transformation towards sustainability. The WBGU's work focuses on how this transformation can succeed and which measures are relevant in achieving it.
The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) was set up in 1992 as an independent scientific advisory body. The WBGU's remit is to publish reports that
- analyse global environmental and development problems,
- evaluate research on globally sustainable development, identify gaps in research, and generate stimuli for science,
- point out new problem areas like an early warning system,
- appraise global sustainability policy,
- give recommendations for action and research.
WBGU aims to raise awareness of the challenges of globally sustainable development through its press and public relations work.
Global change challenges
Human interference in the natural environment has reached global proportions. The critical environmental changes which are advancing worldwide include climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation and freshwater pollution and scarcity. The continuing spread of non-sustainable lifestyles, the persistence of absolute poverty and a growing global population are accelerating these interventions in the natural environment. One consequence of global environmental change is the mounting vulnerability, especially of developing countries, to natural disasters, food crises and disease. Thus, environmental degradation has also become a security issue. The new quality of these global human interventions in the Earth System is presenting scientists and politicians with new challenges. Global environment and development policy, guided by the principle of sustainable development, seeks to meet these challenges.
Scientific policy advice
Many political decisions have to be taken before the complex cause-effect relationships among global environment and development issues have been fully elucidated. Climate change is an example. It is scientifically beyond doubt that emitted greenhouse gases are causing the global mean temperature to rise; the regional impacts, however, are diverse and not entirely predictable. The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) takes a transdisciplinary approach, enabling it to provide guidance for political decision makers. Despite the existing uncertainties, WBGU assesses hazards and identifies 'guard rails' that should not be crossed. Such policy advice on global change makes it easier for decision makers to act under uncertainty. The particular aim is to identify precautionary options by which grave and irreversible damage to human societies and natural systems can be avoided. Some risks have been underestimated in the past, while others have scarcely been noticed. WBGU puts the spotlight on these, drawing them to the attention of politicians and the wider public in time for action to be taken.
International cooperation is key to coping with global environment and development problems. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was a milestone in this respect. Agenda 21, together with the global environmental agreements on climate change, biological diversity and desertification, has put crucial processes on track. Further milestones in international environment and development policy are the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. WBGU monitors and assesses all of these policy processes.