The present report serves to inform the discussions of the Economic and Social Council’s high-level policy dialogue in 2023 on future trends and scenarios and the long-term impact of such trends and new technologies on the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It looks beyond the current crises and emergencies and takes a long-term futures perspective towards 2030 and beyond, all the way to 2050. It thus complements the report of the Secretary-General on the theme of the 2023 session of the Council, which discusses recent efforts to recover from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the present crises and their immediate implications, as well as the report of the Secretary-General on “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: towards a rescue plan for people and planet”.

The 2030 Agenda sets out a broad, aspirational vision “for people, planet and prosperity”. Its Sustainable Development Goals provide a quantitative and qualitative snapshot of what the world aspires to achieve by 2030. It also outlines policy recommendations and actions, but does not offer precise guidance on how coordinated actions could feasibly be undertaken over time to achieve the Goals. That is what scenarios are designed to explore.

Scenarios are internally consistent and plausible paths describing developments into the future. They bring together scientific and technical knowledge from all relevant disciplines and sources in a coherent manner to improve understanding of possible future developments and support decision-making. Policymakers often refer to scenarios as pathways, a term that is used synonymously in the present report. However, scenarios are not predictions. Instead, scenario analysts make assumptions about an inherently uncertain future and ask “if/then” questions. Scenarios focus our thinking on identifying solutions that do not breach physical, technical, economic or sociopolitical boundaries but that truly add up and reflect the best available science and evidence.

As the world prepares for the Sustainable Development Goals Summit and the Summit of the Future, insights from sustainable development scenarios are an important means of identifying possible pathways, prioritizing actions and understanding the longer-term implications of policies. They provide a best guess of what is possible. It should be noted, however, that they are based on scenario models that are limited in terms of capturing all the complex aspects of systems, especially at the local and national level.

In his previous reports in this series, the Secretary-General presented the “low energy demand (LED) better futures scenario” as a global best-case scenario for achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and broader sustainable development by 2050. The reports also considered the potential long-term consequences of near-term decisions in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and to artificial intelligence technologies, as well as the potential of myriad digital consumer innovations for transforming end-use.

Despite some positive developments, in a business-as-usual scenario, none of the Sustainable Development Goals would be achieved and development would be decisively unsustainable by 2050. Recent scientific and technological breakthroughs could become game-changers, but unprecedented levels of global cooperation and support would be required to make these new possibilities work for everyone. Recent Sustainable Development Goal pathways and sustainable development scenarios illustrate what would be needed in terms of globally coordinated policies and high-impact actions.


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Published June 2023


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