Oct 27, 2008
Predicting the climate future
How successful will efforts to reduce carbon emissions actually be? And what will that mean for our climate and society? These are the billion-dollar questions that everyone working in climate research, conservation, human development, government and even business would love to know the answers to. With that in mind, UK sustainable development charity Forum for the Future has teamed up with Hewlett Packard’s HP Labs to devise five scenarios for the social, political, economic and psychological consequences of climate change by the year 2050.
To come up with the concepts, the team looked at seven key areas that will affect what happens: the direct impacts of climate change; public attitudes, which will influence how governments and business act; how the business community responds; the nature of the global economy; the availability of natural resources; the political response at a national and international level; and which technologies are developed and used.
The resulting scenarios for life in 2050 are:
• Efficiency First – the development of innovative energy-efficiency technologies has brought about a consumerist, low-carbon world. That means there’s been little need for changes in lifestyle or business practice, and greenhouse-gas emissions are being reduced while economic growth is sustained. A cap-and-trade system is in place and greenhouse emissions flatlined in 2020. The Netherlands, meanwhile, is benefiting from Indian “sea push” technology to force water away from its coastline.
There is a downside – there’s a widening divide between rich and poor, despite the marked growth in the economy of the global South. The world also appears on the brink of overheating; it relies on continuing technology developments to hold global warming at bay. “Some call this a golden age of technology and freedom, others call it a very shaky house of cards,” reads the report. What’s more, ecosystems have suffered and wilderness remains in only a few pockets of the globe, as natural resources have been exploited to maintain growth.
• Under the Service Transformation scenario, the high price of carbon in 2020 meant that businesses changed their models to sell services rather than products, with Europe taking the lead. Collective laundry services have replaced individual washing machines and mass public transport and rent-a-bike and rent-a-car schemes have replaced car ownership. Unemployment has risen in the old high-carbon sectors of the economy and the US has found it particularly hard to adjust. Mega-cities are struggling to cope and fuel poverty is a major issue. Following droughts, floods and fires, an international binding agreement to mitigate carbon emissions was signed in 2020, but runaway climate change appears close. NATO has declared that breaking this agreement is an attack on its members and can be defended by military force. Emissions declined for the first year in 2024.
• Redefining progress, on the other hand, sees the establishment of more sustainable living and a “wellbeing economy”, with countries prioritizing economic and social resilience over economic growth, and governments regulating the economy tightly. A global depression from 2009-2018 forced individuals to scale down their consumption and look to their own community to provide goods and services, such as clothes, fruit and vegetables. Emissions growth peaked as a result of the depression and is now in steady decline, but the impacts of climate change are still being felt. Biodiversity and conservation initiatives are relatively healthy; Brazil renationalized large sections of the Amazon after private companies failed to honour sustainability agreements.
But the world hasn’t reached an international agreement on climate change. Several cities have set themselves up as “havens of real capitalism” and some governments have adopted an aggressive pro-growth stance.
• As a result of the Environmental War Economy, economies in 2050 are forcibly re-focused on climate change issues as if they were fighting a war against it. Greenhouse-gas emissions began to decline in 2030 but the cost to individual liberty has been huge, and governments have strong powers to regulate and “rationalize” business. The negotiations for a post-Kyoto agreement failed and a global pact wasn’t signed until 2017, when environmental impacts began to worsen. Governments have brought in tough measures to change business activity and individual lifestyles, even introducing carbon monitors into homes to check on energy use. The northern hemisphere didn’t experience a winter in 2020 and many people are environmental refugees.
• Under the Protectionist World scenario, countries wage war over scarce resources like water, and globalization no longer exists. There was a climate agreement in 2010 but factions developed after accusations of cheating and secret, undeclared power stations. As a result, the world has fractured into protectionist blocs. Competition and conflict have driven up prices and spread diseases, creating hunger and misery for millions. Governments are focusing on surviving and protecting their own economies rather than preventing further climate change. The Internet has fragmented although a small group of academics have kept a global network – one day they would like to re-unite the world.
Obviously these scenarios are just speculation, no matter how educated, but none of them sound ideal. Forum for the Future and HP Labs believe that reality is likely to reflect aspects of all of them. The partners would like the project “to open up ideas for new products or services that could succeed in the future and inform business strategies that will help the world to mitigate climate change or make the world more resilient to cope”. So it’s down to us now to make sure that the right aspects become reality.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.