It’s not too late to avert a climate crisis but “pervasive human short-termism” makes it highly unlikely that society will do so in the next 40 years.
“Starvation of the poor is one of the inevitable consequences predicted, if we continue to live in a democractic system, where the major focus is on short-term gratification and crafting the best possible life for yourself,” said leading economist and sustainability pioneer Prof Jurgen Randers in Cape Town last week.
Prof Randers is a leading economist and professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, who was invited by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership South African office.
In this world, Randers is no stranger to forecasting. As co-author of the famous 1972 book The Limits to Growth, he participated in one of the most ambitious forecasting exercises of the last 40 years creating 12 scenarios for what the future of the planet might look like 100 years into the future. Although the book became a best seller, it was widely criticised. However, almost all the predictions that it made have since come to pass.
2052: A Global Forecast
Randers said he was tempted into embarking a second forecasting exercise, published in his new book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, partly for selfish reasons “I wanted to know what the world would look like as I get older,” and partly because he “couldn’t resist the temptation to deliver a final kick in the ass to society in the hope that this might move them to do something.”
“We already live in a manner that cannot be continued for generations without major change. Humanity has overshot the earth’s resources, and in some cases we will see local collapse before 2052 – we are emitting twice as much greenhouse gas every year as can be absorbed by the world’s forests and oceans,” warned Randers.
“Action is necessary, it is desirable!” According to Randers the kind of action required is “extraordinary.” “Ordinary action won’t work, it has already been worked into my scenarios,” he said.
Momentum carries us forward to hunger & heat
“It is for the rich world to tackle this problem. We have chosen to let the system become unsustainable, this was NOT done through economic necessity,” he said. “The momentum is so strong that we know what will happen over the next 40 years.”
So, what is Prof Randers predicting about the ‘not rosy’ future of civilisation?
- Population growth will peak in 2040 at 8 billion people and then decline from there. It is constrained due to the rapid decline in human fertility – and also increased fatalities due to climate catastrophes and stresses.
- The world GDP will slow down. Productivity growth will decline. The rich world will see hardly any productivity growth – it is already down by ½ % and is going to drop further. Yet the poor countries are going to grow very rapidly. So the world economy will be twice the size it is now, and not four times, as predicted earlier. Global consumption will stagnate.
- The USA won’t change, he said, the hurricanes will come and they will rebuild cities, but that will not lead to change in thinking at leadership levels. This nondiscretionary repair work, like in New Orleans and Manhattan, will cost the country dearly.
- The world energy usage will peak in 30 years, then stagnate and then decline. The use of coal will first expand, then decline. By 2050 40% of all energy used on the planet will be from renewable sources and 60% will still be fossil fuels. Fossil fuel usage will peak in 2030 then decline from there. Nuclear will move to China.
- Consumption will stagnate because society will have to spend ever more on repairing the damages wrought by climate change and adaptation strategies.
- In spite of slower economies, it will still be fast enough to trigger a climate crisis. Global warming will gradually rise the barometer until it passes a 2 degrees increase by 2052. This will make human life on this planet extremely uncomfortable.
- Food will satisfy demand, due to heightened yield per hectare, but not need. So hunger will not be addressed, only increased. This is because the poor cannot afford to pay for imported food. Dire starvation and poverty is predicted for the poorest two billion world citizens.
- Women will elect to have fewer children, and opt to work instead.
- 97% of Chinese want to get rich fast, while only 3% would rather say what they think. So fast and sustained growth is predicted for China, as well as in increase in the nuclear energy industry in that country.
- There is a very definite threat of self-reinforcing climate change during the second half of this century.
No, we will not listen
Having delivered this grim picture, the audience was keen to have the good Prof deliver some possible solutions to avoid such a picture from manifesting in the future. Normally, he said, he doesn’t discuss solutions. However, as there is such a big need wherever he goes, he now ventures to offer some solutions. As long as everyone understands that he knows this will not happen – the world is NOT going to take this issue seriously and implement the necessary changes he said.
Although the technologies exist and the costs to do so are not exorbitant, the world’s leaders are incapable of taking the necessary action to secure a more sustainable future for human civilisation.
“Although it is relatively cheap – if humanity chose to use available technologies to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses the cost would amount to 1 or 2% of GDP – it is still more expensive than doing nothing,” said Randers. “Human short-termism therefore prevents us from doing anything. It is difficult to get people to make sacrifices today for an uncertain future.”
“We could transfer labour from the dirty energy industry across to the clean sector, get the guys who are building coal stations to build windmills. If implemented world-wide, this will facilitate the needed shift,” he said.
Capitalism is costing our future
“Capitalism will not work, as it focuses on spending in the most profitable ways. Now we need to move capital into MORE expensive and NOT the most profitable – and capitalism won’t allow it. If any politician would impose the correct regulations, he will be out of a job in no time.”
“Democracy means that decisions will not deviate from the short-term view, hence we can make our forecasts. Sad but true,” he said.
Solutions could include:
- Slowing down the population growth – especially in the rich portions of the world – to one child per couple.
- Reduce climate gas emissions by banning fossil fuels in the rich world.
- Help the poor with clean energy. Build climate friendly energy systems in and for the poor world.
- Temper short-termism by establishing a supra-national institute to implement sweeping reforms.
- Establish new goals for rich societies and focus on higher wellbeing in a world without growth.
“So the climate problem will not be solved simply because we choose not to solve it,” he said. “Humanity is in the process of postponing action until it is too late. Not too late that the world will come to an end, but so late that our grandchildren will have a harder life than if we had acted decisively today.”
The data available to support his predictions is abundant and extremely clear.
“We know much more now that we did in 1972,” said Randers.
“And this paints a relentless picture of the future that is difficult to ignore.”