2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years

By Bryan Walker 10/05/2012

The Club of Rome has launched a new report, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, written by Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors 40 years ago of their famous publication Limits to Growth. I’ve been listening to Randers speaking at the launch this week at Rotterdam. It’s a striking address, delivered with a charm that softens its grim content. It can be viewed on the first 25 minutes of the YouTube video below. I’ll offer an outline here, along with some loose transcription of parts of the address.

He reflects that he has worked a lifetime pushing sustainability without success.

Will the world overshoot and collapse? This was the warning that my friends and I made in 1972 in Limits to Growth… We are now forty years down the line and it is perfectly obvious that world has already overshot.  In 1972 our critics said that the world is not going to be so stupid as to let the world move into non-sustainable territory. Well, we now are in unsustainable territory.

The simplest example is greenhouse gases.

Emissions are twice the amount of what is being absorbed in the world’s oceans and forests. And, as warned in 1972, this is an effect of slow decision-making. Even twenty years after the Rio meeting greenhouse gas emissions are growing faster than they did at the time of the meeting.

The question is whether we can ease back into sustainable conditions with a soft landing, or whether the world will collapse.  By collapse he explains he basically means huge migration flows and the destruction of society as we know it.

The purpose of the 2052 book is basically to try to look at the next forty years. What will happen? Not what should happen, what could happen, but what will happen.

The forecast is not good:

The main message of 2052 is that humanity won’t make it and so we are not going to make a soft landing, we will basically run into a collapse type of future.

Some of the detail:

The global population will peak around 8 billion people in 2040. This is much earlier and at a much lower level than most people think. The reason for this is the very rapid decline in fertility both in the poor and the rich world.

The world GDP is going to continue to grow but it will grow much slower than most people think. The reason for this is that first of all a number of the world’s economies are very mature, meaning that most of the activity is in the service and care sector where productivity increase is very difficult. And so the rich countries are not going to grow very fast. And secondly there is the problem that we will not experience economic take-off in most of the poor world. The emerging countries will probably do it but not the others. So there will be GDP growth but not as fast as most people think. And actually the GDP of the world will peak around 2060, 2070. Then it will go down because the population is going down and because productivity is declining.

Interestingly over the next forty years human society is going to face a number of emerging problems: depletion, pollution, biodiversity decline, climate change, rising inequity, distributional issues. And the way society is going to handle those is to throw money at them.  So the investment share of the GDP — that fraction of annual production which is not used for consumption but is used to improve the world in the long run — will increase. And that means that the amount of GDP which is available for consumption will not grow as fast in the future as it would have done if we did not have to meet all those challenges. Disposable income will stagnate and in some parts of the world — for instance the rich world — will actually decline over the next forty years…

Energy use will peak in 2040. Emissions will begin to decline in 2030 and by 2050 they will be back down to current levels, a far cry from the current ambition of reducing CO2 emissions by 50 to 80 per cent by 2050, which is what people say we need to do in order to keep temperature rise under 2 degrees centigrade. So this means we are in a situation where we’re going to let CO2 emissions be so high that when we get to 2050 we are quickly moving towards global warming.

He refers to information he has sought from US scientists, that this will mean a 2 degree rise by 2050, increasing to 3 degrees by 2080:

Which is just where you could fear that global self-reinforcing climate change takes hold…So in 2050 the world is on its path towards climate collapse in the second half of the 21st century. It doesn’t happen before 2050 but it happens afterwards.  In other words current systems of governance appear incapable of handling the climate challenge.

Why are we letting all this happen?

The root cause is human short-termism. It is the fact that both capitalism and democracies are amazingly short-term in their decision-making. Humans do not want to sacrifice much today in order to get the benefits thirty years down the line, and capitalist systems allocate money based on a discount rate which is so high that anything that happens beyond five years is close to invisible. Since those are the two major systems of governance in place the world will continue to act in a myopic fashion to the challenges.

Can short-termism be handled? Yes, in principle, but in practice it is very difficult because it probably means strong government to basically delegate difficult decision-making to supra-national or centralist bodies like the central banks of the world and the intense dislike of strong government is something which is going to preclude a sensible solution to the problems.

The slow rise in GDP for poor countries means that three billion people are going to remain poor in 2052. It’s a harsh outlook for them. They will not only be poor but also hungry because although there will be enough food for all it will be restricted to those who can pay for it.

The four recommendations of the report are, as he points out, obvious.

First, having fewer children, especially in the rich world.

My daughter has a footprint which is ten times as big as an Indian daughter. She is much more dangerous than an Indian.

Second, reduce our ecological footprint, especially in the rich nations.

And that means basically one thing: stop using fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that.

Third, construct a low-carbon energy system in the poor world, for the poor world, paid for by the rich world.

Fourth, strengthen global governance to overcome short-termism and handle the long-term challenge.

These things are hard to implement and even harder if the distributional issues are allowed to deteriorate even further. We need full employment and we need limited income disparity.

Finally what can the Club of Rome do?

It should continue its traditional asking unpopular questions and promoting unpopular solutions.

It’s a sober picture Randers presents, and one which he says gives him no pleasure. By way of possible mitigation he offers ’hard but worthy causes’.  No doubt some of his forecasts will be controversial, but in what he has to say about climate change he is fully in line with scientific thinking. Stop using fossil fuels is the right message.

The book is to be released in mid-June and judging by this talk will earn a wide readership and serious discussion.