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2052: A glimpse at an unsustainable future

News Current affairs 14.11.2013 Staff
	Professor Jørgen Randers

Professor Jørgen Randers

Photo: Chelsea Green Publishing

Environment: Professor Jørgen Randers speaks about why he wrote “2052--A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” and about experts making predictions based on “what they think will happen”. The first instalment in a three-part series.

BI Norwegian Business School professor Jørgen Randers, one of the most influential environmentalists of our times, will be in Luxembourg next Wednesday November 20, to give his global forecast for the next 40 years at a conference at the Coque at 6:30 p.m.

On Wednesday, Delano spoke about “2052--A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years” with conference organiser Blanche Weber of Mouvement Ecologique.

In advance of the summit, Randers has answered some of the most popular questions he has received about his new book:

You were part of the original Limits to Growth study in 1972 and each follow up of that study. Why did you decide to do a new forecast and write this book?

JR: “I spent the forty years between then and now trying to save the world from global unsustainability, with limited success, and I had become very curious about what will actually happen over the next forty years. So I decided to try to find out, and 2052 contains the result.

Limits to Growth and its follow-up studies were scenario analyses describing a number of different futures, discussing their relative merit, and recommending policy that would make the future less unsustainable. 2052 is a significant deviation from that: it simply states what I believe will happen, on a broad scale, between now and 2052. The forecast is driven by a computer model, but also tempered by my best guess at how human decision-making will play out over the coming years.

“In reality, I have been worrying about the future for decades, and I wrote this book for peace of mind. The future I found is not the future I would hope for, but knowing what lies ahead does give me peace of mind.

“I also think people need a glimpse of the probable future for two reasons. The first, of course, would be to change it. Humanity may be likely to play its hand in a stupid manner, but it doesn’t have to. The second reason is to prepare people for how to live in the world that likely awaits us. So, in the final chapter of 2052 you will find advice that should make your life--or your children’s or grandchildren’s lives--in the future world more comfortable.”

Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future? What do you see as the greatest threat to humanity? What do you see as hopeful for humanity?

JR: “I am afraid that humanity will decide to create a future for itself that is much less attractive than what could have been achieved if we decided to run the world according to rational policy. But pessimism is not the best description of my feelings.

“The best description is sadness: I am sad because global society is likely to make a number of wrong judgements and decisions in the decades ahead. And as a result it will willfully create an unattractive future world. Our greatest threat is self-reinforcing climate change, and the greatest downside in our future is brought on by increased warming up to 2052 that will lead to runaway climate change in the second half of the century.

“But it really does not matter how I feel--optimistic or pessimistic, happy or sad. What matters is that the conclusion to be drawn from the 2052 forecast is simple and straightforward. We need to continue to work for a better future. If the future looks gloomy, dedicated effort by forward-looking people will help make it less gloomy. It is much better to act, than to let the future roll in unimpeded.”

In the book, many scientists and economists and sustainability leaders do something they don't often do: make predictions about the future based not on what could happen, or what should happen, but what they think will happen. This is a brave step. What led you and them to take it?

JR: “Experts are often loathe to make specific predictions about a point in time, but I asked many to join me in taking the leap to envision life in 2052 so that we could get the most skilled look possible at the future.

“The 40 contributors that provided their own personal glimpses into our coming world in 2052 are leading thinkers on global economy, resources, and other key factors. I think that kind of response shows that the people who know the most are truly worried about what lies ahead. Many of us in the sustainability arena tend to shy away from saying what we really think will happen.

“It’s a risk. Will giving an honest assessment of our likely future squelch hope, and thus action? We tend to focus on what’s possible, not what is probable. But sometimes a wake-up call is necessary.”

Is there any evidence that any countries are taking measures to cut greenhouse gases? If so, which ones and will it help to curb global warming?

JR: “Yes, some countries--especially within the European Union--have actually cut their emissions in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for an 8% reduction in emissions, from 1990 standards, between 2008 and 2012. As a totality, the EU is likely to satisfy its obligations under Kyoto. But most countries have done little or nothing. For example, the United States increased its emissions by 16% from 1990 to 2010. The total result is that global greenhouse gas emissions grew faster in the 2000s than in the 1990s--in spite of all the talk about climate action.

“It is clear that national cuts do reduce global emissions to below what they would otherwise have been. But it is a sad fact that the action of a few responsible countries is not enough to counteract the increase in the emissions from all the other nations. So even after an 8% cut in the EU, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 were 45% higher than in 1990.”

Can technological advances, including the development of clean energy sources, help to curb the greenhouse gases and our reliance on fossil fuels? If so, how aggressive must those measures be put in place to have a positive effect?

JR: “In principle it is simple to solve the climate problem. To stop the temperature from rising, we need to halve man-made greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This cut can be achieved easily with known technologies and at a surprisingly low cost. Solving the climate problem would cost only a couple of percent of the GDP--meaning that the average world citizen would be as rich in June 2020 if we decided to solve the problem, as he or she would be in January 2020 if we decided not to.

“The problem is that global society appears to be unable to make the decision to act. Why? Because acting would mean moving from the current, well-tested and cheap solutions--like coal-based power and cars running on gasoline--to more expensive solutions--like wind and solar power, or coal and gas with carbon capture and storage. Neither the voter, the politician, nor the capital markets are much in favour of moving from a cheap to a more costly solution. Therefore it does not happen, at least not quickly.

“But this is what needs to happen. We need to agree to introduce solutions that are more expensive--at least temporarily more expensive, until the new technology evolves and becomes cheaper over time. We need to increase energy efficiency in all human activities. We need to replace fossil fuels with renewables. And we need to stop cutting the world’s forests, both tropical and boreal, thereby avoiding release of their huge stores of CO2.”

On Friday, Randers talks about the ability to feed ourselves in 40 years time, and critiques the Western political and economic models.