2050 and Beyond: A Sustainable Future for 10 Billion People on 1950s Energy

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Summary

The increasing global population has been a cause of concern for many environmentalists, as it can lead to unsustainable consumption and damaging effects on the planet. As the world’s population is projected to reach over 8 billion by 2050, it’s clear that solutions are needed to address this challenge. While there’s no quick fix, recent research has provided a glimmer of hope. By using 60% less energy than today, it’s possible to provide decent living standards to a global population of 10 billion by 2050. This would require 75% less energy than the world is currently projected to consume by 2050, which is equivalent to the energy used in the 1960s. These findings offer a potential pathway for sustainable development that could benefit both people and the planet.

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Our World in Data/Vaclav Smil (2017), CC BY

The issue of energy consumption and its impact on the environment is one that affects us all, but it’s the global north countries like the US and Australia that currently consume the most energy per person. The good news is that recent research suggests that it’s possible to slash energy consumption by as much as 90%, while still providing decent living standards for all. Moreover, the remaining energy requirements could be met by clean, renewable sources. The question is, how is this possible? In this article, we’ll delve deeper into this topic and explore some of the innovative solutions that could help us achieve a more sustainable future.

The good life

As we strive towards a more sustainable future, it’s essential to recognize that achieving such a world will require radical action on all fronts. This includes the mass rollout of the best available technologies, such as energy-efficient buildings, vehicles, appliances, and lighting systems, along with advanced facilities for material production and recycling. However, it also means reevaluating our consumption patterns and drastically reducing our energy and resource usage. This includes cutting down on excessive consumption levels of the affluent, such as second homes, second cars, and regular upgrades of electronic gadgets. By doing so, we can flatten global and national inequalities and raise living conditions for the 3.5 billion people living on less than USD$5.50 a day. In this article, we’ll explore what we mean by “decent living” and how we can achieve it through innovations in technology and a shift in our consumption patterns.

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Traffic rushes in Jakarta business district-image by Asia Travel via Shutterstock

The notion that environmentalists want us to return to a primitive way of living is far from the truth. Achieving a more sustainable future doesn’t require a sacrifice of our modern comforts and conveniences. However, it does require a significant reduction in consumption levels, which doesn’t have to mean a lower standard of living. The challenge lies in reconciling this vision with the current economic system that requires perpetual growth and incentivizes the relocation of factories to areas where ecological destruction is inevitable, and wages are insufficient for basic subsistence. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the complexities of reconciling our modern way of life with the need for a more sustainable future and explore some potential solutions.

Energy and land use

The projections for the world economy in 2050 paint a bleak picture without new policy action. The economy is set to be four times larger than it is today, which would result in an 80% increase in global energy demand. This demand will mostly be met by fossil fuels, which will still account for about 85% of the global energy mix in 2050. While there will be a slight increase in the use of renewables, including biofuels, and nuclear power, the balance is still expected to favor fossil fuels.

The projection also reveals that the BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, and South Africa) are set to become major energy users. As their economies continue to grow, they will increase their reliance on fossil fuels, which could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and further exacerbate climate change.

Another concerning projection is the expansion of agricultural land globally to meet the growing demand for food. While this expansion is expected to match the increase in food demand, it will be at a diminishing rate. This means that there will be a substantial increase in competition for scarce land, which could have negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

All of these projections highlight the urgent need for new policies that prioritize sustainable development and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without such policies, we are headed towards a future that is unsustainable and detrimental to both the planet and its inhabitants. It is important for governments, businesses, and individuals to take action now to shift towards a low-carbon, sustainable future. This includes investing in renewable energy, implementing energy efficiency measures, promoting sustainable land use practices, and adopting more sustainable diets. By taking action today, we can create a better future for ourselves and future generations.

The new world

The challenges of the 21st century are numerous and complex, and capitalism seems to be ill-equipped to face them. In addition to ecological breakdown, artificial intelligence and automation also present major challenges, such as mass unemployment and spiralling inequalities. However, a world of decent living standards using minimal energy requires flattening global inequalities, which is precisely the opposite of what these developments promise.

As automation continues to replace human workers, the current economic system of wages and employment may no longer make sense. The concept of Universal Basic Services, which includes the public provisioning of housing, healthcare, education, and transport, among other things, may be needed to meet the basic needs of everyone. This could provide the basis for decent living in a world with less work, allowing people the time to undertake all the unpaid care work required to support children, the mentally ill, and the elderly.

The idea of providing decent living standards for all is already technologically possible, but it would require a radical shift in our systems of ownership and distribution. Rather than the benefits of automation being captured by a minority of super-rich owners, universal access to basic services could ensure that everyone benefits from technological progress. While we may be a long way from utopian visions of luxury for all, the alternative of ecological catastrophe and social breakdown makes striving towards such a world essential.

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