2020-2040: What goes up, must come down…

Last year I wrote about a publication from 20 years ago, in which prominent figures looked 20 years ahead. [1] The result was not that good, the future is always more different as expected.

However, a number of reactions wondered what that would be like in 20 years from now, say 2040. Although its hard to predict how the current mess will unfold , let me make an attempt, if only because I occasionally do that in lectures.

Some developments are not that difficult to estimate. The population will increase to 10 billion in 2050, say 9 billion in 2040.

Climate change and its effects are also known: In 20 years, the sea level will still rise, even if we would stop CO2 emissions immediately. But that will not happen, so CO2 emissions will continue to increase, certainly until 2040, and so will the derived effects. The climate is warming further, we will exceed those 2 degrees, the only question is how far we will overshoot that. Although 3 degrees seems the least, in the long run.

Energy and climate are only 1 threatening development, about which more shortly, our use of materials also continues to increase. That will quadruple (until 2060), not counting recycling and reuse and sharing. [2] Biodiversity is declining, just like soil quality, and before we have changed that , will take at least another 20 years, with al the damage included.

The global average prosperity will also increase in the first years, so that more people will be lifted out of poverty. The trends have been excellently analyzed in the book Factfullness [3]. The only question is how long will this increase continue? (Corona by the way has reversed the trend, the question is how that will recover “after corona”.)

But then, how will that work out, the need for more and more energy and materials, more people striving for more prosperity, and the systems that are going to crack, as well as the tensions between countries in a struggle to maintain existing prosperity? And will science and innovative business succeed in keeping things afloat with smart solutions? Will resistance, and conservatism, take on such great proportions that innovation is delayed or xhange stopped?

The question is, what then? If we change too slowly ourselves, the changes will come to us uncontrolled. In other words, the question is: What are we going to change ourselves, willingly, and / or what is unintentionally coming our way? *

Big questions, tough answers. What is already clear is that changes in society are much too slow to stay ahead of the expected effects. Apart from a few countries that are really doing well fundamentally (such as Costa Rica, Bhutan, and Cuba, whether intentionally or unintentionally), these remain exceptions. In the Netherlands, for example, the energy demand for data centers is growing faster than offshore wind turbines can be built. And realize that data management (smart) is seen as one of the solutions! Knowing that we should be at around 50% CO2 reduction in 2030 and around 75% CO2 reduction in 2040. (By the way, that is a political choice, not a realistic calculated target, in the industrialised world we should be on zero-CO2 emissions much earlier …)

Nevertheless, this political choice actually means quite simply that 50% and 75% respectively of all our activities that are currently still dependent on fossil fuels have been removed from it: differently organized or phased out as an activity. (eating meat for instance , 75% reduction in 2040 is only meat in 6/7 days per month, and 24 days not!)

So are we going to do that and prevent that further degradation ourselves? And on time?

Technologies

People often think and reason in terms of technology and innovation as a solution. So you could argue which technologies might break trough in 20 years from now, regardless of whether they actually help solve our problems. What could new technologies be?

Solar panels are already available and will help us to generate renewable energy. But will not help to significantly reduce CO2 within twenty years, because they also cost energy CO2 to produce , and emit more through production than could be saved the first 10-20 years with a progressive rollout [4]

Techniques such as standard renovation packages, heat networks, hydrogen, they will all likely make progress, but not enough in those 20 years, or will even increase the material impact and problems, with all the associated consequences.

Electric cars will be commonplace, I guess, but the adverse effects are greater than the advantages. We will run into those in due course. [5,6] (I Still expect the pneumatic (shared) car to have a breakthrough – cars that run on air pressur [7])

Nuclear power plants? Forget it.

What could help, and will break through on a large scale, are heat pumps, and certainly in the beginning in hybrid form with the gas boiler. [8][9] That could make a significant difference, but whether the introduction goes fast enough? Wind turbines are a nice technology in themselves, the EROI is high, but for the time being we are not constructing these fast enough to keep up with the growth in energy demand. The enormous amount of materials required will also play a role here, as a result of which kite turbines will come into the picture more quickly. Twice as much energy for 20 pct of the materials. [10]

High-speed trains through Europe will also become more common by then. Some other options might have had a major breakthrough, but I do not expect the size and speed of any of them to be sufficient to prevent our problems. That is, the CO2 and climate problems. I am not even talking about the raw materials war that will arise, or the agriculture and biodiversity that will not be restored by then. The raw materials impact as well as agricuture and biodiversity, are sectors that are just at the beginning of a transition process, somewhere where energy stood in the early nineties. In general: technologies that try to maintain services and functions that we have been able to built with fossil fuels, are a flight ahead. To try to match that without fossils, will have disastrous effects elsewhere in the chains.

Now then, what will/might be the situation in 20 years?

CO2 reduction targets will appear far from being achieved in those 20 years. As a result, the temperature and sea level have continued to rise. As well as the flow of refugees. Energy use has increased, as has material use. The pressure on raw materials is enormous.

The government is in some panic: a raw materials battle is going on worldwide, and The Netherlands is trying to secure its share. Shortages, factual or political, and imports as finished products have become extremely expensive everywhere.

The (financial) economy has not been growing for years, is even shrinking. Investment space is decreasing, people are increasingly taking measures themselves, organizing themselves locally. I think the covid19 year has been a foretaste on a very small scale for what has to come, with its battle over mouth masks, respirators and vaccines, in which Europe depended mainly on foreign countries. “Corona is a breeze, climate becomes a storm”, as a well respected scientist and former Dutch minister phrased it.

By 2040, it will finally have become clear that the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-The Hague region ( Randstad-below sea level) cannot be saved this way: housing and land prices there plummet, and pressure on the hinterland is increasing. Delta Plan 3 is in the making, but it will be selective, not all of the Netherlands can be saved .. Think of the battle that Venice has fought that took decades, and that is only 1 city… .And the new water barrier did not even work properly in recent weeks. ..

Large-scale livestock farming is one of the few things that I think will have declined sharply, disappeared under pressure from manure stress, NOx, animal suffering, vegetarianism, and a soy import ban (to save Amazon among others). And what I think has also taken of is large-scale tree planting, as a fairly simple and visible measure. In addition, we will frequently experience blackouts, the energy transition and distribution will go though a trial and error period. And has to contend with a scarcity of materials to keep the net afloat. Here too you see more and more people trying to arrange and share energy locally, low tech, at least as long as there is supply of products from outside Europe …

Of course, a lot of things are experimented, and battles between people and the establishment continues. Just as the power of Shell and other fossils is now slowly being broken down (like previously the cigarette industry, for example), so will the large mining industries, especially the metal industry, perish: they come under fire, they have knowingly supplied materials , that, through their enormous energy demand and ecological impact, threaten life on earth and have put us in danger. Urgenda may have just won its newest case against the state to reduce metals by 50%. Although the state might not really respond to that ….

We have always thought that we could find our way out innovating, that if we solve the energy problem we will be saved. But it is not only energy, it is even more so material, raw materials, biodiversity, land quality, pollution, plastics, particulate matter, nitrogen, etc. There is no silver bullet, no simple way out: it is just too much. As I wrote before, the Netherlands as a country is worn out, and for sure without fossil fuels. [11]

At the same time, it is fair to conclude that it is a huge dilemma , that puts people in conflict with both society and themselves: People do want change, because they don’t want large flows of refugees, heavy downpours, temperatures over 40 degrees, great droughts. And on the other hand, to solve it, they have to give up a lot of comfort and wealth, whitch they neither want. Ultimately, as a result, it is not ourselves, but ‘circumstances’ that will dictate the change: scarcity of raw materials, energy distribution, climate effects, local and low tech applications will prevail, and hand labor will again become noble. Like hanging the laundry outside to dry. That is to say, not in the ‘Randstad’, since it is quickly depopulating.

It would however not surprise me if a number of developments that I consider here under the 2040 target, will take shape earlier, in 2030 maybe… On the other hand,  as often the case with predictions, it might not surprise when things will turn out completely different….

 

 

*epilogue

I’ll be honest, it is very difficult to think about that future as I tried above: There are always a few lines of thought competing: firstly, the knowledge and resulting wishful thinking, on how it should be organised to prevent major problems, and what part of that could be realized (like I did in my book People vs Resources [12) . Secondly, the observation that nothing or little is happening, or is going way too slowly, and that we are therefore going to crash into walls. Which makes me try to adapt to reality and think along: how could we limit the damage, which technologies migh tbe acceptable and feasible (but not comply with under 1). And thirdly, the fear that nothing will actually happen at all, and that we will happily continue to try to innovate our way out, until it collapses. And what might be the situation then?

I am doubting between those three scenarions, and possible expectations for 2040 therefore might be a mix along those three lines of thought. At the same time having the observation, as I am researching for a new book, that maybe it simply cannot be resolved evolutionarily, and we are doomed to live like other species. Boom or bust. We are like grasshoppers [13].

And let’s be honest, the future is not predictable, certainly not now, it is not 1 problem that we have to solve, its the entire system, our way of life does not fit in a maintainable balance of the system. But do we embrace or ignore another way of life?

 

 

[1] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/20-40-years-later/

[2] OECD Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060, febr 2019, http://www.oecd.org/environment/global-material-resources-outlook-to-2060-9789264307452-en.htm

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34890015-factfulness

[4] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/solar-panels-are-not-the-solution/

[5] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/transition-charging-points-madness/

[6] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/electric-cars-the-broader-story/

[7] https://www.mdi.lu/products

[8] https://janwillemvandegroep.com/2020/11/22/de-hybride-route-versneld-co2-emissie-verlagen/

[9] https://www.creds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/CREDS-decarb-transitions-brief-2020.pdf

[10] https://kitepower.nl/

[11] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/the-netherlands-is-worn-out/

[12 People vs Resoruces, 2019, publ. Eburon https://eburon.nl/en/product/people-vs-resources/

[13] https://bewustbodemgebruik.nl/actueel/aardse-held-ronald-rovers/

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