Book review — 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years – Report to the Club of Rome

2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years is a report to the CoR commemorating the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth, written by one of the four original authors. This broad forecast is “an informed guess tracing the big lines in what I see as the probable global evolution toward 2052…the most likely global roadmap to 2052 so that I would know what I am in for.” Since publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, “humanity remains in solid overshoot…and we can discern the early signs of the coming gradual destruction of the ecosystem” (p.xv).

1. Five Big Issues toward 2052
“The big question is how fast the transition to sustainability will happen…the sustainability revolution has started, but is still in its infancy” (p13). The transition will require a fundamental change to a number of systems that govern current world developments. The next 40 years will be strongly influenced by how we handle five central issues:

The End of Uncontrolled Capitalism: “slow and insufficient response to our challenges will dominate”; old-fashioned capitalism will survive in parts of the world, but will be strongly modified elsewhere;
The End of Economic Growth: continuing technological advance will come to our partial rescue, but lack of space and cheap resources will force solutions with a lower ecological footprint to fit within the carrying capacity of the planet;
The End of Slow Democracy: the fundamental question is whether democracies will agree on a stronger state and faster decision-making before we run into the brick wall of self-reinforcing climate change;
Intergenerational Conflict: the era of generational harmony will come to an end, leading to slower economic growth and a smaller pie to share;
The End of Stable Climate: negative impacts will be significant, but not disastrous before 2052; there will be more droughts and floods, and sea level will be 0.3 meters higher; “self-reinforcing climate change will be worry number one, with methane gas emissions from the melting tundra leading to further temperature increase, which in turn will melt even more tundra” (p47); the world will still be operational, but with higher operating costs and scary prospects for the rest of the 21st century.

2. The Global Forecast
Several Highlights of the forecast:

  1. “global population will stagnate earlier than expected because fertility will fall dramatically in an increasingly urbanized population”;
  2. “resource and climate problems will not become catastrophic before 2052” due to increased social investment, but there will be much unnecessary suffering;
  3. the short-term focus of democracy and capitalism will ensure that “wise decisions needed for long-term well-being will not be made in time”;
  4. “global population will be increasingly urban and unwilling to protect nature”;
  5. the impact will differ among five regions analyzed here: “the most surprising loser will be the current global economic elite, particularly the US…China will be the winner” (p355).

Some Details of the forecast:

  • Disparities:The world in 2052 will be one of huge regional and class differences; there will be social friction because of distributional inequity; regional variations in increased temperature will range from 0°C to >4°C;
  • World Population: Continuing decline in fertility, only partly offset by a continuing rise in life expectancy, will cause “global population to reach a maximum of some 8.1 billion people in the early 2040s,”thereafter “declining at 1% per year and it will be back to current levels (7 billion people) by 2075”(pp62-64);
  • Workforce: Potential workforce will follow the pattern of population: it will first grow, then peak, and then start to decline; “the number of people aged 15 to 65 will peak some five years before the peak in total population”; thus, the support burden will stay more or less constant because the rise in the number of the elderly population will be offset by a decline in the number of children;
  • Productivity: Productivity growth will peak in the 2020s and then decline toward the middle of the century; in 2052, GDP per person will grow at only 1%/year; productivity growth will be hampered by erratic weather and growing inequity that will disturb the peace;
  • GDP Growth: World GDP will be 2.2 times as big as today, enabling higher average consumption rates but also resulting in higher emissions and more rapid depletion of resources; world GDP will start to decline just after 2052, despite dramatic increases in resource and energy efficiency;
  • Investment Growth/Consumption Decline: Emerging problems will mean increased investment, forced or voluntary; this will take up a larger share of GDP, lowering the share available for consumption; investment is currently 25% of GDP and will need to be increased to >30%; “global consumption will grow toward stagnation in 2040 and begin to fall around 2050”;
  • Rising Costs: New costs will emerge, e.g.: substitutes for scarce resources, solutions for dangerous emissions, replacements for ecological services such as water that were formerly free, protections against future climate damage like sea-level rise, rebuilding real estate and infrastructure destroyed by extreme weather, and maintaining armed forces to defend resource supplies and fight off immigration; the cost of such developments “could easily exceed 10% (of world GDP) in the long run of a badly handled future”;
  • Energy Use: About 87% of today’s global energy use is supplied by coal, oil, and gas; energy intensity will fall by a third by 2052 while the global economy doubles—thus energy use will grow by 50%;
  • Changing Energy Mix: Use of conventional oil has probably peaked, and peaks in both coal and gas use are expected before 2040 due to very rapid increase in use of renewable energy, which will grow from 8% of energy use in 2010 to 37% in 2050 (this shift will be slowed by the cheap intermediary solution of replacing coal with gas); the nuclear share of world energy will be one-half of today’s contribution—below 3%;
  • Emissions: CO2 emissions from energy will peak in 2030, but overall emissions from energy use will still be 40% above global emissions in 1990; carbon capture and storage (CCS) will have a limited role in reducing CO2 emissions in 2052, dwarfed by increases in energy efficiency and renewables;
  • Rising Temperature: “Average temperature will go from plus 0.8°C relative to preindustrial times in 2012 to plus 2.0°C in 2052, and a maximum of plus 2.8°C in 2080” (p241). In 2052, “there will be visible climate damage and growing worry about the future” (p119);
  • Urbanization: “More people will seek shelter inside modern city walls, leaving a small rural population to fend for itself against increasingly violent weather and ecosystem change”;
  • Adaptation: “By 2052, voters in the well-governed part of the world will have seen enough damage to be genuinely concerned about the possibility of self-reinforcing climate change in the last half of the century”; a tremendous effort will finally be under way to reduce emissions for the benefit of all, in parallel with an extraordinary effort to adapt to the new climate;
  • Food: Production will continue to grow in the decades ahead, and Homo affluensiswill have moved down the food chain to less refined foods; but food will be unevenly distributed then as now, and many will starve; as we get closer to 2052, agriculture will be increasingly affected by climate change; use of genetically modified organisms will increase but prove unsustainable in the long run;
  • Managed Degrowth: Forward-thinking regions within some nations will increasingly focus on managing their inevitable degrowth by trying to build regional resilience focusing on local food and energy;
  • Sustainability Paradigm: Growth in GDP will remain a central ambition in most countries for many decades; “the sustainability crowd is still a tiny minority, and the paradigm shift is probably several decades into the future”; by 2052 global society will increasingly be seeking sustainable well-being based on planet-friendly energy and resources;
  • Modified Capitalism: Global society will interfere, to some extent, with operation of the free market to ensure that investments flow toward what is publicly needed rather than what is most profitable; thus, under “modified capitalism,” a stronger role for wise government;
  • China as World Leader:“China will be the world leader in 2052…the premier driving force on the planet,”with a population 3.5 times bigger than the US, an economy nearly 2.5 times larger, and consumption >70% of the US equivalent (the US could maintain its hegemony, but its system of governance does not seem capable of quick, bipartisan decision making);
  • Jobs: There will be as many jobs in the future as in the past, relative to the workforce; “I see little reason why there should be higher levels of unemployment in the future”;
  • Wild Cards: Some wild cards: abundant oil or gas making new renewables less competitive, a financial meltdown, nuclear war, a deadly disease killing two billion people, collapse of ecological services such as bee pollination, counter-revolution in China leading to lower emissions and reduced investment in green technology, a citizen’s rebellion in the US that fundamentally changes the tax laws, a dedicated global effort to stop climate change.

3. Regional Futures


  • The US: The economy will grow at an average rate of only 0.6%/year over the next 40 years (reaching zero by 2052), because it is already a mature economy with high productivity, it has not been investing sufficiently (investment is only 16% of GDP-less than two-thirds the 24% global average), and the US must repay the debt run up over the last decades; as a consequence, “per capita consumption levels in 2052 will be some 10% lower than in 2010” (p267); energy use will be more or less constant, with a huge shift from coal and oil to gas, and renewables as the largest source of energy by 2052; emissions from energy use will decline nearly one-half by 2052—35% below 1990 levels;
  • China: “Tremendous economic growth” is expected over the next 40 years, averaging 3.5% per year but much higher in the next 20 years. Despite high savings and investment (currently at >35%), consumption per capita will grow fivefold by 2052. But China’s “footprint on the planet will be substantial,” and climate change will create significant problems of sea level rise and desertification; energy use will more than double by the 2030s; agricultural output will increase by 25% before it peaks in the 2030s and starts to decline;
  • OECD-less-US: The old industrialized market economies other than the US have more than twice as much population as the US; population will remain constant until 2025 and then start a slow decline so that it will be 10% lower in 2052 than today; aging will lead to an increase in the support burden by some 10% after 2030; total GDP will peak in the early 2030s at some 15% above current level; very fast growth in renewables will reduce gas use after 2035, and the nuclear industry will be in steady decline; overall emissions will be 55% below the current rate and 50% below 1990 emissions;
  • BRISE: Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and ten big emerging economies (Indonesia, Mexico, Vietnam, Turkey, Iran, Thailand, Ukraine, Argentina, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia) had a total of 2.4 billion people in 2010 (half in India) and will peak by 2052 at well below 3 billion; collective GDP in the 14 countries will triple by 2052, with per capita GDP growing from $6K to $16K; emissions from fossil fuels will not plateau until the 2040s despite efficiency increases; the region is subject to potential climate disasters (e.g., inundation of SE Asian countries by melting glaciers in Tibet, drying out of the rain forest in Brazil, insects killing the boreal forest in Russia); in sum, the region will be “in lively development” over the next 40 years, but with widely varying quality in governance;
  • Rest of the World: This eclectic blend of 186 countries had a total population of 2.1 billion in 2010, which will peak in the 2050s at 3.1 billion due to education and contraception; GDP will grow three times its current size by 2052, and GDP will grow from $4K to $8K. Food production will outpace population growth, and the energy system will grow gradually. The area of cultivated land will start to decline around 2040, and the ROW region will need food imports by 2052.

4. “Overshoot and Collapse” Updated
The concern about “overshoot and collapse” was first articulated in the 1972 Limits to Growth report. This forecast chooses “Scenario 3” from The Limits to Growth, which describes a shortage of nonrenewable resources and dangerous pollution postponed until the mid-21st century due to application of technology. “The story of the 2052 forecast is one of overshoot caused by delayed societal response to greenhouse gas emissions being allowed to increase beyond sustainable levels for generations. It is a story of lower consumption growth (and in the rich world consumption decline) resulting partly from the costs of trying to mitigate the climate problem” (p305). The world will experience numerous cases of overshoot and decline before 2052, but it will not experience overshoot and collapse before 2052, when average per capita consumption will peak, and global average temperature will surpass the danger threshold of 2°C. This forecast of developments to 2052 is “quite gloomy,” but “not catastrophic” (p323).

The human ecological footprint has expanded continuously since 1972, and will become heavier. The human footprint can expand beyond planetary limits. When the footprint approaches a limit, society normally reacts, but only after some delay. “Currently the human demand on the biosphere exceeds the global bio-capacity by some 40%” (p311). The world of 2012 is in overshoot, but this is a temporary phenomenon. In each instance of overshoot, humanity has to move back into sustainable territory, either through “managed decline” or by “collapse induced by nature.” The world has not yet experienced large-scale environmental collapse. The challenge is solvable in principle, but hard to address in practice.

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