The World in 2050
Since 1972 and the book "The Limits to Growth" by Dennis and Donella Meadows, a powerful alliance of doomsayers has dominated public media in developed countries. Keywords are: deteriorating climate and rising pollution, depleted natural resources, destruction of nature, overexploitation of farming lands resulting in hunger and malnutrition.
So far, the doomsayers were proven wrong by most economic indicators. Today's world is better off than ever with more wealth, higher incomes, less poverty and less hunger.
But at what price, the doomsayers are asking, citing global warming, more carbon emissions, shrinking tropical forests, extinct species, growing populations and rising pollution. A typical current view: "Revisiting the Environmental and Socioeconomic Effects of Population Growth: a Fundamental but Fading Issue in Modern Scientific, Public, and Political Circles" by Camilo Mora (Ecology and Society 18-4).
Yet, despite the "Limits to Growth", the world economy continues to grow rapidly, defying the pessimists. How is that possible?
There is a small but choice group of experts specialized in forecasting long term development. Economists, environmentalists, demographers, agronomists trying to figure out what the world will look like in 2050, the magic target date. Curiously, all of them seem to be optimists. None of them anticipates economic or environmental collapse. Yet their messages remain largely unheard. The media prefer doom to development. Still, the results of their work deserve to be heard because many conclusions are stunning and show the world in a totally different light.
But before looking at main conclusions of some of the currently most important perspective studies, let us list some of the systemic reasons why pessimists and optimists arrive at different results studying the same set of global data.
Forecasters analyze the trends which underlied the development of the recent past and extrapolate them, taking all sorts of socio-economic, environmental and demographic assumptions into consideration. These models are of a balanced nature whereas the prophets of disaster prefer a biased approach. In simple terms: forecasters try to equally weigh and combine negative and positive trends while those predicting calamity tend to focus more on negative trends.
Three trends stand out as being underrated by pessimists: human creativity, capital accumulation and population growth. The latter is a particularly vexing phenomenon: for the pessimists it is a major force behind environmental deterioration, poverty and hunger. For the optimists, population growth is a powerful agent of social change, labor market size, economic motivation and secular growth. Population growth in a rich country such as the U.S. or France stimulates the economy; in impoverished, resource-poor countries like 19th century Ireland or much of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East today, it makes existing problems more intractable.
For the pessimists, the rapid growth of the global economy during the past half century resulted mainly from ruthless exploitation of the Earth's resources; for the optimists, human creativity and an enormous accumulation of capital were the prime movers.
For the optimists, rising populations, increasingly better integrated in the global economy, benefiting from steadily improved education, will lead the human creativity factor on a steep growth trajectory. Already now, Asians are dominating a large chunk of the global information industry: a fact hard to imagine only a few decades ago. Communist Vietnam is expected by some to be the world's fastest growing economy to 2050.
Differences in capital accumulation are expected to account even more than population growth for the economic ranking of individual countries and regions. Chinese frugality will permit the country to increase its already huge capital stock and export capital all over the world, dwarfing the capital formation of all other transition countries.
Practically speaking, human ingenuity in combination with massive capital investment is by the optimists expected to overcome raw material shortages, generate renewables including energy, clean up the environment, improve public health and life expectancy, and reduce carbon and other hazardous emissions to tolerable levels.
A daunting agenda, undoubtedly. But a realistic one, if we listen to the authors of some of the most important long range studies.
Almost No Poor Countries Left by 2035?
Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men, predicted that by 2035 no nation will be as poor as the poorest countries of today. Most countries will have higher per-capita income by 2035 than China does now, Gates said
"The easiest way to respond to the myth that poor countries are doomed to stay poor is to point to one fact: They haven’t stayed poor. Many—though by no means all—of the countries we used to call poor now have thriving economies. And the percentage of very poor people has dropped by more than half since 1990."
"Don’t let anyone tell you that Africa is worse off today than it was 50 years ago. Income per person has in fact risen in sub-Saharan Africa over that time, and quite a bit in a few countries. After plummeting during the debt crisis of the 1980s, it has climbed by two thirds since 1998, to nearly $2,200 from just over $1,300. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies of the past half-decade are in Africa." (Gates Foundation, Annual letter)
"A few countries will be held back by war, politics, or geography. And inequality will still be a problem: There will be poor people in every region. But most of them will live in countries that are self-sufficient. Every nation in South America, Asia, and Central America (with the possible exception of Haiti), and most in coastal Africa, will have joined the ranks of today’s middle-income nations. More than 70 percent of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today. Nearly 90 percent will have a higher income than India does today." (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Annual letter) (Carnegie Endowment)
The long term historic world poverty trend can be seen here.
The PwC study
According to a study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) the G7-countries will retain in 2050 the highest <i>per capita</i>GDP, i.e. the USA, Japan, U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Canada. But the purchasing power of Chinese, Brazilians, Mexicans, Indonesians and Turks will by 2050 match or exceed the 2008 purchasing power of the French.
These studies are of limited scope. They esclude external factors such as politics, wars and natural disasters. Due to different assumptions and methodologies, the results of projections differ: some expect that India will in 2050 be the second largest economy after China, others see the European Union or the USA in second place.
Contrary to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, some studies include the environment, natural resources and energy supplies. Two of them, by the/ OECD and the World Bank, arrive at alarmist conclusions. Both institutions are not known for being particularly "green." Their predictions therefore deserve being carefully studied.
The HSBC study
In 2012, HSBC (originally: Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) issued a second perspective study of the world economy toward 2050. Not surprisingly, the results strongly emphasized the "newly emerging economies" beyond the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) which were fashionable before the financial crisis caught up with them. The overall results are very optimistic as regards the growth potential of the formerly "developing" countries.
The OECD study
The 2012 OECD environmental outlook to 2050: the consequences of inaction shows a race between governments and society on one side, and progress on the other. Societies worldwide are realizing that it is in their vital interest to protect the environment and climate, to save energy and resources, to fight poverty and hunger. Responding to societal wishes, governments take positive action. Whilst they are acting in this beneficial direction, progress changes the world much faster. Progress means more economically active people are stressing the environment, issuing greenhouse gases, consuming energy and resources. "The current growth model and the mismanagement of natural assets could ultimately undermine human development," says the OECD.
The world is in grave danger of losing the race between wise stewardship of nature and economic growth, according to OECD. Since economic progress cannot be decelerated or stopped, protective action must be greatly enhanced, the rich country organization concludes. "Without new policies, by 2050, the Earth’s population is expected to increase from 7 billion to over 9 billion and the world economy is projected to nearly quadruple, with growing demand for energy and natural resources."
Since 1970, the global GDP has tripled but to 2050 OECD expects it to almost quadruple again. Growth will be faster than in the past. By historic standards, this progress would constitute a breathtaking speed of growth. It might be possible to respond to the 2 percent rate expected for the OECD economies with vigorous steps to preserve and, if possible, repair the environment. But what about the menacing 3.5 percent growth rate anticipated for the transition countries and the rest of the world?
It is dizzying to imagine life in 2050 when many old world city centers will be inhabited by moguls from former colonies and other newly rich countries. Local people commuting from the periphery to the center to serve the wealthy immigrants who are enjoying the clear skies of the old world -- New York, Miami, London, Rome -- while remote-controlling their economic empires in Diyarbekir, Lagos, Dhaka or Bogotá, thereby avoiding exposure to a lethal environment polluted by sewage and urban waste.
Their workers, however, despite wearing masks, won't be able to escape the smog of overpopulated agglomerations which trims their life expectancy to pre-growth levels. Dickensian London revisited in Cairo, Lima, Manila or Addis Ababa. "Nearly 70% of the world population is projected to be urban residents by 2050, magnifying challenges such as air pollution, transport congestion, and waste management."
While many of these problems are local in character, others are global, in particular the climate isue. "Without new policies, by 2050, more disruptive climate change is likely to be locked in, with global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions projected to increase by 50%, primarily due to a 70% growth in energy-related CO2 emissions," the OECD predicts and expects the world to use 80% more energy in 2050 with the share of fossil energy remaining at about 85%.
"The atmospheric concentration of GHGs could reach 685 parts per million (ppm) by 2050. As a result, the global average temperature increase is projected to be 3°C to 6°C higher by the end of the century, exceeding the internationally agreed goal of limiting it to 2°C above pre-industrial levels." A statement as shattering as this one from the organization which represents the world's prime polluters of the atmosphere deserves serious consideration.
What is the purpose of the OECD study and other similar exercises? Obviously, the goal is to scare people, countries and the global community -- if there is one to speak of -- into action.
In principle, we are faced with three different analyses which together produce the image of the 2050 world.
On the global level, demographic projections are quite reliable. World population growth to 2050 is likely to match the projections by, give or take, a few hundred million. At the regional level, projections are less reliable, as Nikos Alexandratos stressed (fao.org/economic/esa/esag/en/). Population growth in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Islamic countries tends to disappoint demographers who expect a faster transition to lower growth rates. In developed countries, economic crises can temporarily lower birth rates below expected levels.
However, of more importance than absolute population increases is the share of people who are now still living in rural self-sufficiency but will decide to leave the subsistence economy of the countryside and join the global urbanized economy. This share can, in absolute numbers, exceed the expected global growth of 2 billion people.
The Economic Projections
The economic projections are less trustworthy. Environmental constraints or crises of all sorts could limit growth to a tripling instead of quadrupling global GDP. But major innovations such as new cheap sources of environmentally benign energy could probably accelerate growth even beyond the fourfold estimate.
The demographic and economic projections of OECD are concrete and based on decades of similar experience. They are, to some degree, simply trend extrapolations. Barring major disasters, the 2050 estimates are likely to be attained if severe environmental constraints are excluded.
The Environmental Outlook
However, massive environmental constraints are to be expected, the OECD explained in its report. These environmental projections differ from the demographic and economic ones in being of a static nature.
Given that environmental policies and work are a relatively new sector of human activity, there is no long term trend of its impact available for extrapolation. The OECD projections therefore describe environmental changes triggered by demographic and economic growth as if humanity would not undertake additional efforts to mitigate damage. For that reason, the environmental projections are static in nature because they largely exclude improvement and innovation.
Aware of this methodical shortcoming, the OECD steps beyond its projection work and offers a catalog of do's and don't's to protect the environment and save resources. This well-intentioned list of presumably beneficial action is addressed to governments, politicians and stakeholders in general.
In publishing its catalog, however, the OECD went beyond its mandate and mingled with the plethora of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on environmental concerns. Instead a recommending a set of partly utopian policies for action, more stringent analysis of humanity's expected real response to environmental calamities would have been useful.
Some ugly questions need to be explored, for instance: is civil strife such as the ongoing one in Syria, Centre Afrique, Darfur or South Sudan caused by human perplexity under pressure of environmental dilemmata?
Do populations stressed by their excessive growth in relation to scarce natural resources and economies of poverty tend to engage in warmongering and brutal killing sprees? In Syria's civil war, now entering its fourth year, its population of 23 million still showed a natural increment of 1.3 million, minus an estimated 180,000 war-related deaths. Some 2 million refugees left the country at least temporarily, adding to stress and hatred in neighboring countries, and still showing population growth in the refugee camps. With the Syrian economy in shambles and farm lands abandoned, prospects for future economic growth are dim at best, reducing, however, the expected pressure on the environment.
Another disaster looming is the project of a dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia which threatens to reduce the flow of water reaching Egypt. By violating the Second Nile Waters Agreement of 1959 between the riverine states, Ethiopia risks forcible intervention by Egypt. The latter's current rulers could well be pleased to show off their military prowess. Sudan could become a collateral victim.
Apart from such extreme and sometimes suicidal responses to ecological problems, human creativity can be expected to find more benign and peaceful solutions. But how can this creativity be factored in the demographic-economic-environmental equations? As a suitable yardstick could perhaps serve the number of patent applications worldwide in the sectors of energy and conservation of natural resources.
For the forseeable future we need not worry, says Bjorn Lomborg, the enfant terrible of environmental research who back in 2001 criticized the Meadows and the Club of Rome for environmental scare-mongering with their primitive and biased computer modeling.
A brilliant statistician, Lomborg in 2012 showed that the Meadows' prophecies had turned out wrong in all sectors they dealt with. "The collapse occurs because of nonrenewable resource depletion", they said. Lomborg's responds: "Not only have those not run out, but their reserves, measured in terms of years of current consumption, are larger today than they have ever been since 1970, even though consumption has increased dramatically.", adding: "Commodity prices have generally declined over the last century and a half."
As regards pollution, Lomborg shows that in this respect the Meadows were also wrong. The world's by far most important pollution killer -- smoke and dust from open kitchen and heating fires still causing 2 million cases of deadly lung tumors and mesothelioma a year in developing countries -- is on the decline because of gradual modernization of households. Outdoor pollution in OECD countries has effectively been reduced by stringent legislation.
In concluding his article in Foreign Affairs (7-8, 2012), Lomborg says: "It is past time to acknowledge that economic growth, for lack of a better word, is good, and that what the world needs is more of it, not less."
Although Lomborg is quite convincing in explaining why the past four decades were the economically most successful ones in the history of mankind, his arguments need to be understood in a wider context.
The Optimistic Scenarios: conclusions
Economic growth will continue to be at least as vigorous in the future as it was in the recent past. New countries, new economic elites will rise and demand their share of well-being, beauty and pleasure. More global GDP will be produced through better use of finite resources and recycling. By 2050, an additional two billion people will not only find enough food but overall nutrition standards will be improved. Poverty will be greatly reduced.
However, not all countries and not all populations will be able to share global progress. Terrible conflicts over access to land and water will happen with millions of victims. Some countries will have been ruined by debt crises and lost the wealth they had acquired in decades. For fear of public upheaval, most governments will work hard to move from exploiting to shephearding the environment.
Looking back from 2050, most of the environmental fears expressed some 35 years earlier will appear exaggerated. Scientists will be concerned if the expected world population reduction to the year 3000 will suffice to offset the progressive depletion of resources and help to avoid another increase in global temperature to unsustainable levels.
A Trend Scenario
Not all researchers are convinced that we are heading toward another golden age of global growth and reduced poverty. Evan Hillebrand of the U. of Kentucky asked how the world economy would develop if it simply followed its long term trends by disregarding current optimistic assumptions about impending modernization and major changes in governance of non-OECD countries (called ROW= rest of the world).
In an article in the World Bank's World Development Report (2007), Hillebrand gave a sobering account of global prospects. Extrapolating regional trends which prevailed since 1981 he showed that Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East/North Africa, and Latin America would achieve only very slow progress and fail to catch up with the OECD countries. Per capita income (measured in purchasing power parity dollars -- PPP $) in Africa could even decline by 0.1 percent/year. Only China and India would strongly rise economically, taking many millions of poor people out of the world poverty headcount.
In absolute numbers, the difference in per capita incomes between OECD and ROW countries would grow dramatically. In 2050, some 270 million more people than in 2005 would live in absolute poverty, bringing the total up to 1.2 billion. The relative income gap between OECD and ROW, expressed by the relevant Gini coefficient, would widen again and in 2050 exceed the historical maximum recorded in the mid-1970s.
Clearly, the environmental aspects of the Trend Scenario would differ from those of the optimistic models. Thanks to their rising incomes, the OECD countries would be able to manage the transition to an economy based on a more parsimonious use of non-renewables and reining in the output of climate gases. Of the ROW regions, Latin America is in the best position because of its gradually declining population growth, helping it to maintain a 0.6 percent annual ppp GDP per capita growth rate. Still, it would continue to fall behind the world average growth of 1.7 percent/year and increasingly strain its environment.
In Africa and the Middle East, prospects are dire. Rapid population growth, weak institutions, poor governance and possibly violence would continue to impede progress and push up the numbers of absolute poor, including environmental and conflict refugees. Bulgeoning populations would stress the environment; poverty and inept governments would prevent action to protect resources.
The Trend Scenario: conclusions
The Trend Scenario paints a pleasant future for the OECD countries characterized by steadily rising incomes and progress in environmental and resource management. For the ROW countries -- with the exception of China, India and a few smaller "tiger" states -- the future promises more grinding poverty, environmental limitations and social unrest which could lead to civil wars or "failed states" in chaos. OECD countries would frequently be called to maintain peace and order in ROW regions, a role they would hesitate to assume and try to unload on the United Nations and its regional bodies.
In a world economically falling apart being born on the right side of the fence constitutes an enormous bonus. Being born on the wrong side would stimulate more millions to jump the fence, legally or illegally. Because of sluggish growth in several ROW regions, there would be less rich people able to migrate to OECD centers where, as in the past, the local upper crust would continue to prevail.
Alexandratos (personal communication) doubts the usefulness of Hillebrand's Trend Scenario because trends never last long enough to permit basing projections on them. In fact, Hillebrands' assumption that per capita incomes in Sub-Saharan Africa would continue to decline appears odd in the light of several African countries now showing high economic growth rates, including Ethiopia which for decades was considered a hopeless basket case.
The Prognos and McKinsey Studies
On behalf of Bertelsmann Foundation, the Swiss based Prognos Institute studied the impact of globalization on incomes in OECD and emerging economies. All 42 countries analyzed registered gains in wealth during the 1990 to 2011 period. However, while in the OECD countries the average annual gain in GDP per capita was 1,000 euros, the gains in emerging nations such as China, India or Mexico were less than 100 euros per capita. Finnland, Denmark, Japan and Germany were most successful in benefiting from the growing volume of world trade. In Germany, expanding trade accounted for one fifth of all income growth registered during the two decades under consideration. Worst performer among the emerging economies was India which gained only about 20 euros per year and inhabitant. Not to mention the performance of economies not counted as "emerging".
Obviously, the 2014 Prognos study confirms the suspicion that the world economy is basically still following Hillebrand's Trend Scenario. Globalization seems to work very well for small, rich and export oriented economies. Large economies like the U.S. are showing much lower per capita gains because of their smaller export sector.
At similar results arrived a report by the McKinsey Global Institute: „Global flows in a digital age." Its "Connectedness Index" evaluates the international exchange of countries with respect to five categories (trade, services, finance, people and data) and shows Germany as the top performer, followed by the U.S., Singapore and U.K.
Under current conditions, the continuing globalization is not likely to reduce the wealth gap between rich and poor nations. To the contrary, the gap continues to widen. However, this does not mean that globalization is per se harmful to development. The gains achieved by emerging economies are real and may act as a "starter" pulling many millions of people out of economic stagnation and endemic poverty.
Seemingly minuscule initial per capita income gains served, some thirty years ago, to ignite China's spectacular growth which has since proceeded on a logarithmic scale. Hence it appears possible that even under unfavorable conditions, Brazil, Mexico and a few other countries will also experience exponential growth, reducing, in the very long run, the currently still expanding wealth gap <i>vis à vis</i> the OECD countries. A catch up process likely to require decades of world trade growth.
If the assumption is correct that initially small gains from globalization can trigger exponential growth, countries that enter the globalization process earlier than others are more likely to escape poverty by 2050. Countries that today still navigate the economic doldrums will be outdistanced not only by the OECD part of the world but also by the currently emerging nations.
Since Hillebrand's 2007 study, world development closely followed a mixed scenario. The financial crisis of 2008-12 dented the growth of the OECD countries but hit most of the transition countries (e.g. BRICS) harder. Some highly indebted OECD countries in southern Europe were strongly affected and temporarily in danger of defaulting and returning to "transition" status.
Most ROW regions suffered heavily from the crisis which affected their commodity exports and world trade in general. The pre-crisis enthusiasm which predicted a slowly decreasing global Gini coefficient has evaporated. With the notable exception of China, re-attaining their pre-crisis income and trade levels is all most transition and ROW countries can currently hope for.
In the longer run, however, virtually all analyses agree that the world economy can be expected to continue growing vigorously toward 2050, unimpeded by population growth and shortages of food or non-renewables, barring major natural disasters. The remaining quandary relates to the climate: global warming and pollution. Unsurprisingly, none of the more important 2050 studies attempted to factor climate change in its calculations.
Since the days of Dennis and Donella Meadows climate research has not gained much respect. Particularly sad is the poor performance of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which has devolved into a forum better known for politicking than reliable science, often denounced on scientific grounds by its own members.
Lennart Bengtsson, a climatologist at U. of Reading, said it was frustrating that climate science was unable to correctly validate its simulations. He urged new science and technology in view of an expected doubling of global primary energy consumption by a world population of nine to ten billion people.
Recently, the IPCC issued alarmist views on the future impact of climate change on agriculture and food production which collide with the long term projections of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The IPCC said: "Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence)." (IPCC WGII AR5 SPM)
FAO is less confident in this respect: "Most climate models indicate that the agricultural potential of the developing countries may be more adversely affected than the world average. The high dependence of several of them on agriculture makes them particularly vulnerable in this respect. Studies that have looked into this matter provide very disparate answers ranging from catastrophic to mildly pessimistic." (World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050; 2012 Revision; Nikos Alexandratos and Jelle Bruinsma, p.18)
As regards future food supplies, FAO is cautiously sanguine: "The perceived limit to producing food for a growing global population remains a source of debate and preoccupation despite the agriculture sector’s historical ability to meet such demand. Such a long look forward is inherently burdened with uncertainty, but the methodical inclusion of the range of technical expertise found throughout FAO on likely paths of development and constraints results in an outlook that is widely used for planning and framing debates in food and agriculture."(op.cit., summary)
A graph shows that FAO expects agriculture not only to be able to feed the 2050 population in developing countries but to raise per capita food supplies in all developing regions with most progress to be made in the critical regions of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
From Undernourishment to Oversatiety
In conclusion, both FAO and Bill Gates expect the food situation to improve considerably despite continuing population growth. FAO, however, warns: "Of the 45 developing countries with a per capita GDP below US$1 000 today, 15 will remain in this classification – with its associated levels of per capita food consumption and undernourishment – in 2050."
"By 2050, some 52 percent of the world’s population may live in countries where average calorie intake is more than 3 000 kcal/person/day," says FAO, referring to the growing problem of overnutrition and its related health hazards.
The expected doubling or tripling of per capita incomes in OECD countries by 2050 will be accompanied by massive social and economic changes. In order to participate in a more competitive economy, a different set of basic skills will be required. Experience in computer programming, for instance, will probably be as necessary as a driver's licence today. In turn, today's jobs of programmer and system administrator will go the way of the chauffeur and the secretary.
Historic experience shows that higher incomes will bring a luxury life style of today within easy reach of millions in OECD countries. Conversely, maintaining the standard life style of today would smack of poverty and backwardness. The middle classes will struggle to maintain their status and educate their children to become top performers in order to shape up for an increasingly picky labor market.
If today's emerging economies succeed in joining the OECD club of rich countries by 2050, their life styles are likely to resemble the present OECD standards. Due to their huge populations, they would dominate the global economy.
For the ROW countries, prospects are mixed. Even if Bill Gates is right that the worst poverty will disappear, there is no indication that traditional impediments to development will also be removed: poor governance, corruption, religious traditionalism, excessive population growth, inadequate institutions and infrastructure, crime and insecurity. With social stratification likely to become more pronounced in all countries, envy and despair of the poorest could force governments to tolerate crime as a social safety valve, fostering apartheid among classes and proliferation of gated communities.
Heinrich von Loesch
Forty years later, an Australian team from the University of Melbourne undertook to compare the Meadows&Meadows "business as usual" projections with actual data compiled by the MIT and the authors themselves. And, surprise, the actual development since 1972 seems to closely follow the projections. The Meadows predictions were quite accurate, team leader Dr Graham Turner believes, and criticism of their work by Lomborg and others was unjustified.
Looking at the graphs, reproduced by the online Guardian (Sept. 2, 2014), provokes rather mixed feelings. Sure, the real trends closely match the projections during the first three decades. This is hardly surprising since any extrapolation of past trends, barring major changes of external parameters, are likely to match real development in the short to medium term. You don't need a computer for this exercise.
After four decades, however, real data and Meadows' projections start to diverge. More importantly, in 2014 we are already approaching the point in time when Meadows' world is about to collapse with a sudden and steep reversal of all trends. The current data do not indicate that the real world will experience any sudden reversal from growth to decline.
Most pronounced is the divergence as regards the population projections. According to the Meadows, the global death rate will stop declining and start rising in less than ten years from now. World population would peak at about 4.5 billion and start declining shortly after.
Even in the event of major disasters such as a nuclear war or a worldwide pandemic, it is difficult to envisage, starting a few years from now, the long term continuously rising global death rates which the Meadows' model requires to achieve the global collapse scenario it predicted.
The latest set of population projections issued in June 2014 by the UN Population Division in collaboration with the U. of Washington (Seattle) revised earlier estimates which expected world population to peak around 2050 and then start declining. The UN now expects humanity to continue growing until 2100 and possibly beyond, and to total between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by the end of the century.
Food supplies per capita now comfortably exceed the peak level expected by the Meadows' model before crashing, showing that food -- contrary to Meadows' assumptions -- has not been a bottleneck for global development.
While industrial output per capita followed the expected trend, the provision of services per capita already exceeds the peak level envisaged by the model before crashing.
Lomborg consigned the Meadows' model to "the dustbin of history." This is too harsh a verdict. The Meadows opened a window to a new and less positivist view of the world. This, however, does not imply they were right in their predictions.
Energy is traditionally considered a prime bottleneck of economic development. High prices of crude oil have made profitable once unthinkable methods of extraction such as exploiting tar sands and fracking. Despite a current glut on oil and gas markets, there is still a deep seated popular belief that the world is gradually exhausting its main sources of fossil energy, with the exception of the old climate killer, coal.
The most recent nuclear disaster has triggered a rapid response of de-nuclearization, not in Japan, as one would expect, but on the opposite side of the globe, in Germany. What at first sight appears funny is really an interesting experiment of substituting renewable energy for nuclear power. Surprisingly, it seems to work, mainly at the expense of consumers.
No oil, no gas, no nuke power: the future looks frighteningly cold and dark. Small wonder that in rich countries there is a generation of NEETS spreading -- youngsters who consider the world doomed and refuse to participate by working or studying.
However, there are signs of a new consensus among cognoscienti as different as UNEP Director-General Achim Steiner, former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, and the New York Times' op-ed economist Paul Krugman, that the world is well on its way toward resolving the energy problem, as well as climate fears, by boosting renewables. Wind power, solar panels, geothermal energy have become surprisingly competitive in recent years. Enormous progress is taking place. For the first time it seems possible that a new era of renewable energy will follow on two centuries of relying on fossil energy (and some nuclear power). Clearly, most human causes of global warming would also disappear.
Perhaps someone should tell the NEETS.
A few quotes from the "Better Growth, Better Climate" report of the "New Climate Economy" commission, set up by a group of international research institutes, should serve to illustrate the new optimistic view of the global energy/climate quandary:
"The next 15 years offer an opportunity to create better energy systems that also reduce future climate risk. Achieving this will require a multi-faceted approach. The starting point must be toget energy pricing right, implementing energy prices that enable cost recovery for investment and less wasteful use of energy, and removing subsidies for fossil fuel consumption, production and investment."
"The next 10–15 years could be an era of great progress and growth.2 In this period we have the technological, financial and human resources to raise living standards across the world. Good policies that support investment and innovation can further reduce poverty and hunger, make fast-growing cities economically vibrant and socially inclusive, and restore and protect the world’s natural environments."
"The low-carbon economy is now a global phenomenon. International trade in environmental goods and services totals nearly US$1 trillion per year, or around 5% of all trade. Trade in low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies alone is expected to reach US$2.2 trillion by 2020, a tripling of current levels. Two-fifths of that market is expected to be in emerging and developing economies, and the suppliers come from all over the world. In just the solar power sector, China and the US trade around US$6.5 billion worth of goods each year."