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The world in 2052

May 9, 2012

Forty years ago, the Club of Rome released "The limits of growth." Now, it has released another look into the future. But how accurate are such predictions?

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In its latest publication "2052 - a Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years," the Club of Rome takes a bold look into the future. The 66 scientists and economists that make up the club predict - similarly to their first report ("The limits of growth") in 1972 - that the current economic development could soon tip over.

But differing from their view back then, they now put climate change at the heart of their study. Their prognosis is mainly influenced by the assumption that a warming of more than 2.5 degrees Celsius is likely: There will be more floods, draughts and climate extremes.

The use of fossile energy is still on the rise. The goal to keep the global temperature rise under 2 percent will probably not be reached, the report concludes. It won't be before 2030 that a reduction of CO2 emissions would be realized and even that would only work if governments continue pushing for a move away from fossil fuels.

Oil platform off the coast of Baku
Today, even oil fields at the bottom of the ocean are being exploitedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Already in the 1972 report, the club warned that the globe's future would depend on the future use of energy. In contrast to today though, the assumption in the seventies was that the problem was rather that fossil fuels – oil and gas – would soon run out. And in the aftermath of the '72 report, its predictions seemed to hold true. The oil crisis of 1973 and the one of 1979/80 led to a dramatic rise in prices, with the industrialized world going through a recession as a consequence.

"The limits of growth" was a milestone in which the Club of Rome for the first time used complex mathematical models for predictions on future interdependencies of social, environmental and economic factors.

The models took into account the limited availabilitiy of natural ressources, the output of the global industry, food production, population growth and the pollution of the environment.

The main thesis was that a foreseable decline of non-renewable resources would have an influence on all of the other factors. The decline of resources was predicted to happen already in the 1970s while by 2015, food production and global industry was thought to decline leading to a shrinking of world population.

This scenario no longer holds, but the new Club of Rome report again predicts an end to growth, this time by around 2050. The stagnation followed by a global recession would then lead to a shrinking of world population.

Club of Rome members in 1972
In 1972, the Club of Rome predicted that fossil fuels - oil and gas - would run out soonImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But a look back at the 1972 predictions illustrates just how difficult it is to make reliable predictions for such complex scenarios. People were more inventive and adapted better than the report expected. The oil crisis of the 1970 lead to a quick surge in exploiting hitherto unknown sources of fossil fuel. By today, oil drills in the depth of the ocean are nothing unusual – in 1972 this thought was unimaginable.

The Club of Rome also failed to predict pushes of modernization leading to a structural change away from heavy industry towards a society with advanced technology and a service based economy: the rise of the computer during the 1980s, the Internet in the '90s and the advances in energy and environment and nano technologies.

The new study also poses a number of difficult questions: Will the discovery of methane clathrate solve the energy problems of the future or will it only add to climate change? Which strategies will politicial leaders follow? Which role will oil sands play in the energy mix of the future? How quick will renewable energy sources really become competitive? Will countries still be able to afford climate protection in times of economic crises? Will current predictions for climate change turn out to be accurate?

A self-fulfilling prophecy?

The new models for predictions have become more sophisticated and complex. For instance, the Club of Rome now incorporates more results from climate research into its predictions.

But there still is one problem that the report always fail to incorporate: the extent to which its own warnings will have an impact. If people are to assume that a change of policies and behavior will improve their lives they are likely to do so. Secretary General of the Club of Rome, Ian Johnson, said that "business as usual" was not an option if people wanted to make sure that future generations will still be able to live on this planet.

This points to an old dilemma: Is a prognosis a neutral scientific statement or is it a call to action? Ossip Flechtheim, one of the fathers of modern future studies already in the 1950s described his field as a synthesis of ideology and utopia not in line with a traditional concept of science.

Wind turbines
Renewable energy might help to lessen the catastrophic effects of climate changeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Winners and losers

Looking at politics, the Club of Rome predicts a shift of power and influence from the US to China. Beijing's undemocratic structures are – according to the report – in fact an advantage for the country, as the government can implement its policies more easily and faster than in a democracy.

But the report does not say whether or not China will be able to hold on to that advantage for long. The 1972 report showed that policital developments are hard to foresee – as for instance in the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But one thing the Club of Rome does rule out is a military confrontation between Washington and Beijing.

In terms of economic future, it is the small and medium sized companies in the US and other industrialized nations that will suffer most from the future transformations as it is the least innovative sector. The club estimates that by 2052, China will reach up to two thirds of the US' per capita income.

Author: Fabian Schmidt /ai
Editor: Neil King