“The World in 2050” by Laurence C. Smith

world_2050 Laurence Smith projects future trends in order to describe what the world might be like in 2050.  His basic ground rule is “no genies,” good or bad — no miracle technologies yielding unlimited free energy, and no big, drastic shocks like World War III.

As might be expected, Smith’s 2050 is a bit more populated than today.  9.2 billion people, about 6 billion of them urban.  I think today we’re at 7 billion and about half urban … so basically all the net growth will be towards cities.  This points to a much higher consumption per capita than today as developing countries continue to Westernize.

China, US, India make up the top 3 world economies in 2050.  Most of the big European players (and Japan) are still in the top ten, but are becoming proportionally less relevant due to falling birthrates. Most of the book focuses on climate change and energy.

Current climate models predict general global temperatures to rise, but the rise will not be uniform.  In particular, the change in Arctic temperatures will be about double the change in lower latitudes.  (It’ll still be pretty cold, though!)  The Northwest Passage is already opening up each summer, and the North Pole itself will probably be ice-free for at least part of the year by 2050.  This presents some interesting shipping and access possibilities, but actually the total effect on the region might be a wash, since the rising temperatures will also diminish the viability of winter roads carved into the snow.  Therefore the Arctic areas of industrial activity may shift from the interior to the coast.

And that industrial activity will be resource extraction, mainly oil.  Besides the ongoing development of Canadian oil sands, the Arctic has other large oil deposits, both on and offshore.  Yes, the world of 2050 will still be powered by oil, natural gas, and coal to a large degree.  “Why would we still be using greenhouse gas emitters even in the face of climate change?!” you ask.  Because they are cheap!  Not many people are willing to spend 6x as much on energy from a clean source (that’s Smith’s estimate on how much solar energy pricing needs to improve in order to compete with “dirty” energy).

Some may argue with some validity that the true costs in terms of environmental damage are not included in the “dirty” energy cost.  I agree; I think the problem is how to apply it.  Politically it would be hard to mandate a carbon tax, and enforcement would also be difficult – bootleg oil, anyone?  I do think ultimately solar is what makes the most sense and where we will end up, but until then oil and coal are doing a fine job at a decent price.  Hopefully they don’t wreck the planet too much before we start finding them too expensive.

Side note on energy; Smith discussed an interesting idea for shifting power demand via the (coming soon?) network of plug-in electric cars that we’ll all have.  Basically these massive car batteries will be a giant distributed battery that the grid can draw on during times of peak demand.  There would need to be logic to not completely drain someone’s plugged in car (maybe the exact setting would be set by the owner); and of course car owners would be compensated somehow: they call this idea the “cash-back hybrid.”

The future of water is just as important as energy.  (And they are connected … did you know that 50% of surface water in the US is used for power plant cooling?  I didn’t.)  The water supply in many places today is very iffy even without climate change, which will unfortunately exacerbate current conditions — in general, dry spots will become drier, and wet spots will become wetter.  Fortunately, we have a pretty good mechanism of “virtual water trade”: grow food in wet areas, transport to dry.  (So long as we have energy for transportation … see, I told you water and energy were intertwined!)

So given all that, you’re best off betting long on Canada for future growth and prosperity.  Canada’s got oil, water, stability, and a growing skilled population — a hard-to-beat combination in 2050.


The World in 2050 is available from Amazon.

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