What impact will our changing climate have by 2050? We’re fast forwarding by thirty years to explore its possible effects and to imagine how we might cope with the challenges.
By Elaine Kavanagh.
In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a worrying deadline. If we want to save our climate, we must be halfway towards a carbon neutral world by 2030, and completely carbon neutral by 2050. Crossing this line in the sand means we face a future of droughts, wildfires, floods and food shortages. And not just in far-flung corners of the world, this will hit us all.
In truth, it’s all a bit overwhelming; there’s almost a sense of Armageddon about it. You could be forgiven for wanting to throw your hands in the air and not even try. But what if we could see the way ahead more clearly? What might the planet look like in 2050 if we become carbon neutral, or even manage to get close? Let’s peer into our crystal ball and catch a glimpse of our uncertain future.
IRELAND IN 2050
We’ll start with the good news. Here in Ireland, we’ve been quite lucky. Temperatures are only a couple of degrees above what we were used to in 2020, so we’re not fighting forest fires or rationing water. We can thank the Gulf stream for that. All the melting ice caused it to slow down, which had a cooling effect on our climate and offset some of the temperature increases.
Our 2050 climate means we have a proper summer, which is great because air travel has become ridiculously expensive due to the ever-increasing carbon taxes. The winters are a different story. If you thought the rain was bad in the old days, just wait till you see what’s to come.
We even have a fully-fledged storm season because Atlantic hurricanes are travelling further north and east than ever before. From late August until the end of October, the whole country battens down the hatches. Fortunately, most of these hurricanes are downgraded by the time they reach our shores. They still pack quite a punch, but we’ve become fairly adept at managing our new reality. These days, we’re not nearly as obsessed with weather warnings as we used to be.
Flooding has been the biggest consequence of climate change in Ireland. Again, we’ve been relatively lucky – in some parts of the world, entire populations have relocated, lock, stock and barrel. Sea levels are a foot or so higher than they were in 2020 and they’re still inching up. We’ve invested in expensive flood defences like sea walls and pumps to protect our coastal towns and cities, but for some, there was no alternative – moving was the only option.
A Better Ireland
We had to make changes, so we improved things while we were at it. New homes were needed, both for the people who had to relocate and for the climate refugees who came to live here. So, some parts of our cities have been completely redesigned. These new areas are great places to live, with decent amenities and a real sense of community. And all homes are energy efficient now, even the older houses have been carbon-proofed.
Of course, cars are all electric, and there are fewer of them. In the countryside, you still need a car, but in the cities and towns, cycling and public transport are more popular than driving. That might be hard to believe, but public transport is fast and reliable these days, plus the extra car tolls for really had an impact. It costs an arm and a leg to drive into town, and if you drive alone you pay extra. Lots of people hire or share cars now too, it’s much cheaper.
We’re not just sharing cars, by the way; the sharing economy has mushroomed. That started years ago, but it kicked up a gear when we began to realise that we couldn’t continue to consume the way we used to. Sharing, repairing and re-using are cornerstones of our economy now. Plus, we’re world leaders in the ‘circular economy’ as it’s called. We invested a lot of money into finding ways to turn waste products into usable commodities, and it’s really paid off.
Are you wondering where we’re getting our energy from? Well, we finally tapped into our potential for wind power. A lot of the newer wind farms are offshore; we even have floating wind turbines that can move around. We get about three quarter of our energy from wind power, the rest comes from hydrogen, solar and biofuels.
We’re not completely carbon free, no country is. Carbon offsetting is big business, and it’s not just about paying extra taxes and levies. Science came up with some new technologies for capturing carbon, but the cheapest method turned out to be the simplest – plant more trees! So, Ireland looks even more scenic and beautiful than it used to; it’s a small silver lining in a very dark cloud.
THE WIDER WORLD
It’s been pretty grim for many parts of the globe. Some parts of the world are no longer habitable. Recurring forest fires turned parts of America, Australia and Europe into wastelands. Regular droughts, floods and water rationing are just part of the new reality.
The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet; we had our first ice-free Arctic summer last year. There are still a handful of polar bears left in the wild, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, but it doesn’t look good for them. In the Antarctic, penguins are in decline and the shrinking ice has impacted stocks of krill, which in turn has affected global whale populations.
The northern hemisphere has seen the most extreme temperature increases. Central and eastern Europe are about five degrees warmer all year round; London’s climate in 2050 is similar to Barcelona’s thirty years ago. But it’s Asia and Africa that have suffered most.
Huge coastal cities in Asia were severely impacted by rising tides. Jakarta in Indonesia, which was subsiding for years, is now almost completely underwater. The country relocated its capital city in the 2020s. In other Asian cities, like Tokyo, Bangkok, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing, forward planning staved off complete disaster. Chinese authorities, in particular, showed great foresight; they started preparing years ago.
Constant flooding devastated the Pacific Islands; some of them had to be completely abandoned. Glacier melt in Tibet had a huge impact, not just on the surrounding area – which suffered winter floods, landslides and drier summers – but on the wider region. Meltwater from the glaciers was an important water source for India, Thailand and China; when that was reduced, billions were affected.
In Africa, expanding deserts, the flooding of major river deltas and extreme weather events have taken a harsh toll on rural farming populations, displacing millions. Economically, climate change was a real setback in Africa, coming at a time when the continent was just beginning to catch up with the rest of the world. Fast-growing coastal cities, like Lagos, were badly impacted.
All over the world, coastal cities are fighting back against rising seas; Shanghai, Miami, New Orleans, London, Venice and New York are on the front lines, but at least these cities can afford to invest in technologies that keep the waters at bay. It’s a different story for rural communities – flood prevention is expensive, and for many, the only option was to move inland.
EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT
During the 2030s, we saw a rise in food and water shortages, wars and civil unrest. Thankfully, the worst of that is behind us now. Scientists developed cheap, sustainable methods for turning sea water into drinking water. Plus, we learnt to make better use of resources. Most of us eat artificial meat now; it’s cheaper and much more efficient to produce. Plant-based diets are big, and we grow a lot of food indoors in vertical farms.
Addressing the issue of climate refugees was more challenging. At first, there was a lot of bickering between countries with very little action. In the end, Generation Greta grew up and changed the world. Voter priorities changed and after many angry protests, politicians followed suit. Now, most countries offer sanctuary to climate refugees. And guess what? It worked out okay.
The fossil fuel industry finally died. It didn’t go without a fight but again, Generation Greta had its say. They realised early on that becoming politically engaged was vital; in the end, politicians had to choose between a small minority of wealthy vested interests and a large majority of very angry voters.
All over the world, animal species have either been lost or are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, but we’re doing our best to save the ones that remain. Our warmer oceans carry more carbon dioxide, which has been devastating to marine life. Again, we’re doing what we can; fish is a luxury food now that commercial fishing has been banned.
Hope for the Future
You’ll be glad to hear there’s no more plastic, at least not as you know it. Made from completely renewable materials, it’s composted or turned into biofuel at the end of its life cycle. And as for the old, indestructible plastic? We’ve found uses for it in construction and manufacturing; after all, it will last for thousands of years.
We don’t hop on planes at the drop of a hat anymore, but diesel-powered ships are a thing of the past. These days, our ships are fitted out with technologies that take advantage of wind power and clean fuels. Replacing all the old sea vessels was expensive, but drastic action was needed.
Even building materials have changed. A method for turning algae into a steel substitute has almost completely replaced steel and concrete manufacturing. The best part is that as the algae grows, it captures carbon dioxide from the air and locks it inside forever. It’s just one of many clever solutions. Necessity is the mother of invention and the need was great.
The children born in the early 21st have children of their own now. We tell these kids stories about plastic-filled oceans and the system that valued profit for a privileged few over our beautiful planet. We show them old footage of places that no longer exist. Yes, everything is different. But so are we. And since we’re no longer churning out vast amounts of carbon and methane, we can look forward to a time when the planet starts to recover.