A Look at Sustainability Megatrends on the Road to 2050

For those who want to know what the world will be like in the year 2050, here are some sobering facts from United Nations trend analyses and other studies:

The world's population will be 9.3 billion in 2050, compared to 7 billion today. At the same time, the urban centers will grow by another three billion inhabitants, mostly in today's emerging markets. In other words, nearly as many people will be living in cities in 2050 as now populate the entire Earth today.

China will then be the world's biggest economy, ahead of the U.S. and India. Prosperity is already rapidly expanding in today's BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China: The number of people considered to be middle class in those countries is likely to double to around 1.6 billion over the next ten years, and these people are also becoming more and more educated and qualified. There are in fact already more students entering college in China today than in the U.S., the European Union, and Japan combined.

Why We Need to Abandon 'Business as Usual'

All of this is having serious consequences: If things continue along the lines of "business as usual," the annual global consumption of raw materials (metals, minerals, biomass, and fossil energy sources) will more than double from 60 billion tons today to 140 billion tons in 2050.

The situation is similar regarding electricity consumption as well as greenhouse gas emissions. So, if the human race continues with its current behavior, we will need at least two Earths to support us in 2050 rather than the one -- the only one -- we have now. The plundering of our planet's natural resources would not only lead to scarcity in all areas (e.g. raw materials, food, water, natural habitats) but also result in armed conflict. In addition, we shouldn't forget the effects of climate change, whether in the form of flooding, droughts, storms, or rising sea levels, all of which would lead to the mass migration of millions of people from the affected regions.

Every reasonable human being should therefore realize that business as usual is not an option for our future. Instead, the answer lies in a culture of sustainability. In other words, the structure of the global economy -- everything from energy and water supplies to manufacturing industries and the financial sector -- must be overhauled and transformed if future generations are to enjoy a life worth living. Economic growth will need to be achieved with fewer resources in the future. Products will have to be designed in a way that ensures they use less energy and can be recycled in a manner that makes it possible to easily remove valuable substances such as copper and rare earth metals at the end of their service life.

The Promise of Electricity in Replacing Petroleum

A new universal energy carrier will have replaced petroleum by 2050: electricity, mostly produced from renewable sources like the wind, sun, water or biomass. This power will be generated with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions and transported thousands of kilometers with only minimal losses.

It can also be used very efficiently: Light-emitting diodes, for example, require only 20 percent as much electricity as an incandescent bulb with the same illuminating power, while electric motors are three to four times more efficient than combustion engines. Even seawater desalination can be made at least twice as efficient as it is now through the use of membrane technologies and electricity.

And the best part: The necessary infrastructure for electricity can already be found practically everywhere. In other words, there can be little doubt that we are now on the threshold of a new age of electricity.