10 key trends to watch for the 2020s

10 key trends to watch for the 2020s

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Shutterstock Berezovska Anastasia

If we look back at the last year, who could really say it turned out as expected? In January 2019, were we expecting Boris Johnson to assume the premiership and a landslide majority in Parliament? Were we expecting Trump's impeachment? The fervor for a "hot priest"?

Perhaps most crucially of all, were we expecting the rise of net-zero as the ultimate climate target? If so much can change in a year, imagine what the next decade could bring. We've got some ideas.

1. Greta grows up

Greta Thunberg has exploded into the global consciousness over the last 18 months as the leader of the Fridays for Future movement, which sees schoolchildren across the world refuse to attend lessons on Fridays, instead protesting for greater climate action.

But what happens when Greta, and her fellow strikers, grow up? Over the next decade Greta will go from being a 16-year-old wunderkind to a 26-year-old campaigner. How will her views, and her followers', change? Will they carry their climate activism, and insistence that the world must treat climate change as an emergency, into the workforce? Or will we see this new spirit of protest fizzle out as the school kids become nine-to-five office drones?

Perhaps the science has the answer. Over the next 10 years, if emissions keep rising, the scientists tell us that the world's ice caps will continue to melt — perhaps irrevocably — leading to a 0.6 feet rise in sea levels by 2020. The resulting floods, along with fiercer heatwaves and storms, will make climate change increasingly visible to even the most disengaged citizen, and perhaps make it impossible for our student activists to lose their passion for protest.

"The coming decade will see climate anxiety become mainstream where it has, to date, been on the most part reserved for a niche subset of society," predicts Tomer Shalit, CEO and founder of Swedish climate software company ClimateView. "Over time, however, the general public will become increasingly aware of how difficult the transition towards carbon neutrality will actually be and this, in turn, will likely result in increased pressure being placed on governments (from all parties) to deliver substantial climate action." 

2. Paris Agreement gets put to the test

A decade's worth of diplomatic effort will go on trial from next year as the Paris Agreement, the landmark climate treaty that took a whole new approach to reducing global emissions, enters force. Instead of relying on top-down limits on how much countries could emit, the treaty embraced a bottom-up system of voluntary targets. Its designers hoped peer pressure and technological advances would prompt countries to ratchet up their targets every five years to bring them in line with what the science demands.

But despite the optimism surrounding its agreement in 2015, already there have been casualties; the United States is poised to pull out before the end of next year and many more nations are dragging their heels when it comes to meeting their already under-baked goals.

Countries spent a fortnight in Madrid earlier this month wrangling over whether they should bring forward more ambitious climate plans next year in time for the Paris Agreement's entry into force, with talks descending into chaos, confusion and anger as major emitters dug their heels in to resist tougher rules and bolder action. COP26 next year in Glasgow will be a crucial litmus test of whether the treaty's spirit of optimism and ambition can be revived, with countries getting another chance to bolster their climate plans in 2025. Environmental law professor Noah Sachs thinks the international climate talks could descend into "dissent, dysfunction and disengagement" just as easily as leading to success.

3. Electric vehicles become the cheapest option

Everyone has a different date for when electric vehicles hit "price parity" with petrol and diesel cars, the moment when electric cars will start to become the dominant vehicle type on roads around the world. It depends on a number of factors, from the price of batteries to the cost of oil and the production rates of major carmakers.

But it's worth noting that carmakers in the European Union are facing significant financial pressure to sell more EVs, with tough new CO2 emissions limits coming into force next year that come with the prospect of billions of euros in penalties for non-compliance.

That's prompting many experts to bet price parity will hit in the 2020s. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) experts said they think price parity will hit in the mid-2020s, while Deloitte has plumped for 2024. It's worth saying that those dates refer to passenger vehicles, but the technology advances will transfer to other transport sectors, including ships and planes.

That means we could be looking at a dramatic shift in the way the world gets around in the next decade — and a huge impact on major oil producers as a result. Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business, is optimistic: "Fossil fuel cars [are] headed for the museum next decade as zero emission city centers set to become the norm in 2020s," he says. Oil majors already are investing heavily in the EV charging business to hedge their bets, while other are attempting to block the build out of charging sites in a bid to stymie adoption. Expect an escalation of hostilities over the next 10 years as oil majors fight for their market. 

4. Laggard businesses go bust

If the 2010s was the decade when businesses started to fully understand the implications climate change could have for their operations, the 2020s is the decade when those risks hit home. Some firms are almost certain to fall prey to transition risks over the next 10 years, from petrol and diesel carmakers to recalcitrant oil majors. Meanwhile, physical risks will start to bite, scuppering food supply chains and decimating the business prospects of everything from Alpine ski resorts to French wine regions.

"Climate is an existential threat for business and I think this will kick in in the next 10 years — it's not about 'doing the right thing,' it's about staying in business," Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group, tells BusinessGreen. "Everyone learns about creative destruction in economics 101, but never thinks they're going to be Blockbuster. Climate risks are going to put laggards out of business, and sooner than we think."

"Those organizations making no or limited changes to their business models in the decade ahead are likely to struggle to remain competitive in the global low carbon economy," agrees Aldersgate Group's executive director Nick Molho. 

Meanwhile, progressive businesses will have to get better at collaborating with their rivals to drive industry-wide improvement, reckons Mike Barry, former director of Plan A at Marks & Spencer. "The last decade has seen business ‘play' at collaboration on sustainable change," he tells BusinessGreen. "Now it needs to get serious and collaborate with pace and scale to change the whole economic system, supply chains and consumer behavior."

5. CORSIA curbs 'flight shame' before it really takes off

2019 was the year it became, well, a bit awkward to admit you were flying somewhere. As increasing numbers of people spoke up against flying and vowed to stay grounded for a year, everyone else felt more embarrassed about climbing aboard an aircraft. In some quarters of Europe, passenger numbers actually fell as a result: The number of people flying between German cities dropped 12 percent in November, the fourth consecutive monthly decline. A similar trend has been recorded in Sweden.

But the 2020s could bring the "flight shame" movement to a screeching halt before it has even started, as the aviation industry's flagship climate scheme CORSIA is set to kick in.

The scheme will see airlines have to buy offset allowances for emissions over and above 2020 emissions levels. It won the agreement of 192 countries through the United Nations' aviation agency ICAO in 2016 and is set to be phased in from 2021 with a voluntary pilot, a voluntary first phase in 2024 and a mandatory second phase from 2027. Countries including the United States, Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Japan are participating in the voluntary pilot.

Although many commentators continue to point out that CORSIA is not without its problems, and that offsetting is no substitute for reducing emissions, its mere existence could go some way to assuaging passengers' guilt, particularly if it is given heavy marketing treatment by participating airlines.

6. Rise of new green technologies

As the cost of wind and solar power continues to fall, variable renewable power is grasping an ever-larger share of national grid generation. But as countries push into the 50 percent, 60 percent, and 70 percent generation territory for renewables, demand for grid stabilizing green technologies such as batteries and demand response systems is set to soar. The International Energy Agency reckons that new sources of flexibility, including battery storage and demand-side response, will grow to 400GW in capacity by 2040.

"As countries continue to deploy wind and solar there is a growing need for a low carbon technology to fill the gaps when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow," explains BusinessGreen columnist Ed Birkett, Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University studying energy policy. "The answer could be green hydrogen, gas with carbon capture and storage, ultra-long duration batteries, or something completely different. There's no clear frontrunner today, so watch this space."

7. The dash for 'peak meat'

If 2019 has been defined by anything, in the United Kingdom at least, it is the extraordinary surge in the popularity of veganism. Healthy eating and vegan cookery books made up about 49 percent of the U.K. cookery book market in 2019, compared to 15 percent in 2010. The Gregg's vegan sausage roll, the arrival of the Impossible burger, the plant-based ice creams and vegan butchers all point to a food landscape that is rapidly shifting.

But although veganism was en vogue in the United Kingdom in 2019, across the world meat consumption is set to soar over the coming decade, with scientists warning the coming explosion in animal agriculture will have severe consequences for the environment.

Scientist insist the growth in meat consumption worldwide must come to a head before 2030 if the world is to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. They say governments in all but the poorest nations should set a deadline for hitting "peak livestock," with a focus on cutting the number of cows.

We've seen that in certain pockets of the world consumers are open to shifting their diets — particularly if the alternative is seen as healthier. But whether governments will show themselves willing to intervene in the debate over what people put on their plates is another matter entirely. If they don't, we might gobble up our chance to avert catastrophic climate change.

8. U.S. presidential election

It will be happening next year, but many insist it will shape the entire next decade for the environmental movement. For starters, who wins the U.S. presidential election will decide whether America actually leaves the Paris Agreement, and whether it takes any significant steps to reduce emissions at a federal level.

If President Donald Trump wins a second term, the United States almost certainly would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and spend another four years in climate stasis. If a Democratic candidate wins, however, it looks likely climate action will be significantly ramped up. All the major Democratic nominees have promised to introduce massive climate policy packages to kick-start emissions reduction in transport, housing, and energy.

Which president the American voters choose will have global consequences. Given the Paris Agreement's reliance on peer pressure from other nations to ratchet up ambition, a laggard United States could give the likes of China, Russia, India and Brazil a get-out-of-jail free card, which could spell disaster for global efforts to avert the climate crisis. Even if the United States resumes its decarbonization journey later in the decade, the world will have lost the crucial years needed to limit warming to 1.5C.

9. A change in trade

The European Commission ended 2019 with a bang, unveiling its much-anticipated blueprint for a European Green Deal earlier this month. The policy package proposes sweeping climate action across every economic sector in Europe to help the bloc hit net zero emissions by 2050.

Most eye-catching of all was the commission's support for a carbon border tax, which would levy tariffs on goods in certain sectors imported from countries with lower environmental standards. There has been no word on which sectors will be covered, but most bets will be on new levies on cement and steel imports for starters.

Such a policy is highly controversial and will draw accusations of protectionism. Chinese officials already have said a carbon border tax would create uncertainty in international markets — code for displeasure in Beijing. Its introduction therefore could have a major impact on global trade patterns, by forcing countries to reform their production patterns to avoid the tariffs and shifting market shares to countries where production is most efficient. It even could spark trade wars if nations retaliate against the EU's stance. 

Equally, Brexit looks set to reshape the United Kingdom's trading landscape. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises a trade deal with the EU before the end of next year, but experts are skeptical that the time frame allows anything other than a skeleton of a deal. That matters because the closer the U.K. trading relationship with the EU, the more likely it is that the United Kingdom will be at least partly bound into the EU's high environmental standards. On the other hand, an arm's length deal with the EU, and a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States, could well see environmental standards weakened in the United Kingdom to allow for greater trading for U.S. goods. 

10. Plastic waste isn't going anywhere

You would have to have been living under a rock to miss the global outcry over plastics and their environmental impact in recent years. The BBC "Blue Planet" shots of seagull chicks dining on plastic straws and disposable bags have left an indelible mark on the public consciousness. 

But if the final years of the 2010s were given over to encouraging consumers to cut down on their plastic use, expect the 2020s to switch the focus onto the global plastics and recycling industry. 

Trade will be at the heart of the debate. Following China's ban on plastic waste imports, the new Conservative U.K. government has promised to ban export of used plastic to developing countries. Australia has promised similar action, while growing numbers of developing countries are following China's lead and banning imports. 

These moves could prompt the revival of domestic recycling industries, in turn piling direct pressure on plastic manufacturers to design and collect plastic packaging in the best way to maximize material recovery. That could well mean more comprehensive and consistent curbside recycling systems and new, state-of-the art facilities to recycle everything from coffee cups to batteries. 

A switch to recycled plastic use also could prompt a drop in the amount of virgin plastic used, which would deal a blow to oil majors relying on plastics production for revenues as demand for petrol and diesel falls. The International Energy Agency's 2018 World Energy Outlook (PDF) forecast that petrochemicals would be the largest source of growth in oil use out to 2030. 

But curbing use of virgin oil for plastics will be an uphill struggle, the IEA warned. Even if global recycling rates for plastics were to double, this would cut only around 1.5 million barrels a day from the projected increase of more than 5 million barrels per day of oil demand. 

Here's to what looks to be the most crucial decade yet for the green economy. 

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