A Look at Sustainability Megatrends on the Road to 2050

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.

The individual elements of this new era are like pieces of a puzzle that fit perfectly together. Even the problems associated with storing electricity can be solved.

For one thing, electric cars don't only use electricity very efficiently; they can also temporarily store it in their batteries and subsequently sell it back to the grid when demand -- and prices -- are high. This will require a system of flexible electricity pricing, which will be necessary in any case if large amounts of power from fluctuating sources like the wind and the sun are to be incorporated into the grid. In addition, electric vehicles will not only be transformed into smart cars, and buildings into smart buildings; the grid itself will become an intelligent system in which sensors, demand management solutions and forecasting techniques ensure optimal use of available power capacity.

Surplus power produced when winds are too strong can also be utilized to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can then be used for virtually anything: It can power automobiles and airplanes. It can be transformed into methane or methanol with the help of carbon dioxide. It can be processed into plastics. And that could prove very important given that a substitute for petroleum will be required when supplies run out.

How ICT is Fueling the Megatrends

The unabated development of information and communication technologies will ensure that the associated systems become more and more intelligent.

After all, Moore's Law, which governs the speed of microchip development, will remain valid for at least another 20 years. In other words, computer performance and memory capacity, as well as data transfer rates via fixed lines and mobile connections, will increase a thousand-fold once again.

As a result, in the 2030s a 50-cent chip will be able to do the same things a $500 notebook can do today. Computer and communication chips will become so cheap that they will form part of virtually everything -- from placards to tiny wellness sensors in buildings.

The cars of tomorrow will also be fitted with various sensory organs that probe the surrounding area and act autonomously in emergencies to prevent accidents. These vehicles will be able to communicate with road infrastructure and with their owners' smartphones, personal robots, and smart buildings.

Seniors in particular will appreciate the autonomy of their vehicles in the future. After all, the elderly will dominate the world of the year 2050, when for the first time in human history there will be more people over 60 than under 15 on our planet. This development will be even more dramatic in the industrialized nations. The number of people over 60 will nearly double in the U.S. by 2050, for example, and there will be three times as many seniors over 80 than there are now. New solutions will have to be developed to keep healthcare affordable, whereby preventive care and the early diagnosis of illnesses will play a key role, as will computer support of diagnoses and treatments, and the networking of important healthcare data.

If all the key trends leading up to the year 2050 were to be summarized as a single concept, it could be termed "holistic health" -- the health of both people and the environment.

Megatrends like climate change and resource scarcity will drive developments in environmental health and protection, while the megatrend of demographic change will lead to new approaches to human healthcare. Companies that recognize these developments therefore have an extremely good chance of business success in the coming decades.

Photo of a vision of the future via Shutterstock.com.