This is an excerpt from the new book The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, who led negotiations for the United Nations in 2015’s Paris climate agreement. The book lays out two plausible scenarios for the year 2050: What happens if we fail to meet the targets of the Paris agreement, and what life is like if we succeed. This excerpt is the latter. You can read an interview with the authors here.
It is 2050. We have been successful at halving emissions every decade since 2020. We are heading for a world that will be no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100.
In most places in the world, the air is moist and fresh, even in cities. It feels a lot like walking through a forest, and very likely this is exactly what you are doing. The air is cleaner than it has been since before the Industrial Revolution.
You have trees to thank for that. They are everywhere. It wasn’t the single solution we required, but the proliferation of trees bought us the time we needed to vanquish carbon emissions. Corporate donations and public money funded the biggest tree-planting campaign in history. When we started, it was purely practical, a tactic to combat climate change by relocating the carbon: the trees took carbon dioxide out of the air, released oxygen, and put the carbon back where it belongs, in the soil. This of course helped to diminish climate change, but the benefits were even greater. On every sensory level, the ambient feeling of living on what has again become a green planet has been transformative, especially in cities. Cities have never been better places to live. With many more trees and far fewer cars, it has been possible to reclaim whole streets for urban agriculture and for children’s play. Every vacant lot, every grimy unused alley, has been repurposed and turned into a shady grove. Every rooftop has been converted to either a vegetable or a floral garden. Windowless buildings that were once scrawled with graffiti are instead carpeted with verdant vines.
The greening movement in Spain had begun as an effort to combat rising temperatures. Because of Madrid’s latitude, it is one of the driest cities in Europe. And even though the city now has a grip on its emissions, it was previously at risk of desertification. Because of the “heat island” effect of cities—buildings trap warmth and dark, paved surfaces absorb heat from the sun—Madrid, home to more than 6 million people, was several degrees warmer than the countryside just a few miles away. In addition, air pollution was leading to a rising incidence of premature births, and a spike in deaths was linked to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. With a health care system already strained by the arrival of subtropical diseases like dengue fever and malaria, government officials and citizens rallied. Madrid made dramatic efforts to reduce the number of vehicles and create a “green envelope” around the city to help with cooling, oxygenating, and filtering pollution. Plazas were repaved with porous material to capture rainwater; all black roofs were painted white; and plants were omnipresent. The plants cut noise, released oxygen, insulated south-facing walls, shaded pavements, and released water vapor into the air. The massive effort was a huge success and was replicated all over the world. Madrid’s economy boomed as its expertise put it on the cutting edge of a new industry.
Most cities found that lower temperatures raised the standard of living. There are still slums, but the trees, largely responsible for countering the temperature rise in most places, have made things far more bearable for all.
Reimagining and restructuring cities was crucial to solving the climate challenge puzzle. But further steps had to be taken, which meant that global rewilding efforts had to reach well beyond the cities. The forest cover worldwide is now 50%, and agriculture has evolved to become more tree-based. The result is that many countries are unrecognizable, in a good way. No one seems to miss wide open plains or monocultures. Now we have shady groves of nut and fruit orchards, timberland interspersed with grazing, parkland areas that spread for miles, new havens for our regenerated population of pollinators.
Luckily for the 75% of the population who live in cities, new electric railways crisscross interior landscapes. In the United States, high-speed rail networks on the East and West coasts have replaced the vast majority of domestic flights, with East coast connectors to Atlanta and Chicago. Because flight speeds have slowed down to gain fuel efficiency, passenger bullet trains make some journeys even faster and with no emissions whatsoever. The U.S. Train Initiative was a monumental public project that sparked the economy for a decade. Replacing miles and miles of interstate highways with a new transportation system created millions of jobs—for train technology experts, engineers, and construction workers who designed and built raised rail tracks to circumvent floodplains. This massive effort helped to reeducate and retrain many of those displaced by the dying fossil fuel economy. It also introduced a new generation of workers to the excitement and innovation of the new climate economy.
Running parallel to this mega public works effort was an increasingly confident race to harness the power of renewable sources of energy. A major part of the shift to net-zero emissions was a focus on electricity; achieving the goal required not only an overhaul of existing infrastructure but also a structural shift. In some ways, breaking up grids and decentralizing power proved easy. We no longer burn fossil fuels. There is some nuclear energy in those countries that can afford the expensive technology, but most of our energy now comes from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro. All homes and buildings produce their own electricity—every available surface is covered with solar paint that contains millions of nanoparticles, which harvest energy from the sunlight, and every windy spot has a wind turbine. If you live on a particularly sunny or windy hill, your house might harvest more energy than it can use, in which case the energy will simply flow back to the smart grid. Because there is no combustion cost, energy is basically free. It is also more abundant and more efficiently used than ever.
Smart tech prevents unnecessary energy consumption, as artificial intelligence units switch off appliances and machines when not in use. The efficiency of the system means that, with a few exceptions, our quality of life has not suffered. In many respects, it has improved.
For the developed world, the wide-ranging transition to renewable energy was at times uncomfortable, as it often involved retrofitting old infrastructure and doing things in new ways. But for the developing world, it was the dawn of a new era. Most of the infrastructure that it needed for economic growth and poverty alleviation was built according to the new standards: low carbon emissions and high resilience. In remote areas, the billion people who had no electricity at the start of the twenty-first century now have energy generated by their own rooftop solar modules or by wind-powered mini-grids in their communities. This new access opened the door to so much more. Entire populations have leaped forward with improved sanitation, education, and health care. People who had struggled to get clean water can now provide it to their families. Children can study at night. Remote health clinics can operate effectively.
Homes and buildings all over the world are becoming self-sustaining far beyond their electrical needs. For example, all buildings now collect rainwater and manage their own water use. Renewable sources of electricity made possible localized desalination, which means clean drinking water can now be produced on-demand anywhere in the world. We also use it to irrigate hydroponic gardens, flush toilets, and shower. Overall, we’ve successfully rebuilt, reorganized, and restructured our lives to live in a more localized way. Although energy prices have dropped dramatically, we are choosing local life over long commutes. Due to greater connectivity, many people work from home, allowing for more flexibility and more time to call their own.
We’ve successfully rebuilt, reorganized, and restructured our lives to live in a more localized way.
We are making communities stronger. As a child, you might have seen your neighbors only in passing. But now, to make things cheaper, cleaner, and more sustainable, your orientation in every part of your life is more local. Things that used to be done individually are now done communally—growing vegetables, capturing rainwater, and composting. Resources and responsibilities are shared now. At first you resisted this togetherness—you were used to doing things individually and in the privacy of your own home. But pretty quickly the camaraderie and unexpected new network of support started to feel good, something to be prized. For most people, the new way has turned out to be a better recipe for happiness.
Food production and procurement are a big part of the communal effort. When it became clear we needed to revolutionize industrialized farming, we transitioned quickly to regenerative farming practices, mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop rotation on large-scale farms, with increased community reliance on small farms. Instead of going to a big grocery store for food flown in from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, you buy most of your food from small local farmers and producers. Buildings, neighborhoods, and even large extended families form a food purchase group, which is how most people buy their food now. As a unit they sign up for a weekly drop off, then distribute the food among the group members. Distribution, coordination, and management are everyone’s responsibility, which means you might be partnered with a downstairs neighbor for distribution one week and your upstairs neighbor the next.
While this community approach to food production makes things more sustainable, food is still expensive, consuming up to 30% of household budgets, which is why growing your own is such a necessity. In community gardens, on rooftops, at schools, and even hanging from vertical gardens on balconies, food sometimes seems to be growing everywhere.
We’ve come to realize, by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive—it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.
We’ve come to realize, by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive—it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time. For that reason, the most resource-depleting foods of all—animal protein and dairy products—have practically disappeared from our diets. But the plant-based replacements are so good that most of us don’t notice the absence of meat and dairy. Most young children cannot believe we used to kill any animals for food. Fish is still available, but it is farmed and yields are better managed by improved technology.
We make smarter choices about bad foods, which have become an ever-diminishing part of our diets. Government taxes on processed meats, sugars, and fatty foods helped us reduce the carbon emissions from farming. The biggest boon of all was to our collective health. Thanks to reduced cancers, heart attacks, and strokes, people are living longer, and health services around the world cost less and less. In fact, a huge portion of the costs of combating climate change were recuperated by governments’ savings on public health.
Along with outrageous spending on health care, gasoline and diesel cars are also anachronisms. Most countries banned their manufacture in 2030, but it took another 15 years to get the internal combustion engine off the road completely. Now they are seen only in transport museums or at special rallies where classic car owners pay an offset fee to allow them to drive a few short miles around the track. And of course, they are all hauled in on the backs of huge electric trucks.
When it came to making the switch, some countries were already ahead of the curve. Technology-driven countries such as Norway and bicycle-friendly nations like the Netherlands managed to impose a moratorium on cars much earlier. Unsurprisingly, the United States had the hardest time of all. First, it restricted their sale, and then it banned them from certain parts of cities—Extreme Low Emission Zones. Then came the breakthrough in the battery storage capacity of electric vehicles, the cost reductions that came from finding alternative materials for manufacture, and finally the complete overhaul of the charging and parking infrastructure. This allowed people easier access to cheap power for their electric vehicles. Even better, car batteries are now bi-directionally connected with the electric grid, so they can either charge from the grid or provide power to the grid when they aren’t being driven. This helps back up the smart grid that is running on renewable energy.
The ubiquity and ease of electric vehicles were alluring, but satisfaction of our appetite for speed finally did the trick. Supposedly, to stop a bad habit you have to replace it with one that is more salubrious or at least as enjoyable. At first China dominated the manufacture of electric vehicles, but soon U.S. companies started making vehicles that were more desirable than ever before. Even some classic cars got an upgrade, switching from combustion to electric engines that could go from zero to sixty mph in 3.5 seconds. What’s strange is that it took us so long to realize that the electric motor is simply a better way of powering vehicles. It gives you more torque, more speed when you need it, and the ability to recapture energy when you brake, and it requires dramatically less maintenance.
As people from rural areas moved to the cities, they had less need even for electric vehicles. In cities it’s now easy to get around—transportation is frictionless. When you take the electric train, you don’t have to fumble around for a metro card or wait in line to pay—the system tracks your location, so it knows where you got on and where you got off, and it deducts money from your account accordingly. We also share cars without thinking twice. In fact, regulating and ensuring the safety of driverless ride-sharing was the biggest transportation hurdle for cities to overcome. The goal has been to eliminate private ownership of vehicles by 2050 in major metropolitan areas. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re making progress.
We have also reduced land transport needs. Three dimensional (3D) printers are readily available, cutting down on what people need to purchase away from home. Drones organized along aerial corridors are now delivering packages, further reducing the need for vehicles. Thus we are currently narrowing roads, eliminating parking spaces, and investing in urban planning projects that make it easier to walk and bike in the city. Parking garages are used only for ride-sharing, electric vehicle charging, and storage— those ugly concrete stacking systems and edifices of yore are now enveloped in green. Cities now seem designed for the coexistence of people and nature.
International air travel has been transformed. Biofuels have replaced jet fuel. Communications technology has advanced so much that we can participate virtually in meetings anywhere in the world without traveling. Air travel still exists, but it is used more sparingly and is extremely costly. Because work is now increasingly decentralized and can often be done from anywhere, people save and plan for “slow-cations”—international trips that last weeks or months instead of days. If you live in the United States and want to visit Europe, you might plan to stay there for several months or more, working your way across the continent using local, zero-emissions transportation.
While we may have successfully reduced carbon emissions, we’re still dealing with the after-effects of record levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The long-living greenhouse gases have nowhere to go other than the already loaded atmosphere, so they are still causing increasingly extreme weather—though it’s less extreme than would have been had we continued to burn fossil fuels. Glaciers and Arctic ice are still melting, and the sea is still rising. Severe droughts and desertification are occurring in the western United States, the Mediterranean, and parts of China.
Ongoing extreme weather and resource degradation continue to multiply existing disparities in income, public health, food security, and water availability. But now governments have recognized climate change factors for the threat multipliers that they are. That awareness allows us to predict downstream problems and head them off before they become humanitarian crises. So while many people remain at risk every day, the situation is not as drastic or chaotic as it might have been. Economies in developing nations are strong, and unexpected global coalitions have formed with a renewed sense of trust. Now when a population is in need of aid, the political will and resources are available to meet that need.
Technology and business sectors stepped up, too, seizing the opportunity of government contracts to provide large scale solutions for distributing food and providing shelter for the newly displaced.
The ongoing refugee situation has been escalating for decades, and it is still a major source of strife and discord. But around 15 years ago, we stopped calling it a crisis. Countries agreed on guidelines for managing refugee influxes—how to smoothly assimilate populations, how to distribute aid and resources, and how to share the tasks within particular regions. These agreements work well most of the time, but things get thrown off balance occasionally when a country flirts with fascism for an election cycle or two.
Technology and business sectors stepped up, too, seizing the opportunity of government contracts to provide large scale solutions for distributing food and providing shelter for the newly displaced. One company invented a giant robot that could autonomously build a four-person dwelling within days. Automation and 3D printing have made it possible to quickly and affordably construct high-quality housing for refugees. The private sector has innovated with water transportation technology and sanitation solutions. Fewer tent cities and housing shortages have led to less cholera.
Everyone understands that we are all in this together. A disaster that occurs in one country is likely to occur in another in only a matter of years. It took us a while to realize that if we worked out how to save the Pacific Islands from rising sea levels this year, then we might find a way to save Rotterdam in another five years. It is in the interest of every country to bring all its resources to bear on problems across the world. For one thing, creating innovative solutions to climate challenges and beta testing them years ahead of using them is just plain smart. For another, we’re nurturing goodwill; when we need help, we know we will be able to count on others to step up.
The zeitgeist has shifted profoundly. How we feel about the world has changed, deeply. And unexpectedly, so has how we feel about one another.
When the alarm bells rang in 2020, thanks in large part to the youth movement, we realized that we suffered from too much consumption, competition, and greedy self-interest. Our commitment to these values and our drive for profit and status had led us to steamroll our environment. As a species we were out of control, and the result was the near-collapse of our world. We could no longer avoid seeing on a tangible, geophysical level that when you spurn regeneration, collaboration, and community, the consequence is impending devastation.
Extricating ourselves from self-destruction would have been impossible if we hadn’t changed our mindset and our priorities, if we hadn’t realized that doing what is good for humanity goes hand in hand with doing what is good for the Earth. The most fundamental change was that collectively—as citizens, corporations, and governments—we began adhering to a new bottom line: “Is it good for humanity whether profit is made or not?”
The climate change crisis of the beginning of the century jolted us out of our stupor. As we worked to rebuild and care for our environment, it was only natural that we also turned to each other with greater care and concern. We realized that the perpetuation of our species was about far more than saving ourselves from extreme weather. It was about being good stewards of the land and of one another. When we began the fight for the fate of humanity, we were thinking only about the species’ survival, but at some point, we understood that it was as much about the fate of our humanity. We emerged from the climate crisis as more mature members of the community of life, capable of not only restoring ecosystems but also of unfolding our dormant potentials of human strength and discernment. Humanity was only ever as doomed as it believed itself to be. Vanquishing that belief was our true legacy.
From The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. Copyright © 2020 by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.