Will the world in 2050 be an overheated smoggy mess? Or will we have global warming under control? ILlustraion by James Mackay
The agreements made – or not made – at COP26 will determine the future of the planet and all its inhabitants for decades to come. For some the target of net zero emissions by 2050 is achievable. For others impractical.
If the world can successfully curb its emissions, the planet will stay within the 1.5C of warming agreed at the 2015 Paris climate accords and we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Fail to do so, and we’re headed for a planet well over 2C warmer, with catastrophic consequences.
Most of us know the numbers by now, but down these two pathways, what might life actually look like in the decades to come? We spoke to climate experts with specialisms across fashion, society, architecture and diet to envision a day in the life in 2050 – in the best and worst case scenarios for the planet.
2050: Best-case scenario
The world stuck to its climate ambitions and successfully drove down greenhouse gas emissions from 2020 onwards. Most countries including the UK achieved net zero emissions on target, but historical greenhouse gases mean that the Earth is now 1.3 degrees warmer than pre-industrial temperatures.
It’s 6am when your sleep assistant wakes you by tuning into the radio and gradually dialling up the brightness of your bedside lamp. When you bought it, the shop assistant promised the device would monitor your sleep rhythms and rouse you at the optimal moment. Judging by your grogginess, you’ve been ripped off.
It’s early December and there’s a chill in the air, so you reach up to the control panel above your bed and click the heating on. Two floors below, you hear the heat pump whirr and your well-insulated room quickly fills with warm air. The DJ plays a teaser track from Adele’s upcoming album, 60, as you throw on a robe and marvel at her stamina.
Pulling back the curtains, you’re relieved to see that the two straight weeks of torrential rain has finally ceased, with the sun now straining through a thin grey cloud. The radio news bulletin says last week’s flooding almost breached barriers in York and parts of London. You think of Susan, who came to the co-living complex a decade ago after her home in Fairborne, Wales, was reclaimed by the sea. You feel lucky to have chosen to live here. Most of your housemates have stories like this – hurricanes, wildfires, floods and typhoons forcing them from their homes.
Your thoughts are interrupted by the smell of bacon wafting in from the kitchen. The best cook in the building is on breakfast duties. Today’s meal is a plate of toast, “fake-on”, (70 per cent lab-grown meat, 30 per cent pea protein) spinach and a couple of eggs from the coop in the buildings’ shared garden. Meat is a rare treat these days. When you do have it, it’s usually produced in a lab and mixed with alternative proteins. The bread is homemade, courtesy of the retirees living in your building whose enthusiasm for baking just about makes up for the endless nostalgia for the “good old days” of snow at Christmas and diesel cars.
You’ve been living here for five years now and, bar one odd housemate who only ever emerges at night, you get along well with everyone. Co-living complexes with shared communal facilities first sprung up in the 2030s, when the climate crisis began displacing millions and developers were forced to innovate. At first the goal was extra space, but over time complexes went a long way to easing loneliness, community tensions and, thanks to government-subsidised rent, social inequalities.
Your housemates linger in the kitchen after breakfast. As it’s Friday, most have now finished their four-day week and will head off to various volunteering projects during the day.
For most, the five-day week is a distant memory. The first time the four-day week was rolled out it was an emergency measure to reduce carbon footprints, but today, 80 per cent of the workforce enjoy a three-day weekend. Originally, mass rollout saw a big push to encourage volunteering on the free day, though you personally enjoy using your Monday off to lie horizontally on the sofa.
The constant rain has been irritating, but it does mean no faffing with spare water supply for your shower. The water for bathing comes from a rainwater tank on the roof, which trickles through the pipes to be heated and treated before coming out of the shower head.
Pushing for time now, you finish up, hurry back to your room and pull on some clothes. Your jeans are a “lifetime” pair bought in 2030, with the distressed finish produced by lasers instead of the water-intensive methods once used in the early 2000s. The shirt you pull over your head is made from recycled orange peel, and your anorak is second hand, lined with fleece made from old plastic bottles. Your boots are vintage leather, exchanged for a pair of brogues at a swap shop down the road.
You don’t own as many clothes as you used to. Vintage, second hand and independent retailers dominate the market, and huge discounts on new clothes are available for taking unwanted garments back to clothing stores, who either sell them on or upcycle them into new life. Thanks to the success of a huge public campaign some years back, the old re-use, repair and recycle mentality has returned, with schools making sustainability – and needlework – a core part of the curriculum.
Once dressed, you briefly contemplate taking your bike to work but decide the risk of getting stuck behind the school “bike bus” isn’t worth it. You open your Ryder app instead. In almost every big city now, some variation of this app allows you to hitch a ride with others going in the same direction, keeping millions of cars off the road. There’s three people going your way, so you tap the one with the most normal-looking profile picture (sorry, Mr Lycra) and head out to wait by the building’s charging points.
You’re picked up by a chatty woman from the local area who tells you all about her recent holiday on a high-speed inter-rail ticket. Since railway-building accelerated in the late 2020s, international trains are fast, cheap and appealing. Plane travel hasn’t stopped, but it has shrunk dramatically, with flights now relying mostly on hydrogen fuel and domestic journeys banned. Like almost every car on the road, the one you’re travelling in today is electric.
You whizz past the high street and watch local cafe owners roll back the covers over their outdoor seating for the first time in weeks. The area is already teeming with families, dog walkers and joggers, all with plenty of space to move since pedestrian and cycle space was vastly expanded into the road.
The “15-minute city” hasn’t emerged perfectly everywhere, but amenities, shops and entertainment are accessible without a car for most people, meaning local business has boomed. In city centres where footfall declined, empty shops were given over to arts and charity organisations to create extra space for culture, leisure and community services.
Green space is everywhere you look thanks to the urban forests planted long ago to soak up carbon and cool the intense summer temperatures that strike cities every summer. The air is cleaner. Long-gone wildlife is returning, and a complex system of fences and sensors has been devised to keep as many animals as possible away from the roads, where quiet electric car motors can often prove deadly.
After a short ride, you’re dropped off by the shuttle boat that takes you out to the offshore wind farm where you’ve worked as a turbine engineer for the last couple of decades. When wind farms started cropping up in enormous numbers off Britain’s coastlines years ago, naysayers complained that they were spoiling the view. When gas shortages started crippling those same households, they soon fell silent.
Your working day finishes around six and you grab a bus home, where a vegetable box has been delivered to your doorstep by the local farm. Thanks to droughts and crop failures around the world, supermarket shortages are not uncommon, but an increased reliance on seasonal British-grown produce provides a degree of food stability.
You take the box inside, thinking back in disbelief to the days when fruit came individually wrapped in plastic. The ocean remains full of it to this day, but single-use plastic has been almost entirely phased out of production processes, and mass cleanup operations are underway to remove as much as possible from global water supply.
Your evening plans involve a drink at a local bar with a friend. Ever since pedestrians claimed back vast swathes of cities, street lighting has been vastly improved, and footfall is high even at night. You know your neighbours and feel safe walking alone to the bar, where you sit down with your friend and order two glasses of 2040 English wine.
You feel a little guilty when the drinks arrive, remembering that where parts of England won better climes for wine-growing out of the climate crisis, parts of the Mediterranean have burned. As ever, the conversation quickly turns to these unluckier parts of the world, and those nations who have unfairly paid the price for emissions produced by wealthier countries.
Things are by no means perfect, but the world is a far better place than it would have been had leaders failed to hit the brakes on emissions in the 2020s. Bit by bit, the Earth is getting cleaner and greener, and in time, scientists say temperatures will begin climbing back down.
2050: Worst-case scenario
2050: countries around the world failed to achieve their climate ambitions, and greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise from 2020 onwards. The Earth is now 2.4 degrees warmer than pre-industrial temperatures, wreaking havoc on the climate and environment.
You can’t remember if it was the wind rattling your window or the coughing from the next room that woke you up first, but either way you’ve been sitting up in bed for half an hour.
A friend of yours, Layla, and her son Daniel have been staying in your flat since their home in Hull flooded. She’d bought the house 20 years ago, putting faith in a developer’s promise that living on a flood plain presented “minimal risk of damage” when accounting for flood barriers.
Still, you think, it could be worse. The UK’s botched transition to an electric vehicle fleet was at least an attempt. In the US, the driving lobby dug in their heels (thanks, Trump 2024) and driving gas powered cars became the next target of the culture wars. Americans who once complained about masking up for coronavirus now cover their faces for fear of destroying their lungs.
As you’re thinking this, your phone beeps with today’s pollution alert. Medium is the best it’s been in a while, you think optimistically, as you switch on the news.
You’re not really sure why you do this anymore – perhaps a sense of obligation. Or perhaps to try and remind yourself how much worse things could be. Every day another disaster, every day people forced from their homes by fires, floods and hurricanes. Aid organisations do their best, but the relentless onslaught of crises makes it difficult to respond quickly enough. A pang of guilt strikes as you remember cancelling your direct debit to a disaster relief fund last week. After losing your job, you just couldn’t afford it anymore.
As if this isn’t bad enough, the newsreader moves onto a light news segment on the celebrities who have “come together” to sing Lean on Me in the hopes of bringing “light” to the victims of the latest hurricane in the Philippines. You think bitterly about the multi-million dollar bunkers these people have underground for when things really get truly terrible – though you question whether being locked in there with them would be worth it.
Your flat, a converted Victorian townhouse, was never properly insulated after the collapse of the government’s “build back blazing” voucher scheme in 2023. On wintry days like today, the cold air creeps up through the floorboards and numbs your toes. Your roof was fitted with solar panels years back, but the manufacturer cut corners and opted for cheap flimsy materials which failed to account for the increasingly extreme weather you’re now experiencing in the UK: winters of extreme rainfall and summers of extreme heat. You flick on the boiler – still powered by gas – and pull up the blinds.
The street outside is strewn with placards and the shop window opposite has been shattered. You’re surprised the commotion didn’t wake you up. It’s hard to remember a time when people weren’t protesting, and even harder to remember exactly what they’re protesting about anymore – there’s so much to be angry about. For your own part, you’re just weary.
You remember your guests and pop your head into the living room, offering them breakfast with the sheepish caveat that the options might be limited.
It’s now hard to obtain certain fruits and vegetables – like bananas – once common in the UK. Fish stocks have been depleted to the brink of extinction and meat is often prohibitively expensive, though global instability means prices fluctuate too often to keep track.
Vast swathes of once habitable, arable land across Africa, South America and Australasia are agricultural deserts, with more regions edging closer to the brink every day. As a result, supermarket shelves are regularly bare, though local community gardens – founded years ago in the spirit of self-sufficiency – try to help where they can.
Scraping together the contents of your fridge and pantry, you manage coffee and beans on toast, serving it up apologetically. The other day, you heard a positive news story about new agricultural opportunities opening up in Greenland and Antarctica now the ice is gone, though you cynically wonder who’ll start the next war to claim it.
Over breakfast, you chat about the ongoing employment crisis. While the UK has been protected from the worst climate-related impacts of global warming, worldwide instability has repeatedly tanked the economy. During the most recent recession, you heard stories of people opening their banking app to find the bank had collapsed overnight – taking their savings with it.
With little to do since you lost your job, you offer to take Daniel to the GP about his cough while Layla works from home, clinging by a thread to her own career. Like several medicines, the kind Daniel once relied on to treat his chronic asthma are in short supply. Regular flooding of roads slows delivery of nearly everything, and, more alarmingly, the natural resources from which many chemicals are extracted have been wholly or partway destroyed.
Your wardrobe is what it ever was – a jumble of cheaply-made, inexpensive clothes. Even when Ghana and Pakistan stopped agreeing to take shipments of Britain’s discarded garments and they began piling up in landfills at home, it didn’t stop the fashion giants from peddling £1 dresses for one-time wear. You pull on a jumper and jeans and head out to the car.
Electric cars are the norm now, though a failure to install sufficient charging points early in the transition drove thousands of frustrated drivers back to petrol. Perhaps worse than the petrol-heads, though, are the wealthy drivers of electric SUVs who drive them faster, further and more dangerously than they ever did prior to electric power. Poorly-placed charging points have further squeezed pedestrian space, making some pavements impossible to walk on. Outdated infrastructure means buses and trains are constantly late, delayed or cancelled.
The doctor’s trip is futile. Medical professionals are so overwhelmed with new conditions and mental health crises these days that they’re squeezing two appointments into five-minute slots. The GP writes Daniel a prescription you know the local pharmacy doesn’t have in stock.
Still, it’s not raining when you emerge, so you drive through the city centre to the nearest local forest. You pass the once-buzzing high street, all now converted into hundreds of rabbit-hutch flats. You remember once visiting a friend there who lived without natural light among hundreds of others with nowhere else to go.
The walk through the forest is pleasant enough, and you visit the tree you planted yourself there, decades prior. Back then, airlines and large companies deluded the country into thinking any amount of carbon was acceptable if a forest was planted to offset it. What they failed to account for was the wildfires that came for Britain as summers heated up and peat burning continued.
The forest is eerily quiet, you think to yourself as you wander through the trees. Once upon a time, this area was teeming with animal life. Nobody could bring themselves to care when the insects first started disappearing, but it wasn’t long afterwards that the impact cascaded through the food chain, killing birds and mammals in turn.
It was like this every time some milestone was passed, you think, trying to place your finger on the point of no return. It’s not like there weren’t warnings. Throughout the early 2000s entire species went extinct, the Amazon was logged for wood, coral reefs died and ice caps melted. The outrage was brief and fleeting and politicians shook their heads then went back to business as usual. The public didn’t want to know, or didn’t care, or some combination of both.
Perhaps sensing your thoughts, Daniel turns and asks what the forest used to be like as you head back towards the car. You answer in vague terms about birds and picnics and tree-planting. All the way home, you’re plagued by the thought that none of this was inevitable.
With thanks to UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body and COP26 sponsor; Professor Jane Harris, the director of research and innovation at the London College of Fashion; Professor Jeremy Till, architecture expert and head of Central Saint Martins University Arts London; Professor Glen Lyons, professor of future mobility at UWE Bristol; Dr Christian Reynolds, senior lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London; and Professor Dan Lunt, professor of climate science, at the school of geographical sciences, University of Bristol, for their contributions and insight for this article.
While you’re here…
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