2050: an optimist’s science fiction

In the future, will we be juggling with the same or different issues? The Invizible

What will Australia look like in 2050? Will the debates raging now about a carbon tax, about health reform, about immigration, still have relevance, or will new problems, bigger problems, have taken their place? We put this question to some of the country’s leading academics and will be rolling their responses out in the coming days. But we would also like to hear your views. What’s your vision for Australia 2050? Do let us know, and enjoy the series.

AUSTRALIA 2050 – It’s 2050 and here’s where we stand …

The data-based conclusion by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has shown mean global land surface and ocean temperatures through the first decade of the 21st century were the warmest on record (since 1880).

This, together with the retrospective linking of global warming and the increased incidence of severe weather events (from 2009) across the planet had, by the early 2020s, pretty much convinced all citizens and responsible heads of major companies, institutions and governments that anthropogenic climate change was both real and dangerous.

The need for immediate action was further emphasised by the oil shock of 2018 and by the massive, recurrent disruptions in food supplies (and consequent political destabilisation) that resulted from unpredicted flooding, snow storms, and droughts exacerbated by extreme temperatures and forest fires.

Though much of the substantial ocean rise we are experiencing now, in 2050, was still in the future, it was already obvious that continued inaction and “business-as-usual” approach was no longer an option.

Fortunately, as soon as appropriate carbon pricing schedules were adopted globally, a number of research-based developments in alternative energy generation that had long been funded by enlightened governments and philanthropic organisations were available for scale-up and implementation.

But it was still a tragedy the world had to wait until 2022 before any major consensus was reached; and even then, full implementation took a further decade.

The fact this could have happened 30 years earlier remained in everyone’s consciousness, but there’s no sense thinking in terms of “coulda, woulda, shoulda”.

Now, in 2050, we’ve long since capped the natural gas wells and the only carbon-based fuels are those derived from algal/microbial systems that take in as much CO₂ as they give out.

Following the total depletion of accessible oil that happened suddenly with increased prosperity in China and India, the production of plastics switched to coal-based systems, with an increasing contribution from biopolymers.

We were also extraordinarily fortunate that the various genome projects, starting with the draft human genome in 2001 and initiatives such as Craig Venter’s sampling of all life forms in the upper surface of the oceans, had given us an enormous spectrum of new molecular strategies for converting sunlight (and CO₂) directly into energy.

Then, with the full exploitation of geothermal, tide, wind and solar for electricity generation and storage (using hot salt or water pumped up hill) that followed the massive expansion of national grids, the planet was finally in reasonable shape as far as renewables were concerned.

Some energy strategies have been less successful. Though the physicists are still in agreement that nuclear fusion could be made to work, any commercially viable option still seems to be at least 20 years off and there looks to be no immediate way of heating/ cooling some regions of the northern hemisphere without the continued use of nuclear fission.

Still, the hard-won political stability we now see in what was once called the Middle East has removed any serious threat of nuclear conflict, and the fact that the necessity for global sustainability and equity dominates thinking and practice has made our world a much safer place.

Once we had agreed universally that the true values for humanity were compassion, generosity, happiness and educated awareness rather than mindless consumption and self-serving greed, the nature of society was transformed.

We still have enormous issues to deal with given the extraordinary environmental degradation and resource depletion that marked that latter 20th and early 21st centuries, but there is a clear and positive way forward.

We should wish.

This is part one of The Conversation’s Australia 2050 series.

Are you an academic or researcher with a vision for Australia in 2050? Send us an email, subject line: Australia 2050.