I received this book with high hopes. The author is professor or climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School. He co-authored, as a young man, the seminal work 'Limits to Growth' and its 1992 and 2004 updates, and is a regular speaker on sustainability-related issues on the international circuit.
On the back of the book, the blurb states that "we know what want the world to be like in forty years. But what do we know about what the world will actually be like? This is the question Jorgen Randers tries to answer..."
Yet somewhere along the way, this book has failed to deliver.
Randers offers us a world with a population peaking at about nine billion, requiring global food output at least thirty percent higher than today but produced from roughly the same area of agricultural land. The increased yields, apparently envisaged as coming from genetically-modified crops, do not seem credible given the very limited achievements in the biotech sector to date. Indeed, it might be argued that the proliferation of GM crops and the increasing dominance of world food production by a handful of multinational companies actually threatens future food security.
A more likely scenario is that global food output will fall in response to reduced fertiliser inputs, unavoidable climate changes, and increasing soil degradation.
Energy use and consumption of material goods are projected by Randers to be forty percent higher than current levels in 2052. Gross world product is predicted to double, thereby requiring a substantive decoupling of energy and GDP, something the available evidence suggests is highly unlikely. Randers labels the non-energy-related component of GDP as 'investment'. Yet the question can be asked: what investment does not involve tangible material goods or services, and thereby not require energy? Derivatives trading? Financial speculation? The monetisation of debt? It all seems rather dubious.
If this does not seem credible, nor do the estimated dates of peak oil and peak gas: 2025 and 2035 respectively; nor the six fold increase in energy contribution from renewables (seemingly based on solar, wind and ethanol); nor the two degree rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial times; nor the increasingly urbanised nature of the future world and envisaged improved health services (with associated increases in life expectancy).
Taking into consideration the latest information on the melting of Arctic sea ice - already exceeding 2007 IPCC predictions for the year 2052 - and likely feedbacks arising from changes in the Arctic albedo, then an increase of global temperatures (over the pre-industrial base line) of only two degrees by 2052 seems a trifle optimistic.
The premise for greater urbanisation is that 'production' in cities is more 'efficient'. A counter argument might be that in terms of food production, the apparent 'efficiency of high urban populations is entirely predicated upon high-energy, fully-mechanised agriculture and energy-dense delivery systems (the type that will be a vanishing memory by 2052).
A brief word about ethanol from sugar cane (one of the Great White Hopes in the book) and other renewables:
Sugar cane has been described elsewhere as the world's most environmentally damaging crop. Even though sugar cane is no longer synonymous with slavery, production methods still leave much to be desired.
Ethanol from sugar cane currently accounts for about one quarter of one percent of global energy supply. If the entire global sugar crop were used for ethanol, the contribution of sugar cane to global energy requirements would still not reach one percent. If sugar cane, sugar beet, all food crops and plant oils, in their entirety, were used for energy production, they would provide about five percent of global energy demand. Half of this five percent would be non-available for wider societal purposes, being needed in the next phase of production.
Wind energy, the other great hope, currently provides about half of one percent of global energy demand and less than two percent of all electricity used.
Solar heating technology provides about one fifth of one percent of global energy requirements. Solar photovoltaics (the potential of which is greatly exaggerated in the book) provides abut one tenth of one percent.
Of the 'renewables' currently used for energy (comprising in total about fifteen percent of global energy supply), wood provides two thirds of the total and much of this is currently produced or harvested using practices that are not sustainable.
Then there is the critical role of scarce, finite 'rare earth' materials such as neodymium in wind turbines and electric vehicles. Perhaps that's a debate for another day.
But the bottom line is that renewables such as solar, wind and ethanol will never be replacements or substitutions for fossil fuels, or anything close to it. The numbers simply don't add up.
Many people - Heinberg for example - have examined renewables more critically and realistically.
Randers' assumption that oil production will not peak for a further twelve or thirteen years, and gas for a further twenty-two or twenty-three, should be considered to be at the extreme end of the probable. These scenarios are similar to the ones proffered by the International Energy Agency, yet the IEA has shown itself to be consistently behind the curve with its predictions, with each annual forecast reflecting a substantial downgrading of previous expectations in terms of fossil fuel production and longevity.
Independent analysts such as Campbell, Deffeyes and Simmonds suggest the peaks will come much earlier.
That there is a need for realistic scenarios on what the future might offer can hardly be stated strongly enough. However, among the existing publications on the subject a reoccurring theme is that authors appear obliged to give some upside, as defined in terms of material wealth and comforts.
Perhaps they have partners or children or grandchildren they don't want to disappoint. For authors embedded in the commercial world, there may also be an implicit need to please business colleagues and/or satisfy potential investors. Similar compromises can be found in politics. This unconscious (or sometimes deliberate) bias away from the probable towards the improbable or even impossible has been a systemic weakness in the modern world (and is the prime cause of the current multi-faceted global crisis).
I would venture that the upsides will be found in our species innate nature to survive (in so far as environmental conditions permit) not in material goods.
While some of Randers' proffered outcomes (for example the benign food and energy scenarios) may be considered to be desirable, this does not make them outcomes that realistically can happen. The wider evidence is that they aren't achievable: not environmentally (in terms of food production and use of natural resources), logistically (the energy and materials required to maintain the system) or politically (the requirement to make decisions with a long term prospective when voters and politicians alike rarely look much further than the next few months).
In the final section are twenty pieces of 'advice' that quite accurately capture the essence of what the book is about:
Some of the recommendations are sensible (No.2: 'Do not acquire a taste for things that will disappear', seems almost prophetic), some give mixed messages (No.5: 'If you like great biodiversity go and see it now') while a number seem downright silly (No.3: 'Invest in great electronic entertainment and learn how to prefer it'). Naturally, all are aimed at people with first world lifestyles that are assumed to continue, albeit with a few minor changes, into the future, and many assume privileged material circumstances (No.8: 'Move to a country capable of decision making'; No.13: 'Remember your fossil-based assets will lose their value'; and No.6: 'Visit world attractions before they are ruined by the crowd').
Considering the book can be purchased for little over ten euro, thereby being accessible to readers who do not have investments 'in the markets' or who don't have the option of changing countries at the drop of a hat - try moving to Norway (from an outsiders perspective one of the countries most likely to survive the impending crash) and see how easy that is - it seems many of Randers' recommendations may not always be relevant.
Perhaps more useful would have been a discussion of practical post-crash skills.
My own suggestion is that for good advice about how the future might unfold, look elsewhere than this book. Sorry Jorgen, wish I could be more positive but I have to say it as I see it.