Solving Climate Change by 2050: What Might a Prime Minister Greta Thunberg Celebrate by 2050? (Part 2)
Before diving into the details of the six-prong strategy for solving climate change that I laid out in Part 1 of this series, I’ll lay out a narrative of what success could look like by 2050. The goal of the following “future history” is not to predict what will happen but rather to crystallize what is achievable by that time based on the science and technology capabilities enabled by our human creativity. Given that desired outcome, we can then ask how we get there from here (starting now). I’ll use several well-known figures from today — Greta Thunberg and Bill Gates — but, of course, both are fictionalized for illustrative purposes. This future history was adapted from “A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050,” coauthored with Paul B. Carroll and Tim Andrews.
Greta Thunberg Celebrates the Model City That Shaped Climate Hope
Belmont, Ariz., December 15, 2050 — Swedish Prime Minister Greta Thunberg addressed the crowd today at the 25-year anniversary of the opening of Belmont, the model city near Phoenix.
Speaking via VR conference to avoid air travel, Thunberg played off the title of the blistering speech on climate change she made as a teenager to the United Nations in 2019. In that speech, titled “How Dare You?”, Thunberg reprimanded politicians. She said, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words” about reversing climate change while “entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
Today’s speech was titled, “Dare We Hope?”, and singled out Belmont as an example of the enormous progress that has been made on climate issues in recent decades, because of cross-sector developments in energy, transportation, industry, real estate, agriculture, and consumption.
“There is much more we have to do,” she said, “but today I want to celebrate the reemergence of hope.”
Belmont, with its 200,000 inhabitants, roughly the size of nearby Tempe, has gone well beyond carbon-neutral to be carbon-negative, based on the profusion of power generated by clean sources. Belmont exports its excess power down a trunk line to Phoenix, reducing Belmont residents’ energy bills while helping the nearby metropolis almost eliminate its own carbon footprint.
There is a large wind farm on the edge of the city, and solar is everywhere. Panels are on rooftops, carefully hidden from view. Even rooftops and windows are coated with photovoltaics. The wind and solar are complemented by a series of small nuclear reactors that provide a steady baseline of power. The molten-salt, thorium reactors, about the size of an old-fashioned water tower, are located near Belmont’s manufacturing center, whose 3-D printing capabilities supply almost all of the city’s requirements and whose peak power needs can stress the local solar and wind resources.
Bill Gates, the founder of Belmont, had made his second fortune — or is it his third? — when his early backing of small thorium reactors generated a return of more than $100 billion as they were adopted worldwide. The reactors not only power cities but provide so much energy that they are being used to extract carbon dioxide from the air, combine it with hydrogen, and produce carbon-neutral, renewable fuels, which have become another trillion-dollar industry worldwide.
All the cars are electric, and no one is burning anything to generate electricity in Belmont, so those deep blue desert skies are as clear and crisp as they were centuries ago.
Visitors eventually realize that another feature of older cities is missing, too: power lines. Homes generate so much power and have such battery storage that they’re designed to be energy-independent. For backup — and to provide a way to contribute excess electricity for other homes or for export — a mesh network connects each house to its neighbors and eventually to a grid-scale battery at the center of each neighborhood’s micro grid. (Although the grid-scale batteries were, for a long time, too expensive and lacked enough capacity to be economic, Gates subsidized them in the city’s early days to simulate what micro grids could look like, and the batteries’ capabilities eventually grew into the design.) The batteries also connect in a loose web to provide backup power to homes but carry little electricity, given the near-self-sufficiency of each house and each neighborhood, so it was easy to bury all wires underground.
The insides of homes in Belmont also feel different, mostly because of the exceptional focus on energy efficiency. The homes in Belmont use materials that allow for a radically different approach to air conditioning — they change chemical composition or shape as they absorb heat and cool a room, then are returned to their original state by applying electricity. The materials are built into the architecture in strategic spots, where they can take heat out of the air during the day and be “reset” each night. No need for loud AC units or for all the ductwork that homes used to use to distribute cool air. Ducts aren’t needed for heating, either. A series of small, electric radiators take care of heating needs, so construction costs are much lower than they used to be.
Residents of Belmont — sometimes referred to locally as “Billmont,” after the founder — have more money in their pockets because the exorbitant electricity bills they used to pay to run air conditioning in the summers near Phoenix (where highs can easily hit 115 degrees) have disappeared. The nearly limitless access to energy has also let Belmont solve one of the thorniest problems in the Southwest, water, which is simply pulled out of the air for most household needs.
Borrowing a concept proven in Japan’s Woven City, the streets of Belmont are split into three zones: one for cars, which are mostly autonomous; one as a promenade shared by pedestrians and slower forms of personal mobility, such as bikes and scooters; and one as a tree-filled parkway for pedestrians only.
This multimodal transportation system design alleviates several of the negative side effects of car-centered city planning: sedentary lifestyles and expensive transport. Just a few decades earlier, 40 percent of trips by car in the U.S. were for less than two miles, in large part because the streets were so inhospitable to pedestrians and cyclists. There are no such impediments in Belmont, and the residents are much healthier because of the increased physical activity. When residents don’t want to walk or bike, they can hail an AV taxi service that’s sized for their needs and that they can use at a much lower cost than owning their own car.
“As you look around your city,” Thunberg said at the anniversary celebration, “you can see Winston Churchill was right when he said, ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.’ America got off to a slow start on climate change and led the world in science deniers, but the country recognized the power of the Laws of Zero and has now led progress around the world for many years.”
She ran through a list of achievements:
- Globally, the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions is within striking distance as the Laws of Zero continue to drive down the cost of clean energy and carbon removal.
- Economies have become so much more efficient that energy intensity — the amount of energy required to produce a dollar of GDP — has declined by between 50 and 75 percent in all countries around the globe. The drop reached 80 percent in India and China, mammoth economies where the most progress was needed.
- Traditional fossil fuel companies long ago realized their businesses had become unattractive. Large investors such as pension funds, insurance companies, endowments, and sovereign wealth funds pulled out of the companies because of concerns over climate change, and the companies saw better opportunities in adjacent areas. Many companies managed the transition risks and transformed into businesses focused on carbon capture, chemicals, renewable fuels, and geothermal drilling.
- As investors and fossil fuel companies shifted their focus toward opportunities in clean, sustainable energy, governments, especially in the U.S., yielded to public sentiment to pursue climate-friendly energy policies.
- The rapid infusion of new energy jobs has completely overwhelmed the loss of jobs in the old energy sector.
- Measures of equity in health, wealth, and happiness have improved globally, as the green transition provided a springboard to address poverty in developing countries and structural racism and social injustice in the developed ones.
As Thunberg ended her hopeful keynote, Gates, now 95 years old, said he hoped that she would soon visit Belmont in person, and with a clear conscience.
“We’re making so much carbon-neutral fuel in Belmont that we don’t know what to do with it all,” he said. “I’ll send you a jet, and you can have all the fuel you need.”
Read the rest of this series:
- Here’s How We Can (Mostly) Solve Climate Change by 2050 (Part 1)
- What Might a Prime Minister Greta Thunberg Celebrate by 2050? (Part 2)
- Renewable Energy is Critical But Not Enough (Part 3)
- Next, Electrify Everything Possible (Part 4)
- Efficiency, Efficiency, Efficiency (Part 5)
- Other Scientific Breakthroughs We Need — and Why We Can Make Them (Part 6)
- Carbon Capture From Air (Part 7)
- Getting There From Here (Part 8 and Conclusion)
I focus on innovation at the intersection of advance technology and societal good. I’m also the author of five books on innovation including, most recently, “A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050.” To be notified about future articles, subscribe at my website.