What Will Your Life Be Like in 2050?

Will it be just like today, but electric? Or will it be very different?

pushcarts are back in 2050
A typical downtown street in 2050: Pushcarts are back.

Hulton Archives/ Getty Images

New Scientist magazine's chief reporter Adam Vaughan recently published "Net-zero living: how your day will look in a carbon-neutral world." Here, he imagines what a typical day would be like in the future—through the lens of Isla, "a child today, in 2050"—after we've cut carbon emissions. Vaughan says “most of us are lacking a visualization of what life will be like at net zero” and acknowledges the writing is fiction: "By its nature, it is speculative – but it is informed by research, expert opinion, and trials happening right now.”

Isla lives in the south of the United Kingdom—will it still be a united kingdom in 2050?—and her life looks pretty much like life does today: She has a house, a car, a job, and a cup of tea in the morning. There are wind turbines, great forests, and giant machines sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It all sounds like a green and pleasant land, but it didn’t sound like the future to me.

It’s an interesting exercise, imagining what it will be like in 30 years. I thought I would give it a try: Here is some speculative fiction about Edie, living in Toronto, Canada in 2050.

Edie’s alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. She gets up, folds up the bed in the converted garage in an old house in Toronto that is her apartment and workshop, and makes herself a cup of caffeine-infused chicory; only the very rich can afford real coffee1.
She considers herself to be very lucky to have this garage in what was her grandparents’ house. The only people who live in houses these days either inherited them or are multi-millionaires from all over the world, but especially from Arizona and other Southern states2, desperate to move Canada with its cooler climate and plentiful water and can afford the million-dollar immigrant visa fee.
She hurries to prepare her pushcart, actually a big electric cargo bike, filling it with the tomatoes, and preserves and pickles she prepared with fruits and vegetables she bought from backyard gardeners. Edie then rides it downtown where all the big office buildings have been converted into tiny apartments for climate refugees. The streets downtown look very much like Delancey Street in New York looked like in 1905, with e-pushcarts lining the roads where cars used to park.
Edie is lucky to be working. There are no office or industrial jobs anymore: Artificial Intelligence and robots took care of that3. The few jobs left are in service, culture, craft, health care, or real estate. In fact, selling real estate has become the nation’s biggest industry; there is a lot of it, and Sudbury is the new Miami.
Fortunately for Edie, there is a big demand for homemade foods from trustworthy sources. All the food in the grocery stores is grown in test tubes or made in factories. Edie sells out and rides home in time for siesta. There may be lots of electricity from wind and solar farms, but even running tiny heat pumps4 for cooling is really expensive at peak times. The streets are unpleasantly hot, so many people sleep through the midday.
She checks the balance in her Personal Carbon Allowance (PCA) account to see if she has enough to buy another imported battery for her pushcart e-bike5 after her nap; batteries have a lot of embodied carbon and transportation emissions and might eat up a month’s worth of her PCA. If she doesn’t have enough then she will have to buy carbon credits, and they are expensive. She sets her alarm for 6:00 p.m. when the streets of Toronto will come alive again on this hot November day.

The New Scientist article is illustrated with an image showing people walking and biking, turbines spinning, electric trains running, with kayaks, not cars. This is not an uncommon vision: There are many who suggest we just have to electrify everything and cover it all with solar panels and then we can keep on with the happy motoring.

I am not so optimistic. If we don't keep the global rise in temperature to under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) then things are going to get messy. So this story was not just a speculative fantasy but based on previous writing about the need for sufficiency and worries about the embodied carbon of making everything, with some notes from previous Treehugger posts:

  1. Thanks to climate change, "Coffee plantations in South America, Africa, Asia, and Hawaii are all being threatened by rising air temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns, which invite disease and invasive species to infest the coffee plant and ripening beans." More in Treehugger.
  2. "Dwindling water supplies and below-average rainfall have consequences for those living in the West." More in Treehugger.
  3. "We're witnessing the Third Industrial Revolution Playing out in real time." More in Treehugger.
  4. Tiny heat pumps for tiny spaces are probably going to be common. More in Treehugger.
  5. Electric cargo bikes will be a powerful tool for low-carbon commerce. More in Treehugger.