world's biggest rainforest is threatened not only by illegal deforestation,
but also the effects of drought and climate change. Under a "business
as usual" scenario, nearly half of the jungle will be destroyed
by 2050 and it could be almost entirely gone by 2100. More than 2,000
native tree species face extinction.
Arctic sea ice (minimum volume)
Ongoing changes in the Arctic include rising temperatures, loss of sea ice, and melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Projections of sea ice loss suggest that the minimum 1-day volume is likely to reach zero within the next few years. In other words, the Arctic ocean will have ice-free conditions for at least one day, per year. If this trend continues, the ocean may become ice-free during the entire month of September by the 2030s.
Because of the amplified response of the Arctic to global warming, it is often seen as a high-sensitivity indicator of climate change. Scientists also point to the potential for release of methane from the Arctic - especially by thawing of permafrost and methane clathrates. Data for the graph below is provided by the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington.*
chart below displays the current level of carbon dioxide, as measured
by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This features a dataset spanning
the instrument record for atmospheric CO2, which started in 1958. The
chart is updated automatically, using the latest available data.*
The counter below displays the metric tons of CO2 being added to our
atmosphere, in real time.
2010, China became the largest energy consumer in the world, overtaking
the USA. Its development as an industrialised country means that this
soaring energy demand will continue for some time to come. Its economic
growth is spurring a massive increase in car production (15,000 being
added to its roads every day), not to mention buildings and infrastructure
(which includes a new power plant every week).
this vast programme of industralisation, China is making huge efforts
to replant trees. Since 1990 its forests have been growing by 1.2% (or
7000 square miles/18,000 square kilometres) every year - a figure claimed
to be the world's highest. The government is also building a "Green
Wall of China" to hold back the advancing deserts.
China's Three Gorges Dam will become fully operational. This will remove
some 100 million tonnes of CO2 and over 2 million tonnes of SO2 that
would otherwise have been generated by coal-fired power stations.
the ITER experimental fusion reactor will be switched on. China will
have funded part of this project.
much of China will be highly urbanised and densified. Its booming economy
will have led to the construction of literally tens of thousands of
new skyscrapers all over the country. There will be over 200 cities
with more than a million inhabitants, compared to just 35 in the whole
of Europe circa 2010. Even remote and isolated places will be seeing
development on an unprecedented scale. Large-scale infrastructure such
as maglev trains, airports, bridges and tunnels will form an extensive
network to all corners of the nation, leaving few areas untouched. China
will be well on its way to becoming a developed country.
the largest metropolitan areas - such as Hong Kong and Shenzhen - may
actually begin to overlap and form "hyper cities", rivalling
Tokyo in terms of population and land area. Many of the world's tallest
buildings will be found in China, including a number of kilometre-high
this will have a considerable impact on the price of steel and other
materials, leading to cutbacks of many large-scale development projects
in Europe, America and elsewhere. The rise of neighbouring India will
add to this. The West could have a greatly reduced influence on setting
the price of metals. Meanwhile, vast profits will be made by construction
and mining firms, leading to many high profile takeovers and acquisitions.
At the same time, record numbers of accidents during this time - as
a result of so much construction activity - will lead to tighter regulations
and improved safety in the industry. Better pay and working conditions
for employees will be subsequently introduced.
booms, its power requirements will soar. The country will have prepared
for this, however, by strengthening relations with Central Asian countries
and importing more oil and gas from them. China's entry into Central
Asia will be partly motivated by the need to reduce its dependency on
(a) the Middle East, and (b) the Malacca Strait for shipping oil from
the Persian Gulf and Africa; a stretch of water that will be increasingly
vulnerable to pirate attacks, and the subject of ongoing political tensions
regarding its control.
as strengthening its oil imports, China will make substantial gains
from energy efficiency and conservation programmes, along with greatly
increased use of nuclear power. By 2025 its nuclear power generating
capacity will be nearly 150 billion kilowatthours (khwh), passing that
of Canada and Russia. In the 2030s, this will increase still further,
as 4th generation
nuclear power plants become available. Demands for environmental
protection will also lead to increased solar, wind and hydro-electric
lung disease will have killed over 80 million people due to the long
term effects of pollution. China is home to 20 of the 30 most polluted
cities in the world. The widespread practice of burning wood or coal
at home will be a major contributory factor, with over 65% of the population
engaged in this activity.
middle of the 21st century, millions of Chinese may be forced to resettle,
as climate change makes large parts of the country uninhabitable. Shanghai
and other cities will be inundated by rising sea levels - unless adequate
sea defences can be erected.
the so-called "Green
Wall of China" is expected to be finished. This may succeed
in halting the advance of the Gobi Desert.
a result of human influences, the rate of species extinctions at present
is between 100 and 1000 times the natural "background" or
average extinction rates seen in the evolutionary record on Earth. This
is often referred to as the Holocene extinction event. Extinctions
are expected to peak by 2060, with 0.5% of the world's animal and plant
species disappearing every year.
efforts to curtail the ivory trade, huge numbers of elephants continue
to be poached throughout Africa. As of 2010 their population stands
at 600,000 but is declining by nearly 40,000 each year. By the mid-2020s,
only a handful may remain. These could be saved from outright extinction
if zoos and safari parks around the globe work to maintain viable populations
for future rewilding.
current trends, half of all amphibians in Europe will be extinct by
2050, including many previously common species of frogs, toads, salamanders,
newts and caecilians. The main threats are pollution, disease, loss
of natural habitat and droughts caused by climate change.
four subspecies of black rhino. The World Conservation Union (IUCN)
announced in 2006 that one of the four subspecies, the West African
Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes), had been tentatively
declared as extinct. Despite an exhaustive survey across Africa, none
could be found, and there are none being held in captivity. The remaining
three subspecies are critically endangered.
rates of deforestation, Borneo's rainforests will be completely gone
by 2023. Among the many species likely to disappear around this time
is the Orangutan - one of the most intelligent of the great apes.
the world's most beautiful natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef is
likely to disappear by 2050. Rising levels of greenhouse gases are making
seawater too acidic for calcium-based organisms to grow. Most of the
colourful fish for which the reef is famous will also go extinct.
As a result
of global warming, one in five lizard species will be extinct by 2080.
Lizards are being forced to spend more and more time resting and regulating
their body temperature, leaving them unable to spend sufficient time
foraging for food.
some 70% of polar bears will have disappeared due to the shrinking of
Arctic ice caused by global warming. They will disappear from Greenland
entirely by 2080, and from Northern Canada, leaving only dwindling numbers
in the interior Arctic archipelago. Of those few which remain, ice breaking
up earlier in the year will mean they are forced ashore before they
have time to build up sufficient fat stores. Others will be forced to
swim huge distances, leading to exhaustion and drowning. The effects
of global warming will lead to thinner, stressed bears, decreased reproduction
and lower juvenile survival rates - possibly leading to their extinction
century saw tiger numbers plunge by over 95% worldwide. By the 1970s,
they had disappeared from Central Asia, by the 1980s from Java and by
the 1990s from South China. Three of the nine subspecies – Bali,
Javan and Caspian tigers – were extinct by the 1980s.
continue to decline into the 21st century. As of 2010, it is estimated
that India – once a stronghold for these animals – has less
than 800 left in the wild, while some of the rarer subspecies have only
30 individuals. Poaching remains a serious problem, with tiger skins
fetching up to $20,000 in China. Habitat loss is accelerating, with
farmers encroaching into tigers' territory and forests being cleared
to make way for palm oil plantations.
5-10 years, there may no longer be any viable breeding populations of
tigers, setting them on the path to irreversible decline. Once the most
recognisable and popular of the world's megafauna, this animal could
soon go the way of the dodo, with only small numbers remaining in zoos
and private collections.
fusion has already been demonstrated on a small scale. The problem has
been finding ways of scaling it up to commercial levels in an efficient,
economical, and environmentally benign way.
previously known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor
- aims to be the first project to achieve this. Built in southern France
at a cost of €20 billion, it will take over a decade to construct
and be one of the largest scientific projects ever undertaken, second
only to the International Space Station. This joint research experiment
is funded by the US, EU, Japan, Russia, China, India and South Korea.
net fusion power on a large scale, ITER's reactor must simulate conditions
at the heart of the Sun. For this, it will use a magnetic confinement
device called a tokamak. This doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber generates
a powerful magnetic field and will prevent heat from touching the reactor's
walls. Tiny quantities of fuel, injected into and trapped within the
chamber, will be heated to 100 million degrees, forming a plasma. At
such high temperatures, the light atomic nuclei of hydrogen will become
fused together, creating heavier forms of hydrogen such as deuterium
and tritium. This will release neutrons and huge amounts of energy.
its operational activation in 2019, it is hoped that ITER will eventually
produce more than 500 megawatts of power, in bursts of 400 seconds or
more. This compares with 16 MW for the Joint European Torus (JET) in
1997, the previous world record peak fusion power, which lasted only
a few seconds.
require another few decades before its reactor has been sufficiently
perfected. To generate the sort of continuous levels of power required
for commercial operation, it will need a way of holding the plasma in
place at the critical densities and temperatures. This will need refinements
in the design of the chamber, such as better superconducting magnets
and advances in vacuum systems.
it could ultimately lead to a revolution in energy. If this project
were to succeed, humanity would gain a virtually unlimited supply of
clean, green electricity.*
on current trends, a global average temperature rise of 6°C (10°F)
by 2100 is almost inevitable.** This was the worst-case scenario envisaged by the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report. Carbon dioxide
concentrations could reach 1000 parts per million (ppm), compared with
390ppm for 2011 and just 280ppm for pre-industrial times.* Given the feedback processes in the climate system, this would have
devastating consequences for humanity and the environment. The causes
and mechanisms of global warming shall be discussed in detail elsewhere
on FutureTimeline. This section is concerned simply with the temperatures
and their likely trajectory based on the latest science.* The graph below ignores possible technological miracles that may slow
or reverse the trend. It should also be noted that even if crude oil
production peaks, substantial warming is still likely. This is due to
the delayed reaction of emissions from previous decades,* the continued use of other hydrocarbons such as coal and "unconventional"
oil, and the tipping points that are subsequently passed (releasing
vast stores of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas).*
Maglev wind power
technology is already being developed in the USA and China.* In the future, it could have big advantages over conventional wind turbines.
the largest conventional wind turbines produce only five megawatts of
power. However, a single large maglev turbine could generate up to two
gigawatts - enough to supply energy to 1.5 million homes - and would
require far less land space (0.16%) than hundreds of conventional turbines.
This would also reduce construction, maintenance and operational costs
the system of magnets they used, maglev turbines could be effective
in wind speeds as low as 1.5 m/s. They would be vastly more efficient
than today's wind turbines and could deliver electricity for less than
one cent per kilowatt hour.
generation nuclear power is expected to become available in the early
2030s. These new power plants will utilise a system of balls, rather
than large fuel rods. They will be a major improvement over previous
be physically impossible for them to have a runaway chain reaction.
No error, human or otherwise, will ever produce a meltdown.
uranium fuel will be only 9% enriched. This will make it impossible
to be used in terrorist nuclear weapons.
nuclear waste will be much easier to dispose of.
will be highly economical. Electricity will be generated more cheaply
than oil or gas power, even when the decommissioning costs of the
stations are taken into account.
reasons, nuclear power may become a lucrative industry from the 2030s
onwards. Solar and wind power will have greater long term potential,
however, due to the finite supply of uranium.
The first commercial oil wells appeared in the mid-19th century, during which costs of this valuable commodity were extremely high. Following a major boom, the prices fell sharply and remained relatively stable through much of the 20th century. In the 1970s, however, petroleum shortages caused prices to rocket. This was followed by an oil "glut" in the 1980s which saw prices fall again, a trend which continued until the end of the century.*
The 21st century has brought fresh concerns that supply may soon be unable to match demand. From around 2005 onwards, global production of conventional crude oil appeared to be reaching a plateau. This caused prices to jump dramatically in 2008, which may have been a partial factor in the economic crisis of the time. Prices fell back down in 2009, before rising again, following the same trend line as before and remaining stubbornly high. Unlike the 1970s, many experts believe this current volatility may represent a new, permanent condition. Oil is a finite commodity and has already peaked in many countries, with production invariably following a bell curve that is highly predictable.* There are indications that we may reach this peak on a global basis, in the near future, with a terminal decline thereafter.*
Although unconventional sources are now being exploited – such as tar sands, offshore deep drilling, and so on – none of these have the energy density of conventional crude oil. Because the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is lower, their prices are therefore going to be higher. Renewable energy alternatives like wind and solar have been growing fast, along with hybrid/electric vehicles, but these are yet to become fully mature industries. Likewise, there are countless other products and processes that will need to be adapted – from agriculture to manufacturing, medicine, plastics and everyday household items. Since we are so dependent on oil, this has important implications for the global economy, particularly with demand from China and other emerging nations. Some period of disruption appears likely in the 2020s and possibly even sooner. The graph below is based on recent estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).*
Sea level rise according to the IPCC report of 2013. Shown is the past history of sea level since the year 1700 from proxy data (sediments, purple) and multiple records from tide gauge measurements. Light blue are the satellite data (from 1993). The two future scenarios mentioned in the text (RCP8.5 and RCP2.6) are shown in red and blue, with their "likely" uncertainty range according to the IPCC (meaning a 66% probability to remain inside this range). Source: IPCC AR5 Fig. 13.27.
demand for solar power continues to soar, new and larger methods of
capturing the sun's energy will be needed. Floating solar islands are
one such concept that could eventually provide gigawatts of electricity.
platforms would be 5 kilometres in radius. Rather than solar panels,
a concentrator would be used to heat water running through pipes; the
steam generated would then produce electricity.
To be cost-effective,
they would be deployed only in locations with over 350 days of sunlight,
such as the equator. Since the power stations would be floating, it
would be easy to rotate them - keeping them facing the sun all day for
prototype has already been tested in the United Arab Emirates and substantially
larger versions may see commercial operation in the future.*
Solar updraft towers
updraft towers, also known as solar chimneys, are a relatively new concept
of renewable energy power plant that may become widespread in the future.
They would combine three old and proven technologies: the chimney effect,
the greenhouse effect, and the wind turbine. Air would be heated by
sunshine and contained in a very large greenhouse-like structure around
the base of a tall chimney; the resulting convection would cause air
to rise up the updraft tower. This airflow would drive turbines, producing
research prototype operated in Spain in the 1980s. Many modelling studies
have since been published as to their optimisation, scale and economic
feasibility. Some proposals have involved mega-structures reaching up
to a kilometre in height.* A small operating plant is reported to have been built in Jinshawan,
China, as of 2011.*