By mid-century, we’ll likely have self-driving cars, more widespread internet access, and semi-smart robots.
But despite our technological advances, humanity has failed to solve many of its problems. The world hasn’t weaned itself off fossil fuels or antibiotics, protected the rain forest, or reduced the stigma surrounding mental illness. We haven’t flood-proofed our cities or protected our energy grids from natural disasters.
With 2050 just a few decades away, major issues await the world.
Science and technology need to start focusing on solutions to make the future better than the terrifying reality approaching:
In 1950, just under 750 million people lived in urban areas. Today, that figure has ballooned to more than 4 billion -- more than half the world's entire population -- and the upward trend is set to continue. By mid-century, about 6.3 billion people will live in cities.
Aside from overcrowding, the skyrocketing population will likely spur the faster spread of infectious diseases and viruses, from tuberculosis to the flu. Dwindling water supplies and inadequate sanitation will only compound the negative health affects.
Compared to rural areas, cities consume about three-quarters of the world's energy and produce the same amount of global carbon emissions. Therefore, a rise in the urban population will also put pressure on energy demands and generate more pollution, potentially making the air toxic to breathe, similar to the situation in Beijing unfolding over the last decade.
According to the World Health Organisation, outdoor air pollution is estimated to have caused 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. This will only increase as urban populations rise and pollution worsens.
By 2050, the number of deaths caused by air pollution -- which includes tiny particles found in smoke and haze, ground-level ozone typically emitted by cars, and toxic components in household products and building materials -- will soar, killing more than 6 million people every year, according to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Why? Because in addition to dirtier skies, warmer weather will speed up the chemical reactions that produce many pollutants.
One of those toxins is ground-level ozone, a chemical that irritates the delicate tissue lining the lungs and causes coughing, feelings of burning, wheezing, and shortness of breath when inhaled. Ozone often worsens respiratory conditions like asthma and emphysema.
In India, where the problem is especially bad, the OECD estimates that about 130 out of every 1 million people will die prematurely from exposure to ozone.
Today, 1.1 billion people lack access to water. And 2.5 billion people (36% of the world's population) live in regions of the world experiencing water stress. Twenty per cent of the world's GDP is produced in these areas as well.
Already, water scarcity hounds 2.7 billion people -- nearly 40% of the world's population -- for at least one month every year, either because they don't have access to clean water or because they can't afford it, Water Footprint Network says. And 1 billion people, about one-sixth of the world's population, face daily shortages, according to the foundation.
By 2050, however, this number will likely increase. Nearly 2 billion people will live in countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, with absolute water scarcity, according to the International Water Management Institute. And by 2050, MIT researchers say that 5 billion of the world's projected 9.7 billion people could live in water-stressed areas.
Aside from a lack of drinking water, populations in these areas might not have the means to irrigate their fields (threatening food supply) or for other domestic, industrial, and environmental purposes.
Currently, one-third of the world's rivers -- groundwater for about 3 billion people -- are going or gone, according to the World Preservation Foundation. With population growth and global warming, the situation will only worsen. The drying of lakes and rivers releases greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, into the air, potentially exacerbating climate change.
Because of the water cycle, the world will also face more droughts, potentially making wildfires at least twice as destructive by 2050.
If the world continues fishing at its current rate, all fish stocks could become extinct by 2050, according to a 2010 report from the environmental branch of the UN. To combat the problem, many organisations, including the UN and European Commission, have tried to impose catch limits on certain species.
We have no idea what kind of damage the loss of fish species could cause to ecosystems around the globe -- or how the changes will affect humanity. About 3 billion people receive one-fifth of their protein consumption from fish, making it a more important source than beef. We even use a multitude of medicines made from marine species.
And then there's the money. Between 10% and 12% of people around the world rely on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihood, contributing to about $129 billion in global exports, about half of which comes from developing countries. All in all, the oceans produce around $3 trillion worth of goods every year.
If we expect to stop the collapse, however, more than 20 million people employed in these industries need to leave and train for other work over the next 40 years.
Every decade, a warmer planet will decrease the amount of food we're able to produce around the globe by 2%. In case that doesn't sound like a lot, it means that in the next 10 years, we'll lose 4,440,000 metric tons of food. One tonne weighs a little over 2,200 pounds.
Here's how the problem will progress as the world warms:
-- First, crop pests and pathogens will spread to warmer, drier areas where they haven't been a problem before. The problem will be especially acute across Africa and South Asia, which also happens to be where much of the world's food is produced.
-- Global yields of wheat, corn, and millet will drop -- researchers estimate they will plummet nearly 10% by 2050. As the amount of food we're producing drops, the demand will rise. A rapidly expanding population will add to the demand, pushing it up by about 14% by mid-century.
-- In this high-demand scenario, the price of rice and corn will double.
-- The lack of proper nutrition will affect children acutely, severely stunting development. Malnutrition is expected to 'moderately' stunt the growth of an additional 3.6 million children worldwide and 'severely' stunt the growth of another 3.9 million children across the globe, according to the WHO.
Each year, we lose a huge chunk of rain forest, the same place we get many of our life-saving drugs, to deforestation, most of which is caused by logging and farming.
At this rate, between a third and nearly half of the rain forest will vanish by 2050, according to a report from the International Journal of Climatology.
As the trees, animals, and habitat disappear, so too will the source of cancer-fighting drugs like Taxol, which was originally isolated from Cowtail Pine seeds.
Right now, infections that no longer respond to the drugs we once used are killing 700,000 people a year. By 2050, that number is set to reach 10 million deaths each year.
The problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been exacerbated by the fact that doctors and pharmacists across the globe give them out freely and farmers worldwide use them liberally on their crops and add them to animal feed, even when animals aren't sick.
Because of this liberal use, antibiotics have become ever present; almost anywhere, they can be found floating in the water and buried in the soil. Unless the demand for antibiotics drops or the regulations on using them are tightened, we are set to live in a world where millions of people die from infections that can no longer be treated.
A gradually warming climate will expand the range of pests carrying deadly disease. People who are affected will have little immunity from the disease.
The result? Diseases that are deadlier than ever.
— Malaria: By 2030, an additional 60,000 people will die of malaria, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the past few years, mosquitoes carrying the disease (which killed 630,000 people last year) have already begun creeping up mountains to recently warmed, higher-altitude elevations, where they spread malaria to areas that had never been exposed to the disease.
— Dengue and yellow fever: Mosquitoes, which thrive in warmer climates, also carry diseases like dengue and yellow fever, which collectively kill more than 50,000 people each year. As temperatures rise, more and more areas around the globe will become increasingly hospitable to the pests. By 2050, 4.6 billion people will be at risk of dengue, according to WHO.
— Cholera: Cholera thrives in warmer temperatures. The disease kills between 100,000 and 130,000 people worldwide each year, almost entirely in areas where there is a lack of clean water. At one site in Bangladesh, cholera risk spiked in the months after the water temperature there warmed 9 degrees Fahrenheit.
As people live longer, we'll be confronted with more and more so-called diseases of ageing. Particularly troubling will be the ones we don't already know how to diagnose or treat, like dementia.
By 2050, the number of people around the world living with dementia is expected to triple, rising from 36 million people to a staggering 115 million people, according to a recent report from the World Health Organisation.
More than half of those who currently suffer from dementia -- whose symptoms can be severe enough to get in the way of daily life -- live in low- and middle-income countries. By 2050, that number will likely rise to more than 70%.
The biggest obstacle to treating dementia in many low-income countries is early diagnosis. Programs to increase awareness of symptoms and provide medical attention are expensive; even in wealthy countries, only between one-fifth and half of all dementia cases are recognised in time for adequate treatment.
As bad as Hurricane Sandy was, it could be just a hint of the destruction to come. While our grandparents most likely lived through one storm of Sandy's scale, our grandchildren can expect to see at least 20 during their lifetime.
While climate change is best known for lifting sea levels and raising temperatures, it will also make storms far more intense. As the Earth heats up, more water vapour -- the fuel for storms -- will enter the atmosphere.
This combination could make hurricanes up to 300% more powerful by 2100, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) modelling studies.
As oceans get warmer and northern sea ice begins to melt, sea levels will rise too, which will increase the frequency of floods across the globe.
Sea levels across the globe are set to rise by roughly a meter -- a little over 3 feet -- by 2100 if carbon emissions continue unchecked.
Without proper planning, coastal cities from New York City to Calcutta, India, will be devastated.
Rising waters will begin to take their toll before 2100, of course. If sea levels rise by just 1.5 feet (the level expected for many cities, including the New Jersey shore, by mid-century), many people will lose their homes. Cities will lose valuable assets.
A 2008 report from the OECD found that Calcutta will likely be the hardest-hit city in the world, with 14 million people and $2 trillion in assets exposed by 2070. New York City made the list, too, with 2.9 million people and $2.1 trillion in assets laid bare to storm surges.
The rising tide will be felt acutely in the US, where by 2050 most of the cities along the northeast coastline will likely see more than 30 days of flooding each year.
Remember how Hurricane Sandy blacked out much of New York City? Those types of situations are about to get a whole lot more common.
Higher water levels, more powerful tropical storms, and increased energy use across the globe will lead to widespread power outages.
In the US, the effects will be worst in crowded, northeastern cities like New York and Philadelphia. By 2050, up to 50% more people there will likely be temporarily without power. From New Orleans to Connecticut, blackouts will increase dramatically.
While private citizens have grown increasingly concerned about the use of drones and other technologies, data lies at the heart of the digital revolution. Continued growth will almost certainly require a greater level of transparency between people and devices -- and that means less privacy.
'People who are thinking that you can control your own identity aren't thinking about the problem right,' futurist John Smart told Business Insider.
Take the idea of digital twins, computer-based versions of our personalities that can make decisions and complete tasks in our stead. To use them effectively, privacy will have to take a back seat.
The Pew Research Internet Project surveyed 2,511 experts and internet builders last year. We broke out a few notable predictions:
- 'Big data equals big business. Those special interests will continue to block any effective public policy work to ensure security, liberty, and privacy online.' -- executive at an internet top-level domain-name operator
- 'We have never had ubiquitous surveillance before, much less a form of ubiquitous surveillance that emerges primarily from voluntary (if market-obscured) choices. Predicting how it shakes out is just fantasy.' -- John Wilbanks, chief commons officer for Sage Bionetworks
- 'Citizens will divide between those who prefer convenience and those who prefer privacy.' -- Niels Ole Finnemann, director of Netlab
On the legal side, police can already create fake social-media accounts to catch criminals. Privacy experts are also voicing concerns about body cameras and other tools.
The events surrounding the 2014 release of Sony's movie 'The Interview' made it undeniably clear that cyberattackers mean business. Even minor breaches, like that of the Lizard Squad against PlayStation on Christmas Day, have increased in frequency and strength.
By 2025, experts believe that 'nations, rogue groups, and malicious individuals' will step up their hacking games, according to a report from the Pew Research Center and Elon University. Of the 1,642 experts surveyed, 61% predicted a major attack causing significant loss of life or property and costing tens of billions of dollars.
Today, countries or militaries that don't typically attack in two dimensions have started to venture into hacking territory. For example, the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) recently launched its 'cybercalliphate,' and Russia is rumored to support a state-sponsored hacker group.
These hacks could affect banks, businesses, and private data, but also do tangible damage to a world increasingly reliant on technology. An attack on a German steel mill in 2014 caused significant damage to its furnaces. The year before, the Stuxnet virus destroyed one-fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges.
With more people come more houses and more cars and therefore a greater demand on energy resources. According to a report from HSBC, if global energy use continues at its current rate, the world in 2050 will have:
-- A 110% increase in oil demand, to more than 190 million barrels a day
-- A doubling of total energy demand
-- A doubling of carbon in the atmosphere, to more than 3.5 times the amount recommended to keep temperatures at a safe level
While the US shale boom diminished fear of 'peak oil' -- the point at which the world runs out of oil -- extracting the oil and natural gas the world still has could become even more expensive. OPEC has already predicted oil prices could explode to $200 a barrel.
Pursuing other energy sources requires careful consideration, though. Coal, for example, is one of the world's dirtiest energy sources. At the current rate of use, we have only another 176 years' worth of with it, according to HSBC. Therefore, non-fossil fuels have to play a greater role.
To start, renewable energy could provide up to 80% of the US' needs.
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