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UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Blog


Discussing global sustainability issues


But what will our world look like?

By ucfaete, on 11 December 2015

sustainable world (c) istockphoto

I am in the business of foresight, projections and scenarios. As a scientist I cannot tell you what the future brings nor what our world will be under +2, 4 or 6 degree warming. What I can say, is that as an individual I have deep concerns.

The climate change community has been applying scenario techniques to bridge gaps between the physical and social change that is envisioned due to climate change. The most recent addition is the introduction of so-called Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) to describe alternate world futures (O’Neill et al., 2015). These futures can be coupled with different representative concentration pathways (RCPs) that correspond to the language of “+2/4/6… degree warming”. Despite the level of emissions or warming considered under a given pathway, what is clear, is that most of the scenarios pose challenges for our societies in the 21st century.

Given today’s news headlines on high migration flows to Europe (presumably having reached one million in the recent period), let’s look more closely at SSP5. It is the only pathway that includes the assumption of high migration. It coincides with low mortality and high urbanisation, and low fertility in all regions except for the rich-OECD countries. What does that mean? The scenario title gives us a hint: “Fossil-fueled Development – Taking the Highway”. In a world with low fertility and mortality we see world population peak and start to decline. Societies are ageing and working age population will need to support old-age dependents rather than young ones.

Given high migration, urbanisation and globalisation, whilst we might achieve (with time) a balance between our fear of the strange and different, and integration and even assimilation, achieving this at the cost of our environment is dangerous. In this world, technological advances benefit the economy (the gross world product is high) as well as development in general, fuelling further a more equal but high consumption – meat-rich diets – kind of world. This world has little regard for environmental sustainability, and poses extreme challenges for climate mitigation. A lot of resources would need to be diverted to allow for adaptation to the consequences. In a world where institutions, policy and consensus is lacking to support environmental sustainability, we would effectively condone the loss of biodiversity and use the resources generated by high economic growth to ‘engineer’ the ecosystems that provide us with nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Population, urbanisation and economic growth (however slow) pathways are at the heart of the SSPs. These integrated scenarios cover a relevant uncertainty space that is defined by outcomes, i.e. starting with a world view under a certain scenario and working backwards to identify the elements of society that would produce that outcome. The five shared socioeconomic pathways thus arrived at represent different combinations of challenges to mitigation and adaptation. In the world above, motivated by SSP5, we would ‘govern‘ nature rather than live alongside it.

This is only a view however, not a certainty, even if all the assumptions are met. In the end, there are pathways for these developments, like winding country roads. Sudden turns (like current migration flows to Europe) can completely change the picture. Let’s not choose a world where future generations don’t get a chance to enjoy the Earth’s fabulous natural diversity and untouched nature. Let’s opt for mitigation instead.

Emma Terama is a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute (Climate Change Programme) and Research Fellow at UCL ISR. Her work is supported by the Kone Foundation.


O’Neill, B. et al. 2015. The roads ahead: Narratives for shared socioeconomic pathways describing world futures in the 21st century, Global Environmental Change, (In Press) Available online.

Further reading on scenarios and narratives: IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (Nakicenovic et al., 2000), Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Carpenter et al., 2005), UNEP Global Environment Outlook scenarios (UNEP, 2002, 2007), and other global scenario exercises (e.g. van Vuuren et al., 2012).

Image credit: sustainable world (c) istockphoto

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