Does a great green future need people?

It’s interesting to imagine what the planet might be like after humanity. This picture assumes we have failed to control the climate, sea levels have risen and rainfall increased. Places that are now solid dry land will flood frequently and  bridges will often be destroyed. The picture shows a fish eagle – currently an African bird, returning with its lunch past the remnants of a stone road bridge in England. In the background is a thriving forest. It all looks rather pretty. I guess humanity needs to decide whether it wants to be part of a great green future, or not.


Happy New Year 2050

The Party goes Global
The Party goes Global

Mac looks at his watch. It has been a long evening in Newcastle. He got here in time to celebrate with Singapore. Every hour a new country comes on line. The screen is impressive – the presence very close. His electronic assistant translates effortlessly, there are no language barriers in 2050.

In Bamako, the solar rich capital of Mali, they can afford the very best entertainment and they are in the same time zone. It will soon be midnight.

Mac smiles with anticipation. His personal assistant can deal with every language and dialect in the world, but it still can’t make sense of Auld Lang Syne.

Can Sailing be more fun?

Cowes week 2050 - the Modern Viking Class
Cowes week 2050 – the Modern Viking Class

I love sailing but it does have a serious downside. If the wind is good you get great exercise and exciting racing. If the wind is low it can get rather dull and fail to provide much physical challenge.

So these boats, pictured at Cowes Week in 2050, are Modern Viking boats. If the wind is strong they sail. If the wind drops the crew row. At intermediate strengths, as shown here, they sail and row simultaneously. Two of the 6 crew keep the boat level, 4 row.

The class doesn’t only provide a great work out, it also provides lots of interesting tactical opportunities. There would be a need for rule changes – for example oars must be stowed close to marks.

I guess the same principles could be applied to smaller and larger boats, up to full Viking size with perhaps 50 crew.

Like everything on Sketchfifty, this type of sailing is sustainable. No need for engines, and little need for rescue, because these boats are seaworthy.

Sustainable Sailing

20151114 Yachting

The race is over. Jim heads for the shore, because the wind is forecast to die in 45 minutes. The local forecasts in 2050 are always accurate. When he gets close to port he will drop sail and run the electric motor for the last 5 minutes into harbour.

Sailing in 2050 looks just like it did in 2015, but a few subtle changes have made it sustainable. The boat is hired for the day – individually owned boats involve too much use of resources. The boat and sails use 2050 materials and last for many years. The marina employs a large team to keep the boats in perfect condition.

Jim’s personal kit is stored at the marina, and washed for him before each visit. Jim needs to bring little with him, so he does not need a car for the trip to the coast.

There are many sailors on the train home, because sailing is affordable and popular. They meet in the bar and discuss the racing. A great day!

Is this the Future of House Building?

By 2050 we will need many new homes. That’s because there are a lot of people on the planet and most of them live in pretty poor accommodation. To add to the problem the lowest lying coastal areas, which include some cities, may be starting to feel under threat from rising sea levels by 2050. People will want to move to new homes on nearby land that is slightly above the projected sea level.

The good news is that it really isn’t that hard to accommodate people. Their requirements are a substantial space that is at reasonable temperature, protected from wildlife, strong enough to resist storms, and with an outside view.  Do that sustainably and the job is done.

20150129 Building coloured

The picture shows a future house building site. The houses have features of a 2015 passive house (passivhaus in German). They are very well insulated with thick walls. They have heat exchangers so that warm air leaving the house heats cold air coming in. They use the ground deep beneath as a reservoir of heat in winter and cool in summer.

The walls and roof are mostly fresh air, trapped in numerous small spaces by fibrous materials and plastic foams. The fibres come from wood, the foams from fossil fuels that can no longer be burned. Robust wooden facings provide attractiveness and durability. Most of the house is made of wood.

Wood is a way of storing carbon.  If we need to preserve wood what better way to do that than in the form of homes, since people tend to treasure homes above anything else. The potential isn’t huge, but it is a useful contribution. The world probably needs around a billion new homes by the end of the century. If each contained 20 Tonnes of wood and materials derived from wood, we would store 10 Gigatonnes of carbon (wood is 50% carbon). That is equivalent to extracting 37 Gigatonnes of Carbon dioxide – around our current emissions in one year.

The builders in the foreground are putting in the underground heat stores, and the heat exchangers for ground source heat pumps. All of that work is best done before the house is built, at the same time as the drains, pipes, and foundations. Their digger is fuelled by methanol from the deserts. The extra cost of fossil free methanol is a small percentage of the overall building cost.

In the background a new house is being built. Once the foundations are in the process is relatively rapid, with sections being built off site and craned into place – a process made possible by the use of wooden construction. These new homes are relatively large, reflecting the fact that many people will be wealthy. Most people will live in cities, but even there high rise apartments should be spacious by 2015 standards. All houses, whatever their type, will tend to use wooden construction where possible.


Can Jet Skis be sustainable?

The answer is yes. And powerboats, SUVs, helicopters, Formula One cars, planes and lots of other things we enjoy can all be sustainable too. They just need to use sustainable fuel.

20150108 Jetski and car corrected20150108 Jetski 1 corrected

There are lots of routes to sustainable fuel. The simplest but most dangerous is to make it from plants alone. Why? Because it takes lots of land to grow fuel, and we need that land for wildlife, and to grow food for people.

A better route is to use solar energy to make hydrogen, then use that hydrogen to make liquid fuels. I’ve included a page on a route to do that. On that page I reckon that methanol from the solar route would be 20% to 120% more costly to use than petrol in the UK in 2013. It would therefore be easily affordable for a jet ski, and for other leisure uses. In time, given technical advances, the cost of this fuel would be expected to fall.

The solar power would be best produced in deserts. There are lots of them on the planet – in North Africa, Australia, the Middle East, North America, Asia and Southern Africa. Ships could bring fuel from any of them, reducing the risks associated with dependency on one source of supply. See this earlier post for a view of whether the deserts can power us.

The picture shows a family outing to the seaside in 2050. Both the SUV and the jet ski use methanol fuel. The SUV can be away from civilisation for days if required. The jet ski too burns methanol, and is just as light and powerful as its 2015 versions were. Methanol fuel can be obtained from filling stations, which have converted to sustainable fuels to replace fossil fuel.

Why have I been banging on about battery electric cars and buses if this is true? Electric cars will be preferred for routine journeys like commuting and shorter journeys like shopping. They should be cheaper to operate than current fossil fuelled cars, and considerably cheaper than methanol fuelled vehicles. That is because battery vehicles can chose when to recharge, picking times when electricity supply is high and costs are low.

Battery vehicles will have adequate range for urban duties. They are pollution free, and may be mandated for urban use for that reason alone. Sustainable liquid fuels will therefore be reserved for those activities where battery vehicles cannot do the job.

Will methanol be used in internal combustion engines like those of 2015? Yes – very often. There will also be a new option to use fuel cells, which are quiet and efficient. Fuels like methanol (or hydrogen) are far easier for fuel cells than petrol or diesel.

Can Derby be sustainable by 2030?

This post addresses a important question – how can we make our cities sustainable? It is a really tough question for most cities, because the private car is central to life and each car uses large amounts of energy.

The subject is Derby in the UK, my home city. It shows how technology could allow the city to become sustainable and provide dramatic lifestyle improvements.P102079320141218 Derby Traffic Street correctedThe picture on the left is Derby in 2014. The sketch on the right is the same junction in 2030. What is the difference?

The photo shows the extent to which private cars are dominating the city. The road junction is wide and hard to cross. The pavements are noisy. The area beyond is a car park. This street is actually called Traffic Street.

In the sketch on the right, transport energy use is well under 25% of the 2014 picture. The vehicles are mainly electric buses, each replacing many cars. The smaller vehicles are mainly driverless electric taxis, most of which are also carrying more than one person. Whenever a person needs transport they tell their smart phone. A central computer then offers options for the journey, sharing transport wherever possible to cut costs and energy use.

Shared transport is the key to energy reduction. A car with 4 people uses little more energy than a car with one person, so that energy use per person is cut dramatically. Buses enable even greater savings.

In 2030 the private car has become a luxury item rather than an essential part of life. All journeys can be made using buses and taxis. Some transport is still manned, but driverless technology offers significant cost reductions and is often preferred. Technology is used to ensure that shared transport offers personal security.

The number of people travelling is greater than in 2014, but there are fewer vehicles and the roads have been shrunk. There is now space for cafes and cycle-ways. Parks have been introduced to replace hard surfaces and make drainage more sustainable.  The car park has been replaced by shops, offices and homes. The vehicles are travelling at a lower speed, quietly and without fumes. Journey times are faster because there is no congestion. The vehicles are communicating and adjusting their speeds to reduce the need to stop and wait at junctions.The city has been reclaimed for its people, and is far more prosperous. Traffic Street has become People Street.

The sketch below shows an old district, full of terraced housing. Some of the streets have been given glass roofs to allow easy walking, cycling and shopping. This is possible because there are no fumes with electric buses and cars. Water is collected from these roofs and used for watering the city parks

20141218 Derby Street corrected

The roof also reduces the heating requirement in the shops and nearby homes. The row of cars are driverless taxis, sitting on induction loops and recharging between trips. They can be called from any mobile phone. Few people own a private car because the narrow streets have no personal parking spaces so recharging is inconvenient. The driverless taxis simply go to the nearest charging area as required.

In summary, Derby is sustainable because it has reduced its energy requirements to be within the capacity of sustainable energy sources.

I have entered this post in the Masdar 2015 Engage blogging contest. That is one reason why it looks at 2030 rather than 2050 as usual. 2030 also makes sense because rapid reductions in carbon emissions are required to avert dangerous climate change.


Is this the future of Football?

Even more than other Sketchfifty entries, this definitely isn’t a prediction. However it would be rather entertaining if Burnley did make it in the big league…

Ronaldo breaks away
Ronaldo breaks away

The huge crowd in Burnley is silent because the home team are losing to their rivals, the top Brazilian side Flamengo. Despite their silence, however, the noise in the stadium is deafening. The cheers and chants of the Flamengo fans in bars and halls in Rio is being transmitted to the North of England, increasing the annoyance of the Burnley fans. Burnley are the only English club in the World Club League, they have a track record of success and the crowd expect to see victories.

The old town of Burnley lies close to the centre of the capital of Northern England, the huge new linear city of Hapton. This city has grown in the northern hills because of climate projections. Despite the fact that carbon emissions have now stopped, the world continues to warm slowly, storms get a little more fierce each year, and the sea level slowly creeps higher. The land around here rarely floods and the valleys provide protection from storms. The weather, once considered rather cold and wet, is projected to remain relatively benign until the climate settles down, sometime after 2300. This area has therefore become one of the most desirable in Europe.

Hapton is home to many wealthy people from across the globe. These include the nations of the Sahara, now enjoying considerable wealth from the solar farms that cover large areas of their country. They have come here because the Sahara, never a great place to live, is expected to become quite intolerable within the next fifty years.

One of the newcomers, a billionaire from Chad, is now the owner of Burnley Football Club and pours wealth into it.

The World Club League has become possible because of advances in communications. It is now possible to experience a big match remotely. Cameras provide a multitude of views of each goal. The performance of each player can be monitored. The noise of distant fans can be fed into live games.

The crowd here still contains a few long term Burnley fans. One of those, old Bill H, has been coming here for longer than anyone can remember. He can still get around on the excellent public transport system in Hapton. He watches with relief as Ronaldo, the fourth player of that name to be voted the best in the world, streaks free of the Flamengo defence and slots the ball home. A draw isn’t ideal, but Burnley could still secure the title in their next league game.

How will Politics Change in 2050?

This post looks at how technology can change politics. This may be difficult! I note that politicians are forever banging on about the need for others to change and the need for obsolete industries to close, yet very slow to change their own processes. However it’s fun to think of what is possible…..

The build-up to the big vote


Nala is worried. This is an important vote to provide the budget for early years education. She feels that it is very important. But her screens are finely balanced.

She listens as the Education Secretary leaves the podium and is replaced by a childcare expert. The expert is good. She explains simply how the budget will be spent, and how the lessons from other countries have been learned.  Nala’s screen responds.

The screen shows the views in real time of her constituents, or at least those who chose to log in. For this vote the interest has been enormous. On the one hand there are many people who see this as a vital move to improve education and improve the lives of working mothers. Others are concerned that the budget should go elsewhere, notably for coastal defences.

The fossil fuel orgy has ended now and carbon emissions are very low. The greenhouse gases that have already been emitted are however producing a gradual rise in sea level as the oceans warm and as ice sheets slowly melt. The rise is now starting to threaten flooding of some coastal cities and towns. Scientists are able to predict with some confidence how sea level will rise for the next hundred years, and decisions are needed on which areas will be defended, and for how long.  The required defences will be costly. Many citizens want sea defence to be an absolute priority, and they see early years education as non-essential.

Nala does not have to vote as her constituents demand, but she has promised her constituents that she will take note of their wishes when voting. She has already briefed her constituents and recommended that the early years project should be funded. Given the level of interest in this topic it would be difficult to disregard their wishes.  She feels relieved as their opinion becomes positive, and leans forwards to press the voting button.

She sometimes regrets the interactive nature of modern democracy, but she thinks that it is far better than the old way. Then, only a few years ago, people had elections every few years. After they were elected politicians went to the capital and immersed themselves in the political life there. They tended to be influenced by pressure groups, rather than their constituents. Constituents felt powerless and there was widespread discontent with politicians. Single interest groups, which could still motivate people to vote, began to dominate politics. Each election became in effect a referendum on one high key issue or another.

Now politics is quite different. There are still political parties but each has made some form of pledge to respect constituents’ views, because parties that make no pledge do not get elected. Each party has a simple manifesto showing what it stands for rather than spelling out detailed actions in many areas.

Why can’t this happen now? It is. If you have 14 minutes to spare you can watch a rather good video here. If you don’t have that time suffice it to say that the internet is already shaking our existing ideas of democracy.

Greater levels of engagement will be vital going forwards. As pressure grows on the planetary limits there will be many difficult decisions and many sacrifices required. Governments will need to be strong to resist and control commercial interests. It will be vital to engage the public fully in politics.





What will the High Street be like in 2050?

This is a milestone week for human stupidity. We commemorate the end of World War One, a dreadful waste of life which could have been avoided by an agreement in 1914. To demonstrate that we have learned nothing, one hundred years later we are about to drift into another disaster. Scientists have been warning of the dangers of global warming for over 20 years. Their latest report predicts long term consequences that are even worse than the First World War. Those effects can be reduced by an agreement in 2015 and rapid action thereafter. If not, things will get out of control. Will we learn the lessons of history?

As my contribution I show a low carbon High Street in 2050, to demonstrate that the changes  we need to make are really are not that difficult!

A High Street in 2050
A High Street in 2050

What’s the difference? The Café looks normal. There are cars parked. The shops are busy. The changes are inside the shops.

The shop beside the café provides home services. Tax on carbon emissions (see QTax) provides the bulk of government revenue. As a result employment taxes have disappeared except for the very wealthy. It is now relatively cheap to get cleaning, decorating, washing and home repairs done by specialists. See this for how employment patterns will change.

The second shop hires out tools. Many people enjoy gardening, or doing other work at home. This shop stocks many tools and can get hold of specialist tools from a network. This saves the emissions resulting from manufacturing new tools that sit around in people’s garages doing nothing . The shop also provides face to face advice. Customers can collect tools or they can be delivered to their homes from the back of the shop using relatively little energy (see robobike).

The third is a clothing shop. Clothes in 2050 are of the highest quality and tailored to individual needs. Customers can come here, get personal fashion advice, and use the latest technology to see themselves in various fashions before they buy. The clothes are then made at a city 10 miles away and delivered to the shop later in the same week. This system avoids the material waste that comes with cheap mass produced throw away clothing.

The food shop is busy, though most people have food delivered, many eat out, and many use the robo-bikes to deliver it cooked. Food tastes have changed because of personal health monitoring systems, and there is much less waste.  (see waste). There is also much more fresh local produce.

The e-assist shop helps people with their personal e-assistants. These devices make everyday life far easier. Their software is developing very rapidly. This shop helps with problems and carries out updates when required. Update and repair have become relatively low cost compared with buying a complete new device.

The pub at the end is thriving too. People can enjoy a range of local beers. Tonight the match between Liverpool and Real Madrid will attract a full house. Advanced technology will make the experience  compelling. The crowd noise will be awesome, the camera angles stunning, the shared experience unforgettable. Many will also have a meal. Low employment taxes mean that the cost of beer and food is relatively low. Sharing the video experience is more enjoyable than watching alone at home, and avoids the need to manufacture individual entertainment systems.

The cars in the street are driverless electric taxis. They are recharging from loops buried in the road. Shoppers will use their phones to say when they want to go home and the system will tell them which taxi to take. Shared journeys will be normal, though a rapid individual transport option will be available at extra cost. Energy requirements for transport will be less than 25% of current levels. People with disabilities will have a better life, given independence and safety by these new vehicles.

The street does not need parking space for personal cars, though they remain an option and many people keep old cars for use on special occasions. For normal life cars are seen as a nuisance, always needing recharge, hard to park, and costly because they are underused assets with a significant carbon input required to build them. Another benefit is that accident rates in 2050 will be very low because driverless taxis are safer than human drivers.

The electric taxis generally carry multiple passengers so that there are fewer vehicles on the road. They travel steadily, their computers rarely making driver errors. This means that the roads are safe for cyclists. Those who live on hills simply use electric bikes, requiring a fraction of the energy needed by a car.

The street thrives because money is not being wasted on energy. There is no great flow of money out of the local economy to fossil fuel companies. Everyone can earn a decent living because they have access to great education through the internet and because technology permits a better work-life balance, especially for women. People therefore have money to spend on the High Street.

Compared with 2014, this street:

  1. Allows everyone to continue their lives, generally with some improvements.
  2. Uses less than half, perhaps only 25% of the current energy input. This is important because without action world energy requirements will fourfold over the next hundred years due to population growth and spreading prosperity. This street could hold global energy requirements near current levels, giving us a fighting chance of supplying the world from low carbon energy sources.

Why can’t this happen now? There is no reason at all why some of the reduction in emissions shown here cannot be achieved by 2020. Some of the technology requires development but given intense work it could be available within a few years, so this High Street could in fact be reality by 2030.

Why isn’t it happening? Much of the change depends on the tax regime. World governments seem totally unable to grasp the importance of taxing carbon pollution. Taxation is an effective way to change habits quickly. We must raise the price of those activities that produce carbon emissions, and reduce the price of less polluting options.

International action is needed to ensure tax is fair, and to set levels for taxation of international trade. Countries that take action need to be able to tax imports from highly polluting countries. Without such a tax countries with cheap coal energy will prosper and attract industry from virtuous countries –  a bad outcome. 

Rather than impose a proper cost for carbon pollution, and allowing the market to sort out how to respond, the nations fiddle in the market, imposing whatever solutions politicians find attractive. They make promises to cut emissions, then find some way round them when it becomes politically unpopular. The result is ineffective chaos. Carbon emissions continue to rise.

Nations also seem unable or unwilling to focus research activities into radical technologies such as those highlighted in Sketchfifty. Research money is going into those areas that are profitable now – health, small improvements in efficiency for cars, new ways of extracting fossil fuels, and traditional types of renewable energy. That is because companies understand those areas, whereas genuinely new technologies involve high risks and long development times. We need the most intensive research into any technologies that could possible make a major contribution, so that these options are available to our successors. They include desert solar power, nuclear power, robo-bikes, and new transport technologies such as SWIFT and bus-trains

We also need non-technical research into how to make systems like the QTax work, and to define the best approach and how to implement it. Any change will be unfair to some people so tax changes need to be carefully designed and explained.

What can you do to make the required changes? If you live in a democracy, get in touch with those who represent you. At present they think you care more about other things. It was probably just the same in 1914.