The United States in 2052: A Future of Energy Efficiency

In 2052, the United States may see changes in productivity that will require a substantial increase in energy efficiency.

US state of affairs, population, GDP and consumption from 1970 to 2052

US State of affairs, 1970-2050. Scale: Population (0-350 million people); GDP and consumption ($0-$18 trillion per year), CO2 emissions (0-6 billion tonnes CO2 per year); temperature rise (0 degrees Celsius-2.5 degrees Celsius)

Photo courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing

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What will our future on earth look like? In 2052, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) Jorgen Randers tries to predict what the world will actually be like in forty years, based on global forecasting tools, his own experience in sustainability and predictions of leading scientific and sustainable minds. The following excerpt from chapter 10, "Five Regional Futures," explains the predicted economic health and energy efficiency of the United States in 2052.

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Toward 2052: The United States

The US population will grow more or less in parallel with the world average and will peak at the same time, in the middle 2040s. Due to the aging of the population, the potential workforce in the United States, those aged fifteen to sixty-five years, will remain more or less stable at around 220 million persons. The support burden—defined as the total number of Americans divided by the potential workforce—will increase by a few percentage points, but not dramatically, because the growth in the number of old will be compensated for by a decrease in the number of young.

The economy will continue to grow for some decades, but not fast—only at an average growth rate of 0.6 percent per year over the next forty years. The rate of growth will decline and reach zero by the middle of the century. This is because the United States is already a mature economy—actually the most mature in the world, with the highest GDP per person on the planet (excepting some tiny special cases like Norway, Luxembourg, and Abu Dhabi). In other words, the gross labor productivity is already very high, and it will require substantial effort to make it grow further. In order to achieve higher growth, the United States must succeed in bringing a much larger part of those aged fifteen to sixty-five years into the workforce, or succeed in increasing labor productivity in services and care. Both are difficult and will not happen fast enough to avoid a continuation of the downward trend in productivity growth over the last forty years.

Furthermore, the United States has not been investing sufficiently over the last generation and needs to terminate its spending spree. US investment has been below 20 percent for most of the last generation and now is only 16 percent, less than two-thirds of the global average, which is 24 percent of the GDP. The United States will need to close this gap and make the extra investments necessary to meet its share of the coming problems of depletion, pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. My forecast is that the investment share of the GDP in the United States will grow from 16 percent in 2010 to more than twice that level in 2052. Through this extraordinary national effort, the country will be able to pay for substantial improvements in energy efficiency, make a significant shift toward a renewable energy supply, adapt to the higher sea level, (partly) protect itself against the increasingly extreme weather, and, finally, cover the unavoidable repair costs from hurricanes and climate-induced natural disasters.

As a consequence of the need for increased investment, aggregate consumption will grow very slowly, stagnate, peak (already in 2025), and then start a slow decline. Per capita consumption levels in 2052 will be some 10 percent lower than in 2010. The US consumer is about to experience a full generation where wages will not increase at all. In fact my forecast is that the US average per capita after-tax income will show a downward trend in real terms during all this time.

The combination of increasing energy efficiency and slow growth in GDP will allow US energy use to remain more or less constant over the next forty years. The nation will make a huge shift from coal and oil to gas (including much unconventional shale gas) over the next twenty years while renewable energy (largely solar and wind) will be developed sufficiently to become the largest sources of energy before 2052. During this time period most of America’s one hundred and ten nuclear reactors will gradually be closed down for age reasons, and new ones won’t be built because shale-gas power will be cheaper than nuclear power. In 2052 there will be only forty reactors left, supplying a mere 3 percent of the energy. As a result, CO2 emissions from US energy use will decline by nearly one-half by 2052, ending 35 percent below emissions levels in 1990.

Climate change will create problems for the United States, along the lines predicted by science for a long time: a drying of the prairie and more violent rains and winds. Some of the extra investment money will be used to limit the damage to US agriculture and to pay for extra water. Still, some land currently under cultivation will have to be abandoned during the next forty years because of drought. The agricultural yield (tonnes produced per hectare-year) will continue up for a while, however, but then stagnate and decline some before 2052 because of the warmer temperatures. However, the US land mass is enormous compared to the population, and the country will continue to be able to supply itself with natural resources and still have significant reserves left. The food production per person will remain very high by international standards, and although quite a bit of the surplus will be used for biofuels, some food may still be exported.

So all in all, the United States will experience material stagnation over the next forty years, stagnation partly because of the need to repay the debt run up over the last decades and partly because of the need to pay for the costs associated with more expensive energy and more aggressive climate damage. The US economy won’t grow much, and by 2052 the Chinese GDP will outshine the US GDP by a factor of 2.5. The United States will be one-tenth of the global economy and no longer a superpower.

A central part of this forecast is the assumption that the US democratic and free-market-based system will not rise to the occasion and make the forward-looking policy revision that could easily change the American future in a positive direction. The tension among different societal and political groups will remain and hinder forceful collective action to improve the state of the United States of America.

The Lighted Path to Solar Power and Electrical Energy Dominance gives an illustration of this phenomenon. It describes the manner in which solar energy will finally win its way into the American household—which is not through grand decisions in the US Congress, but via the back door of thousands of independent business and household decisions at the local level. So the obvious solar solution will be implemented in the end, but long after it could have if the conflict between different US interest groups had been less acrimonious.

What steps will we take to reach energy efficiency by 2052? See what the future may hold for solar energy, electricity and fossil fuel megacorporations in The Lighted Path to Solar Energy and Electrical Energy Dominance.

Reprinted with permission from 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years by Jorgen Randers and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: 2052.