Climate change is real and it’s already impacting humans.
Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press
What will life be like after we’ve solved climate change? Better than today or worse? Mud huts and gruel, or flying cars and the Jetsons?
Comfy homes, good food, whip-smart appliances and robots hopping around on farms all seem pretty likely, experts queried by USA TODAY said. All in all, our living standard will be the same, only a lot greener and more efficient.
That view is in stark contrast to a common complaint by critics who object to making global warming-based changes to the economy, suggesting such changes would destroy America’s standard of living and force everyone to “live in yurts and eat tofu,” as one commenter put it.
“Every single proposed solution will simultaneously improve life and decrease carbon emissions,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of climate science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has provided testimony and scientific expertise on climate change to the White House, the governor of California and U.S. congressional offices.
These predictions presume the shift to carbon-neutral energy, industrial and transportation systems happens in time to slow and eventually reverse the effects of global warming the planet is already beginning to experience: rising oceans, more flooding, worse storms and increase heat waves and droughts.
That means that whatever happens next, experts say, depends entirely on how quickly we act. Many of these technological and policy changes are already underway, but need to be sped up. Today, humans pour 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually. People must shift away from those carbon emissions within the next 20 years to avoid “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
For Earth Day, let’s presume we’ve successfully made that shift to a carbon-neutral world and you, your children or your grandchildren are waking up on a crisp fall morning sometime between 2050 and 2100. What’s the day like?
When do you need those dishes?
Houses won’t look all that different, though homes will almost certainly have solar power included if it’s appropriate for the area. This will be especially important in hot and sunny parts of the country, to decrease the pressure on power production for cooling during the day. California already has a law requiring that all new homes built after 2020 include solar panels.
Homes will still have heat and cooling, electric lights, lots of electronics and big windows. But the systems and appliances will be much more efficient and much smarter.
This shift is already happening — today’s refrigerators are about 20% larger but use one-quarter the electricity compared to those sold 20 years ago. The LED lightbulbs you buy at the grocery store use 20% of the energy the incandescent bulbs of a decade ago did, said Jay Apt, a physicist and professor who directs the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
When occupants get out of bed, the house will likely be a comfortable temperature. Properties will probably still have a furnace or an electric heat pump. But they won’t be used as much because homes will be much better insulated, with windows that keep heat and cold in and out.
The systems used to heat buildings will likely look different than the ones we know today. One example already being used in some U.S. buildings involves pre-heating or chilling water when power is cheap, and then using it during the day when power is more expensive.
“It’s like radiators. In the ceiling of each floor you have a cold-water air heat exchanger, the cold water sits in a series of pipes, the air blows across it and becomes quite cold and it blows in to cool the room,” said Apt.
After getting out of bed, the next step might be to check the dishwasher to get out a cup for coffee. The dishwasher, along with most appliances, will likely be tied to a smart system in your house that knows the power cost at different times of the day. If the local power company gets significant power from wind turbines, the cheapest power may be at night. If it’s from solar, it might be cheapest during the day.
“Your dishwasher may very well communicate with the electric power grid and say ‘OK, Mr. Smith has decided that he only wants to run his dishwasher only when the price of power is less than 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, so your dishwasher may decide to run at 2:00 in the morning,” says Apt.
Or you might set an override to tell the appliance that whatever the price, the dishes have to be done by 6 p.m., in time for dinner.
Another infrastructure change will likely be the more common use of geothermal heat pumps. These take advantage of the fact that the ground beneath our feet tends to stay about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in summer or winter.
That means if you run pipes down 6 to 8 feet below a house or apartment building, you can cool or heat a liquid in those pipes to around 50 degrees. That liquid can then be piped up to the building and used to bring the temperature inside to 50 degrees.
If it’s a cold winter day and it’s 20 degrees outside, the house is already up to 50 degrees and you only need to heat it another 15 degrees to be comfortable. If it’s a hot summer day of 90 degrees, you cool the temperature down with no energy needed, said Apt.
Here a turbine, there a turbine
Coal, oil and many natural gas-fired power plants will have long ago closed. Instead, the nation will likely be powered by a mix of nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric and some natural gas.
The power grid will have been rebuilt to accommodate more periodic power inputs, with the positive effect of also allowing it to be protected against physical and cyber attacks.
Driving across America, the sight of large solar arrays or wind turbines will be common, much as seeing oil rigs is an everyday sight in much of the United States now. You might also run across tall arrays that pull carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into fuel and the raw material for industrial uses.
Fun cars, fast charging
The car of the future will be electric. That’s because electricity is easy to generate from carbon-neutral sources such as wind, solar and nuclear. It’s a shift that’s already underway. In Norway, 58% of all cars sold in March were electric, according to Norway’s Road Traffic Information Council.
That’s a far cry from the fewer than 1% of cars in the United States that are electric today, but most experts presume the shift will happen relatively quickly. It also won’t be wrenching, said Chris Field, director of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.
“The electric car I have right now is the best car I’ve ever had. It’s a Chevy Bolt. It’s very practical, well thought out and fun to drive. It’s a really great car,” he said.
Those future cars will have a range between charges that will likely be much more than today’s 225 miles. Many estimates put it at 400 miles by 2028. There will likely be fast charging outlets nationwide, just as there are gas stations today. Already, new homes in Atlanta must be built to accommodate electric vehicles.
Walk to the gym
More and more people will live in cities, which produce dramatically fewer greenhouse gasses per person than suburbs. But the cities will be designed with the kind of human-friendly density that already is being incorporated into city planning across the globe.
They’ll have mostly apartment buildings and townhouses that are walkable and with bike paths built in. Excellent mass transit will be available on electric buses and vans. Businesses and office buildings will be interspersed rather than plunked down miles out of town in office parks and malls.
That shift away from far-flung suburbs is already apparent in today’s generation. “Young people want to be able to walk to the grocery store and the office and the gym,” said Fields.
Others will choose space to spread out or cheaper land and housing, preferences made more sustainable due to the increasing ability to work from home or commute by electric vehicles.
Telecommuting for fun and profit
Work will be more integrated with living areas. But wherever it is, the office will have been built to very high standards to reduce waste, save water and conserve energy. Already more than 33,000 buildings in the United States have gotten LEED certification, marking them as highly efficient.
Not that everyone will still go to an office every day. Telecommuting all or part of the time will become more common as the tools for doing so — fast Internet and good video connections — become cheaper, better and easier to use. More people will also work from communal workspaces near where they live.
Big U.S. companies are already beginning to do this. Amazon, Apple and Google have dozens of offices across the nation where people can work, so they don’t all need to move to Silicon Valley in California or to Seattle. Many young people are already used to working from shared office spaces such as WeWork and ImpactHub.
NYC to Chicago in 5 hours
For travel within the United States, a network of high-speed electric trains will likely crisscross the country, making rapid travel easily accessible. San Francisco and Los Angeles are three hours apart by rail, Chicago to New York five hours.
We’ll still fly places, but it will likely be more expensive than some of today’s rock-bottom prices. Jet fuel has to be very energy dense, so electric planes are out of the question. Instead, they’ll use fuel produced from carbon dioxide pulled out of the air or industrial waste gases, or from aviation biofuel made from organic waste from trash or leftover biomatter from agricultural fields.
Both are already being used. In 2018, Virgin Atlantic flew a Boeing 747 from Orlando to London using fuel made in part from captured greenhouse gas emissions.
Is that a robot in that field?
What’s old will be new again in many ways when it comes to food and farming, experts say. The nation’s food supply is likely to be fresher and more wholesome as growers and sellers become better at managing logistics to minimize travel time and loss.
We’ll eat more seasonably than we do now because we’ll be paying more for energy and farmers will be thinking harder about water and energy usage.
“We’ve gotten into this mode that we expect to see blueberries and oranges every week of the year. As energy costs go higher and water becomes even in more short supply in the future, not every type of food will be available at every moment,” said Robert Myers, a professor of agriculture at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, and an expert on climate change and sustainable agriculture.
Not that kiwis won’t be available from New Zealand, or tomatoes in December, but they’ll be more expensive.
Amanda Little, author of the forthcoming book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World,” said mankind will likely be eating the same kinds of food we eat today, but it will be produced differently and much more efficiently.
That’s especially true of meat, which she predicts will be either plant-based faux meat or tissue grown in vats that is identical to meat on a cellular level.
“It’s very inefficient to raise an entire animal just to eat the edible parts of it,” she said.
Meat from animals will still be available, what we’ll call “craft” or “specialty” meat, but a far bigger portion of the meat industry will come from either plant- or cell-based meats.
Little says cell-based meat is closer than we realize. She had some vat-grown duck just last week.
“It was chewy and greasy but it tasted very meaty. For a very early stage lab meat product, it was very convincing.
Farms will likely look the same driving by, but a closer look will show differences. Older practices, like planting clover and other cover crops during the winter, will be more common to improve soil health, making it more able to withstand floods or drought and decrease the amount of fertilizer needed. Complex crop rotations, aided by computers, will make farming more efficient and cheaper because they will require less fertilizer and pesticides.
Those fields will likely also incorporate wind turbines or solar panels to give growers additional income. That’s already happening today. Many farms in the Midwest are getting rents of $3,000 to $5,000 per year to put turbines on their land, Apt says.
Fields also might have drones buzzing over them or small robots running down the rows, stopping to test the soil for moisture, nutrients and image the crops for weed or insect infestations. That information will be automatically fed to the farmer, who can use it to precisely water and care for each small land unit as required, rather than needlessly wasting expensive water and chemicals.
Ranchers and dairy farmers can use similar technology to move their cows and cattle from one paddock to another on an almost daily basis, mimicking what a buffalo herd would have done. Called intensive management grazing, it results in healthier land and better forage for the animals, ultimately bringing costs down.
Energy for everyone
The world’s air and water will be cleaner as we stop using polluting energy sources. The planet’s resources will also become more equitable, as carbon-neutral energy sources become cheaper and more efficient, making them available to people in parts of the world where energy is currently expensive and difficult to obtain.
And it’s all doable, no breakthroughs required, said Stanford’s Diffenbaugh. “The knowledge necessary for getting on that path is available,” he said.
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