Working Group III: Mitigation

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2.4.3 Global Futures Scenarios: Range of Possible Futures

The global futures scenarios vary widely along different demographic, socio-economic, and technological dimensions, as shown in Table 2.2. Scenarios range from economic collapse to virtually unlimited economic prosperity; from population collapse (caused by famine, disease, and/or war), to stabilization near current levels, to explosive population growth. Governance systems range from decentralized, semi-autonomous communities with a form of direct democracy to global oligarchies. Some scenarios posit large improvements in income and social equality, within and among nations, while others foresee a widening of the income gap. Many scenarios envisage a future world that is high-tech, with varying rates of diffusion, but some envisage a world in which a crisis of some kind leads to a decline in technological development and even a loss of technological capability. Most scenarios are pessimistic with respect to resource availability; some are more optimistic, pointing to the ability of technology and demand changes to alleviate scarcity. Most scenarios also project increasing environmental degradation; more positively, many of these scenarios portray this trend reversing in the long-term, leading to an eventual improvement in environmental quality. The sustainable development scenarios, on the other hand, describe a future in which environmental quality improves throughout the scenario.

Table 2.2: Descriptive statistics for global futures scenario dimensions
showing Number of scenarios Range Most common (mode) Number of scenarios changes (compared to current situation)
        Declining Same Rising
Total Scenarios 124          
Size of Economy 102
collapse to high growth
24 13 65
Population Size 84
collapse to high growth
10 5 69
Level of Technology 98
stagnation & decline to very high
4 9 85
Degree of Globalization 84
isolated communities to global civilization
More global
22 1 61
Government Intervention in Economy 76
laissez-faire to strong regulation
36 9 31
Pollution 85
very low to very high
34 3 48
International Income Equality 99
very low to very high
32 16 50
Intranational Income Equality 53
very low to very high
24 0 29
Degree of Conflict 76
peace to many wars/world war
26 14 36
Fossil Fuel Use 49
virtually zero to high
24 1 24
Energy Use 51
low to high
14 0 37
GHG Emissions 45
low to high
11 1 33
Climate Change (yes/no) 0
no climate change to severe climate change
Structure of Economy 50
agrarian/subsistence to “quaternary” (leisure)
Increasingly post-industrial
4 6 40
Percentage of Older Persons in Population 11
primarily young population to ageing population
2 0 9
Migration 30
low to high
10 0 20
Human Health 38
worsening to improving
13 3 22
Degree of Competition 41
low to high
14 0 27
Citizen Participation in Governance 56
autocracy to meaningful participation
14 14 28
Community Vitality 42
breakdown to very strong
12 0 30
Responsiveness of Institutions 75
irrelevant to very responsive/citizen-driven
21 16 38
Social Equity 38
low to high
19 1 18
Security Activity 30
low to high
13 0 17
Conflict Resolution 30
inadequate to successful
10 1 19
Technological Diffusion 58
low to high
9 13 36
Rate of Innovation 45
low to high
3 14 28
Renewable Resource Availability 28
low to high
19 1 8
Non-renewable Resource Availability 35
low to high
15 4 16
Food Availability 45
low to high
16 4 25
Water Availability 18
low to high
12 0 6
Biodiversity 33
low to high
21 2 10
Threat of Collapse 26
unlikely to likely
9 1 16

The scenarios were grouped together according to their main distinguishing features and were combined into four groups, according to whether they described futures in which, according to the scenario authors, conditions deteriorate (group 1), stay the same (group 2), or improve (groups 3 and 4). These groups are summarized in Table2.3.

Table 2.3: Global futures scenario groups
Scenario group
Scenario subgroups
Number of scenarios
1. Pessimistic Scenarios
Breakdown: collapse of human society
Fractured World: deterioration into antagonistic regional blocs
Chaos: instability and disorder
Conservative: world economic crash is succeeded by conservative and risk-averse regime
2. Current Trends Scenarios Conventional: no significant change from current and/or continuation of present-day trends 12
High Growth: government facilitates business, leading to prosperity 14
Asia Shift: economic power shifts from the West to Asia 5
Economy Paramount: emphasis on economic values leads to deterioration in social and environmental conditions 9
3. High-Tech Optimist Scenarios
Cybertopia: information & communication technologies facilitate individualistic, diverse and innovative world
Technotopia: technology solves all or most of humanity’s problems
4. Sustainable Development Scenarios
Our Common Future: increased economic activity is made to be consistent with improved equity and environmental quality
Low Consumption: conscious shift from consumerism

The scenarios in group 1 describe futures in which conditions deteriorate from present. Some of these scenarios describe a complete breakdown of human society, because of war, resource exhaustion, or economic collapse. Other scenarios describe a future in which the world is fractured into antagonistic blocs or in which society deteriorates into chaos. Still others describe futures in which the global economic system crashes and is succeeded by a conservative, risk-averse regime.

The scenarios in group 2 describe futures in which conditions do not change significantly from the present, or in which current trends continue. Many of these scenarios are “reference” scenarios, which are used by their authors to contrast other alternative future scenarios. In general, these scenarios are pessimistic; they describe futures in which many current problems get worse, although there may be improvement in some areas. This is particularly true of the “Economy Paramount” scenarios, which describe futures in which an emphasis on economic over other values leads to deteriorating environmental and social conditions. Other scenarios in group 2 describe a more optimistic future in which government and business co-operate to improve market conditions (generally through market liberalization and free trade), leading to an increase in prosperity. Several of the group 2 scenarios foresee a shift in economic power from the West to Asia.

The group 3 scenarios could be characterized as “High-Tech Optimist” scenarios. They describe futures in which technology and markets combine to produce increased prosperity and opportunity. Many of these scenarios describe “Cybertopias” in which information and communication technologies enable a highly individualistic, diverse, and innovative global community. Other group 3 scenarios describe worlds in which technological advances solve all or most of the problems facing humanity, including environmental problems.

The scenarios in group 4 are “Sustainable Development” scenarios. In general these scenarios envisage a change in society towards improved co-operation and democratic participation, with a shift in values favouring environment and equity. These scenarios can be subdivided into two subgroups. The first subgroup might be described as “Our Common Future” scenarios in which economic growth occurs, but is managed so that social and environmental objectives may also be achieved. The second subgroup could be characterized as “Low Consumption” sustainable development scenarios. They describe worlds in which economic activity and consumerism considerably decline in importance and, usually, population is stabilized at relatively low levels. Many of these scenarios also envisage increasing regional autonomy and self-reliance.

These groups correspond quite closely with the scenario archetypes that have been developed by the Global Scenarios Group (see Box 2.4). They also roughly correspond with the 4 new emission scenario “families” that were developed in the IPCC SRES (see Section 2.5.1 below) and the scenarios developed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD, 1997).

Box 2.4. The Global Scenarios Group: Scenarios and Process

A few organizations have been developing futures scenarios that incorporate both narrative and quantitative elements, including, for example, the Dutch Central Planning Bureau (CPB, 1992), the Millennium Project (Glenn and Gordon, 1998), and the Global Scenario Group (Gallopin et al., 1997). The latter is discussed here as an illustration of this kind of approach to scenario development.

The Global Scenario Group (GSG) was convened by the Stockholm Environment Institute in 1995 as an international process to illuminate the requirements for a transition to global sustainability. It is a continuing and interdisciplinary process involving participants from diverse regional perspectives, rather than a single study. The GSG scenarios are holistic, developed both as narratives — accounts of how human values, cultural choices, and institutional arrangements might unfold — and detailed quantitative representations of social conditions such as level of poverty, economic patterns, and a wide range of environmental issues.

The GSG framework includes three broad classes of scenarios for scanning the future — “Conventional Worlds”, “Barbarization”, and “Great Transitions” — with variants within each class. All are compatible with current patterns and trends, but have very different implications for society and the environment in the 21st century (Gallopin et al., 1997). In “Conventional Worlds” scenarios, global society develops gradually from current patterns and dominant tendencies, with development driven primarily by rapidly growing markets as developing countries converge towards the development model of advanced industrial (“developed”) countries. In “Barbarization” scenarios, environmental and social tensions spawned by conventional development are not resolved, humanitarian norms weaken, and the world becomes more authoritarian or more anarchic. “Great Transitions” explore visionary solutions to the sustainability challenge, which portray the ascendancy of new values, lifestyles, and institutions.

“Conventional Worlds” is where much of the policy discussion occurs, including most of the analysis of climate mitigation. The integrated GSG approach situates the discussion of alternative emission scenarios in the context of sustainable development, by making poverty reduction an explicit scenario driver, and highlighting the links between climate and other environment and resource issues (Raskin et al., 1998). The regional distribution of emissions becomes an explicit consideration in scenario design that is linked to poverty reduction, equity, and burden sharing in environmentally-sound global development. By underscoring the interactions between environmental and social goals, the policy strategies for addressing climate are assessed for compatibility and synergy with a wider family of actions for fostering sustainable development.

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