4th February 2023
Imagining life in 2033 – an alternative scenario
By 2033 we should be at least half way to net zero. How will things have changed? What will daily life look like?
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece imagining it as a letter from the future. That piece was positive and realistic about what we could achieve. But what if that optimism is misplaced? How will it be if everything that could have been done hasn’t? What if we don’t get on top of our net zero targets?
In many ways life in 2033 is not that different from in 2023. I still live in the same house, with the same husband and even the same – now rather elderly – cat. We had hoped to replace our equally elderly solar panels but production of these is so limited that there is an 18 month waiting list. Similarly we are still waiting to upgrade our storage batteries. So like many people we still have to rely on our gas boiler for heating but this is expensive and as far as possible we rely instead on extra layers of clothing. I have finally managed to persuade Paul to wear leggings under his trousers – I assure him that they are not long john’s in another guise! Everyone in our end of the street has an electric car now, as well as off street parking and recharging points.This allows us to use the car battery as an electric supply during peak periods (recharging off peak later) for which the National Grid rewards us. The only benefits those with off street charging points, which even here in East Sheen is a minority.
What you will notice about East Sheen is the sparsity of combustion engines. Everyone has replaced their old car with an electric model, but just as with the combustion cars, each new model of electric car is wider, taller and longer than the last. The roads are just as congested as before and parking is even more a premium. The parking issue may push more people to use car clubs which would be a step forwards. With congested roads and a lack of investment in public transport and cycling infrastructure, average journey times are still increasing – although this is prompting some people to return to home working which is not part of the government’s plan!
The growth in electric vehicles has had a significant impact on energy costs. Powering all these vehicles as opposed to powering electric buses and trains (much more energy efficient per passenger mile) has not been matched by investment in electrical power plants and the laws of supply and demand have come into play. For those of us with financial capacity this is something we live with but for people on low incomes, it has been horrific. In many part of the country – both urban and rural – there are many homes which are no longer connect to the grid as their occupants cannot afford either the per unit cost nor the standing charge. Instead such households use candles for lighting and camping stoves for a minimal amount of cooking. Heating is by body heat only, helped by fleece onesies and layers of jumpers. Schools open early and close late so that children can a) be some where warm, b) get a hot meal (the government was forced into providing all primary pupils with free school lunches in 2024), and c) have good light by which to do their homework, and power to recharge laptops.
The energy shortage has produced some interesting innovations. On street corners you can regularly find ‘electric’ bike stands. For a fee the rider pedal the stationary bike and by so doing recharges your mobile phone, laptop or battery pack!
As energy prices have risen so has the cost of rail travel. The government has been forced to provide low paid workers (not just minimum wage earners but teachers and nurses) with free local bus passes to enable them to get to work! This was first introduced by Sadiq Khan for London in 2023. People don’t travel as readily or as far as we did in 2023.
Health and social care continues to be an issue. We now have a divided health service – as good as you can afford if you can go private; second rate if you rely on the NHS. (By way of comparison think about how dental care worked in 2023: if you had the money you could have excellent dental care; if not then you had to wait for treatment and the treatments available were limited usually involving extractions rather than say a crown or implant.) A similar set up exists for social care, with families increasingly having to provide care for family members.
Life expectancy rates continue to drop for the majority of people. For those in the most deprived areas, male life expectancy is now 69 years, and for females 75 years. However for those in the least deprived areas, life expectancy has plateaued at 83 and 86 years respectively. Major factors here are the affect of the high cost of living which for many people is unaffordable, and the adverse affects of the weather. Summers now consistently have heat waves when temperatures exceed 44C and with night time temperatures that don’t fall below the mid 30sC. These can last from between just a few days to a fortnight – when they usually end with a cataclysmic downpour. These high temperatures, particularly when they combine with high night time temperatures have continued to cause fatalities amongst the young, the elderly and those with health issues. It is not unusual for excess deaths in these periods to measure more than 100 people per day. The flooding in the aftermath adds to the numbers of deaths we now accept as normal.
In the winter, the weather fluctuates between very mild spells, very cold spells, and in between days of storm force winds and torrential rain. The cold snaps are a major cause of deaths in winter – 15,000 a week is not unusual. And again this number increases when combined with flooding.
Flooding is a recurring problem. It is not just from short spells of torrential rain, but from rising sea levels. A sea level rise of 15cm doesn’t sound like much but when that is added to higher tides, and stronger winds which effectively heap up the waves as they are funnelled into the valleys of river estuaries, it can actually be experienced as 75cm. The Thames embankment walls have already been raised by 1m, using glass where there are tourist views to be preserved, but reinforced concrete elsewhere. Further upstream many householders can no longer get house insurance because of the increased risk of flooding. In East Sheen we have had 3 floods since 2023 when the water has reached the South Circular.
Floods and heatwaves are not only adversely affecting human life but also wildlife, arable crops and farm livestock. Some farmers have switched from growing potatoes to sweet potatoes, from spinach to lambs lettuce, from wheat to sorghum and millet, as well as growing chick peas, haricot and soya beans, Others are experimenting with planting trees alongside grass crops so that both the grasses and the livestock can benefit from the shade. Others are experimenting with hydroponic cultivation as a way of making best use of limited water supplies. In the southern half of the country there are a growing number of olive and pistachio orchards, whilst much horticultural farming has moved northwards – tomatoes from Newcastle, strawberries from Scotland. One thing everyone has noticed is the growing cost of producing, and therefore of buying, food. This is due not just to the difficulties of farming in the UK but also the climate induced crisis in agriculture across the world. Coffee is no longer grown in Kenya and Ethiopia, sheep are no longer farmed in Australia and wheat no longer comes from the American prairies.
The crisis in agriculture is felt not just in rising food prices but also in conflict and migration. The war in Ukraine may have prompted a reassessment of our use of gas, but was not itself driven by climate issues. Since the we have seen conflict along the length of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the Nile and its tributaries, as nations previously reliant on these waters compete to control its limited flow. Similar conflicts are also taking place along the Congo river where they are compounded by the desire to protect the oil supply now coming on tap for the same region. All these areas of water shortages and armed conflict have produced an ever growing flow of people into Europe with a real focus of reaching Northern Europe where water security seems more likely. In the United Sates there has been an exodus of people from drought strike states putting increasing pressure on coastal states where there is another but smaller movement of people away from land inundated by rising sea levels. Australia ha a particular issue with pressure from the rest of the world that they should accommodate Pacific Islanders who have been rendered island-less.
Life is much harder for everyone, but especially for those with limited resources. The UK is a much more divided nation. On the one extreme there are those who have no regular income and who are reliant on food banks, second hand clothes and warm hubs. Home is usually a single room with no provision of either kitchen or bathroom as these have become luxuries – people’s cooked meals com from soup kitchens and laundering and washing happens in the equivalent wash and shower room at the local amenity centre. It feels as if we are returning to the Victorian model of boarding house.
At the other end of the spectrum are those with jobs and/or income streams who can afford what ever they want and who can live lives completely separate from crisis. In between is a spectrum of those who can afford food, and/ or accommodation, and /or heating, and/ or transport, and/or leisure activities. A lot of people find that they can afford some but not all of these, whilst some struggle to afford just one. There is an ever increasing number of people who choose to forgo parenthood so that they can afford other parts of life.
We are still asking ourselves if there is just enough time to keep global temperature increase below below 3C. It seems to be human nature to always have hope despite the odds!