2050: A science odyssey

C&I Issue 1, 2012

A competition last year organised by the UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA), and sponsored by Ineos Group, asked schoolchildren to imagine what life would be like in 2050. The younger children thought of sweets that were free, everlasting or grew on trees. The older children visualised hovering cars, anti-ageing drugs and families heading to the moon for their summer holidays.

One of the winning entries, however, described ‘The Green Planet’ energised by wave power that would help to create jobs and a rainforest starting to increase in size.

Adult forecasters looking at 2050 are striving to raise the probability of their predictions by extrapolating from current social, economic and environmental data and by looking closely at technologies and processes presently in their infancy. They also try to broaden the scope of their forecasts by introducing scenarios that cover a number of possibilities.

When a group of 13 young professionals working in the chemicals and related science areas presented their vision of 2050, at the closing ceremony of the International Year of Chemistry 2011 in Brussels in December 2011, they focused on the megatrends of food and water, health and urban habitats.

‘Global, sustained and macro-economic forces of development, commonly called megatrends, will impact businesses, economies, societies, cultures and personal lives in our future,’ Sacha Debleds, a corporate sales and marketing executive with DuPont in France and one of the young leaders of the project, told the meeting.

Its vision was based, he said, on the current knowledge of the likelihood of:

  • a rise in the world population from 7bn to 9bn with 75% living in cities against 50% today;
  • an ‘explosion of consumption accelerating energy and finite resource usage’; and
  • increasing risk of pandemic health-threatening outbreaks and chronic diseases due to an ageing and ever more mobile population.

Many forecasters reckon that the main issue over the next few decades will be energy in the context of the future of fossil fuels and the necessity for possibly drastic cuts in CO2 emissions.

Supplies of biofuels will almost certainly continue to rise substantially. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted that biofuels consumption will grow almost 14 times from a current 55m t of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to 750 Mtoe in 2050. As a result, its share of the global transport fuel market is expected to reach 27% against 2% at present.

With the production of biofuels there will be a wide range of chemical co-products that will serve as building blocks for a variety of chemical derivatives. Some experts believe that many countries throughout the world will have the resources by 2050 to meet their transport fuel requirements entirely from domestically produced biofuels.

In a recent presentation in Cambridge, UK, organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), science writer John Emsley, a former chemistry lecturer at Kings College, London, claimed that the UK could be self-sufficient in biofuels by 2050. But this would require a substantial improvement in the energy efficiency of cars through the introduction of lightweight materials.

‘To meet the road transport needs of the country, 3m ha out of a total of 24m available in the UK would be required to produce biofuels, which should be achievable,’ Emsley said.

Throughout a lot of the world, the demand for biofuels and their chemical co-products will transform global agriculture. DSM, the Dutch-based chemicals and biotechnology company, envisages the creation of new agricultural value chains consisting of local chemical or biotechnology plants processing residues from crops into chemical building blocks.

‘I am optimistic about the potential for a biobased economy,’ says Anton Robek, DSM’s senior vice-president for biobased products and service. ‘But there are challenges. A lot depends on the oil price. If it fell to $50-75/barrel and stayed there for a long time the switch to the biobased economy would be delayed. Biobased value chains also have to be acceptable to the general public. They have to meet the public concerns about conflicts with food and feed production and worries about threats to biodiversity.’

In addition to the greater reliance on biomass to resolve problems with declining oil resources as well as the need to curb CO2 emissions, there will be a greater dependency on the recycling and reuse of materials. Cradle-to-cradle (C2C) systems will be an essential means of dealing with chronic shortages of virgin raw materials.

‘We will have to keep waste to a minimum,’ says Paul Hodges, chairman of the London-based consultancy International eChem (IeC). ‘We will have to maximise the value of what we have got through recycling and reuse systems.’

There will also be radical changes in chemical technologies and processes because of the necessity for much greater efficiencies in energy and raw materials consumption. Petrochemical and bulk chemical plants built in the pre-recession period of soaring demand are likely to be replaced in the 2030s and 2040s by smaller units based on process intensification through modular technologies using less energy, lower volumes of raw materials and much smaller reactors. With specialty and fine chemicals the changeover to micro facilities will have taken place earlier.

These processes are already being demonstrated in projects like the Flexible, Fast and Future (F3) Factory at Leverkusen, Germany, which is a €30m four-year public-private scheme co-ordinated by the Bayer Group. ‘Based on the progress of the project so far, we are both optimistic and confident that the process and manufacturing innovations will be implemented by 2050,’ says Sigurd Buchholz, F3 project co-ordinator. ‘Projects such as F3 will allow accelerated innovation and integration of key enabling technologies as well as advanced manufacturing in Europe. But in order to face future challenges the chemical industry will have to integrate new workflows, tools and platforms for both development and manufacturing.’

However, increased investment in new chemical processes could come at a time of chronic slow growth in the world economy. It is likely to be a slower growth rate than the fast expansion of the global economy before the financial crisis of 2008.

Some economists now believe that before the recession the world went through an abnormal boom generated by a massive boost to the world market economies, following the switch by China and Russia to free enterprise. The young populations of the market-based world doubled to over 2bn, according to figures from the Bank of Japan.

In the post-recession period, the market world is burdened by debts accumulated during the boom, but more significantly is having to grapple with the difficulties of an ageing population.

In the existing developed world, the proportion of over 60s will rise from 20% to around 35% by 2050. There will also be big increases in the current emerging economies. In China, the elderly’s share will soar by over 20% to around 30% in 2050 so that by then the country will have an over 60s total of 438m, according to UN World Population Prospects.

In the 2020s or 2030s, China’s ratio of working population to elderly will start falling sharply. Currently its median age of 35 is 10 years lower than that of Japan, which has one of the highest median ages in the world. But over the last 20 years China’s median age it has been growing at a similar rate to Japan’s – around 1%/year.

The proportion of Asia’s population over 60, which has been at a constant 6-7% since the 1950s, is now rising steadily so that by 2050 it will be around 20%, according to UN World Population Prospects. This is the current proportion of over 60s in Europe, which is predicted to grow to around 35% over the next 40 years.

The breakdown of a population by age group is an important indicator of demand patterns. The requirements for products and materials of a predominantly young population will be different from one in which a high proportion of the population is elderly.

By 2050, a high percentage of the populations in what are now developed countries and emerging economies – making up the majority of the predicted world population of 9bn – will be elderly or no longer working.

Advances in public health, medical treatment and general increases in living standards will extend life expectancies across the world. As a result, in many countries the proportion of the high-spending population in the 23-54 age group buying houses, electrical and electronic appliances, furniture and cars will be decreasing.

‘There will be a convergence in needs between what are now the developed and the developing economies,’ says Hodges, who is the co-author of an ebook on the impact of the ageing population on demand. ‘For the chemical industry, this could mean there will be a less than expected need for speciality and high-value chemicals. Instead, cost will be crucial so that high-volume, low-priced materials will be required.’

In some developed countries the rise in the proportion of the elderly has already hit economic growth. Japan, for example, has been experiencing slow growth over the past 20 years during which time, according to figures from the UN Population Division, its median age has risen from 37 in 1990 to close to 48 years in 2010.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan had a relatively high ratio of working-age people to the numbers of elderly – what economists call the inverse dependency ratio – the country experienced annual average GDP growth of 4-5%. In the 1990s and 2000s, when the inverse dependency ratio has been decreasing as the proportion of elderly has risen, GDP has dropped to an average 1%/year.

What has been happening in Japan is now, or will be, becoming the trend elsewhere in the world. In a presentation to a recent economics conference at Cambridge University, Kiyo Nishimura, deputy governor of the Bank of Japan, warned that the dramatic decline in GDP and investment prospects in Japan was not due to the ‘supposedly unique nature of the Japanese economy.’ If, as seems likely, inverse dependency ratios fall steeply across the world, ‘then declining prospects for growth and investment returns – as experienced by Japan – have more global relevance,’ he said. 

In much of the world, an expanding older population will have comparatively low levels of expenditure on consumer and other goods, while younger people with families will be spending less to prepare for old age. ‘The young are constrained not to consume but to save,’ explained Nishimura.

Among developed countries, the peak inverse dependency ratio that Japan hit in the 1990s has in recent years been passed by the US, Spain, Italy and Ireland, in all of which there have been signs of economic decline.

Now a similar trend will soon be affecting developing countries, in particular the emerging economies. It is already occurring in much of Eastern Europe and many developing Asian countries.

However, some economists argue that the negative economic trends of an increasingly ageing population can over time be offset, particularly in the current emerging economies like China and India, by rising productivity among working populations. More women will take jobs, while the existing workforce will be using more efficient production technologies and will be organised more cost effectively in the services sectors.

The big unresolved question is how long this readjustment will take. The period around 2050 could be a key point in economic history when after years of stagnation the world at last moves from slow to accelerated growth.  

The real trendsetters

  • Resources and raw materials – The need to curb climate change will accelerate the switch from fossil fuels to biofuels from which chemical feedstocks will be co-products. Scarcity of resources will result in most materials being recycled for reuse as raw materials for new products.
  • Chemical processes and technologies – Process intensification is likely to become more widespread. In base and commodity chemicals fewer large plants will be built. Instead there will be a switch to modular units with microreactors. There will be much more small-scale production with more customisation of chemicals, which could change the structure of the whole industry.
  • Demographics – The proportion of the elderly population across the world will be much bigger than now. This large group of older people will have a big impact on the types of chemicals and materials for which there will be a strong demand.

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