The world in 2040 within +1.5C
So many of our narratives are dystopian, apocalyptic and undermine action and hope.
But in my line of work, bringing to life a tangible vision of what is possible is the best way to recruit and galvanise a team to deliver.
With that in mind, I’ve taken a moment to imagine what a world in 2040 could look like if we take on the great transformation challenge that our planet and children requires of us.
Like all good visions, I have tried to draw upon some data and insight (although not as thorough as I would have liked). I’ve finished with an afterword of how product thinking could help us make it happen.
I was inspired to do this by Terra.do, whose mission is to get 100m people to work on climate this decade.
For thousands of years Humans have had an unsustainable relationship with our planet. We killed many of the planet’s largest mammals and cut down the majority of its forests for materials to build, fuel for energy and to clear space for farming, before we discovered transformational power of fossil fuels.
These magical substances enabled us to improve the lives of many humans. However, it has been at the expense of future generations.
But now we have the means and opportunity to be the first generation to not only improve the lives of people alive now, but to do this in a way that will improve the lives of those that follow us through better stewardship of our planet. 
It’s 2040. Remarkably, after temporarily busting average global temperatures of +1.5C, we’re now on track to stay within the 1.5C target. How did we get here?
What does the world look like?
The trend towards cities has continued. Not only that, it has been accelerated by governments finally understanding that urban living is going to help us reduce our impact and implementing policies to encourage it. Two-thirds of the world now lives in a city.  This has given cities the power to drive green innovation, much like the city states of old, in a way that so many national governments failed to in the early 2020s. 
Many cities are now entirely free of cars. Instead electric bikes, scooters and public transport join a largely pedestrianised environment where the air is clean and the hubbub of humans now replaces the hum of engines. For those old enough to remember what it was like going into a pub pre-smoking ban, the experience is similar to thinking back to how polluted our cities once were. Deaths from air pollution have fallen dramatically. 
Underground car parks of electric cars to rent now lie around transport hubs outside of cities. We’ve hit the tipping point of people feeling the need to own their own vehicle and instead we subscribe to cheaper car services that enable you to pick up a car should you need one. It’s so much more convenient and there are no longer thousands of cars lying dormant on our streets.
This density of living has enabled us to find new and more efficient ways to heat homes. Heat pumps, electric heaters and hydrogen generated by renewable power have leapfrogged natural gas. And homes now require less heating due to a focus on retrofitting and insulation.
The electrified urban world has been made possible by cheap abundant energy, the majority of which is generated from solar and wind. It is now a fraction of the price of oil, gas and coal.  This has enabled many African nations to leapfrog the fossil fuel age and provide safe cooking and lighting that doesn’t pollute their air or emit carbon.
The new wild and diet
This move to cities has removed pressure on rural areas and we have nearly achieved the target of rewinding 40% of the planet by 2040 following the landmark 2030 agreement.  Swaths of new forests are growing, some designed for urbanites to get out into nature, some free of human activity that are seeing forgotten species return.
Our changing diet and approaches to farming have also enabled this. For many cultures, beef is now a luxury rarely eaten. The exception is as one ingredients in a new blended burger that most now prefer - traditional burgers are typically seen as too meaty! This one change has seen a big decrease in the CO2 produced by individuals. 
Plant based eating has dramatically increased but where once there were tribes of vegans vs meat eaters, the trend is that the majority of people eat some but a lot less meat. This has improved health.
This is one of the many positive changes that has been supported by the introduction of global carbon taxation, including replacing Value Added Tax with Damage and Value Added Tax and this has helped encourage innovation and more sustainable consumption. 
This change in diet means that we have stopped using using land to rear cattle and grow feed and farmers instead are being paid to rewild and sequester carbon through environmental guardianship. 
Farm productivity in developing nations now matches that of developed economies.  This means that despite the population continuing to grow, we haven’t needed to create new farm land. Birth rates have now dropped to close to two per woman and are getting close to the replacement rate , in thanks part to improving healthcare and a move away from rural living. Greater life expectancy means that the population will continue to rise for some time but we’re now on a trajectory where this will eventually come down.
The emerging circular subscription economy
The last 20 years has seen a big increase in mining to find the rare earth materials required to electrify everything. But now real progress is being made towards a genuine circular economy for batteries, steel and many other consumer products. 
Productivity is now thought about less in terms of humans and now in terms of materials. This has given rise to a new economy of subscription physical goods rather than ownership. This has reduced the number produced and has enabled greater repair and recycling without undermining businesses. The focus is on value and outcomes not outputs. 
Most new steel is now made from recycled steel, using renewable power.  Sustainable timber has added a new natural warmth to many of our buildings and ‘plyscrappers’ and helped to lock up carbon.  And a new form of cement that captures carbon during its production, rather than emitting it in vast quantities now dominates the market. 
Above exhausted oil fields the first examples of another new technology - artificial forests - draw CO2 out of the air and fill the cambers once filled with fossil fuels.  This image helps underline the switch we have made. Instead of extracting and burning fossil fuels we are putting their carbon emissions back into the ground.
All this innovation has not only reduced our impact on our planet but created the wealth not only to drive more investment into continuing to create new solutions, but also improving the lives of the humans currently living on the planet. We are the first generation that has been able to not only improve the circumstances of humans now, but we are doing so without degrading the environment further for future generations and are instead restoring it.
What role can product thinking play in this great transition?
The product mindset helps find new solutions to complex problems where there is lots of uncertainty. It is about focusing on understanding the context and motivation of people and their desired outcome. Once you understand that, it is about finding solutions that better than the current alternatives. They need to be desirable, usable, viable and feasible.
Climate, biodiversity and pollution are some of the most complex problems we face. Here’s are some initial thoughts on how product thinking might help.
To encourage the adoption of more sustainable products, we need to make them more desirable than what people currently use. Better, cheaper, healthier and more fun. This means understanding the needs and psychology that will make people make the effort to switch.
We’ve got to make solutions more user-friendly and easy to switch to. Their utility has not only got to match what people do now, but be better enough to go through the pain of changing.
These businesses need to be viable. That means they need to be able to find customers and retain them and be able to make a profit to continue to invest in innovation and stay in business. This means finding the right business models and channels to market.
The crux of many of these innovations is can they be made to work at scale in repeatable ways. This is where many innovations are now and often requires lateral thinking and new perspectives.
If you’re a product manager looking to make an impact, there are few problems more worthwhile tackling.
- I love this framing by Hannah Richie in her book Not The End of The World. If you want to understand where best to have an impact and that a positive future could be possible, I would definitely recommend it.
- 54% lived in urban areas in 2016. It’s project that 68% will do by 2050 : Percentage of people living in Urban Areas - Our World In Data
- Inspired by Roman Krznaric’s great book The Good Ancestor. You can see Europe reimagined as City State here.
- Pontevedra has been car free for 19 years. Air pollution has decreased by 61% since 2013. 70% travel is on foot. 12,000 have moved to the city centre since the ban in 1999. WEF on LinkedIn.
- In 2019 Onshore wind cost $41 LCOE and Solar Photoviltaic $40 compared to Gas $56 and Coal $109. The price of wind has declined by 70% and Solar by 91% since 2009 and continues to fall. Coal has remain reasonably constant. See Our World In Data.
- We already have a global agreement agreement at recent Biodiversity COP to protect 30% by 2030. See Guardian.
- Beef produces 99.5kg CO2 per kg compared with chicken 9.8kg, pork 12.3kg and and most plants <2kg. See Our World in Data.
- This one is less researched but there is an interesting proposal here.
- Beef requires 370m2 per kg compare with chicken 12m2, pork 17m2 and most plants <7m. See Our World in Data.
- Cereal Yields in Africa lag far behind North America. See Our World In Data.
- The IMF is currently predicting a birth rate of 2.1 per woman in 2050. See here.
- Inspired by the final chapters of The Material World by Ed Conway.
- Inspired by the work on Circular Economy by The Ellen Macarthur Foundation.
- Inspired by The Material World by Ed Conway.
- Lovely video from BBC Ideas on the practicalities of building with wood.
- Two companies Heirloom Carbon Technologies and CarbonCure are already working on this. See Guardian article.
- This is a bit out there but apparently MIT have proved it can be done. See here.