Welcome to the sustainable future

Welcome to the sustainable future

While climate goals seem all the more hard to reach, experts say we need concrete narratives to show us what a sustainable future might look like. We need stories that explain what roles we as individuals can play – meet Ester in Stockholm 2050.

It’s the 1st of July 2050 and the sun is rising. Sunlight is slowly filtering through the reflective glass exterior, causing Ester to rub the sleep from her eyes. She asks her digital assistant for a cup of coffee before even getting out of bed, and hears the machine obligingly whir into action in the kitchen. We call our person of the future Ester. She is a fictional character who for research purposes is placed in a time and scenario where humans once again live sustainably and in tune with nature.

In Ester’s world the amount of global emissions has been halving every decade since 2020. Reports are published of sustainable food chains, improved water quality and balanced ecosystems. And the planet is far from exceeding the 1.5-degree global temperature by 2100.

Welcome to the sustainable future

But that century is still a long way off. The sunny day has begun, and draws attention to what lies outside the solar panel-clad windows. The timers in the kitchen tick away. The roof panels and the integrated solar panels that cover the facades and windows are all performing at full capacity.

“Should I work from home today or drive my electric bike or car to work?” Ester asks herself.

She decides to drive her small electric car, charged with self-generated electricity, to her hybrid office in the urban circle close by. Moving around the city is fast and easy because the traffic has been replaced by the new autonomous buses that provide a seamless shuttle service.

Everything within 15 minutes distance

In Ester’s city, no transport stretch takes longer than 15 minutes. Once known as decentralisation, this development is now regarded as commonplace. Little has been demolished to give the urban districts a chance to flourish; instead the catchword has been adaptation, and crops are now being cultivated on the rooftops side by side with solar panels.

“The 15-minute city” – isn’t that what they called it? Ester seems to recall reading about the model that was launched by Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. But the fact that she has everything she needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride is far from a matter of course.

Car with solar panels

Ester’s car has solar panels on its roof, and the car body serves as a battery. Sometimes the car sends power to the grid, other times it uses the power to top up the battery, functioning like a communicating vessel. The car is connected to the grid and can drive autonomously in the most energy-efficient and climate-smart way, but on this particular day Ester prefers to drive herself and take an alternative route because she has the time and the weather is so nice.

She enjoys the greenery. Large squares and asphalted surfaces have been replaced with rain parks and cloudburst ponds that can handle sudden precipitation events, while trees, bushes and other vegetation regulate the temperature. Tree crowns offer shade, water tables work together in a canal-like system, and fields and bushes are full of sounds of buzzing and chirping like never before.

Whatever is new has been created from reuse, and circular systems mean that very few resources now go to waste.

She laughs when she thinks about the manicured lawns of the past; so rigid, time-consuming and water-intensive.

In the small urban core where houses and small office complexes are concentrated, old buildings have been renovated and modernised. Whatever is new has been created from reuse, and circular systems mean that very few resources now go to waste.

Items can be borrowed

Basement storage spaces are full of batteries and communally owned items that can be borrowed, such as tools and various types of electric bikes. There’s also a small car pool for driving distances that are too long nonetheless. Courtyards and storage facilities have been specially adapted to accommodate hydrogen storage, among other things, and on this particular day they’re all full of self-produced green energy. The turbines in the wind farm in the distance are standing still, but what does that matter on a day like this?

Ester listens to the silence of the city post-electrification. The air is high and clear despite the 25-degree temperature. The wide walking and cycling paths make it easy for her to quickly move between her home and the shops, recreational areas, cultural events, gym and office, so she rarely needs her little car in her everyday life, but she likes to know she can just take off whenever she wants to.

Many small cores

When it comes to food shopping, Ester can use a transport bike with an electric motor or have it delivered to her home by a bike delivery rider or an electric truck that doesn’t need to drive so far when a large urban core is replaced by many smaller ones.
Ester dreams of taking the train to Paris for her holiday. The journey only takes a few hours now, and she has heard that Europe is greener and more beautiful than it has been for decades.

But right now Ester is planning a picnic with friends in a local park. She turns up the volume of the music in the car while a news broadcast tells listeners what it used to be like, specifically in the 2020s when almost 50% of young people said they didn’t want to have children on account of the climate crisis, and about when young people’s concerns about global warming, ice melting and severe weather events destroyed their dreams.

It’s a new era now.

Even if we don’t know what the future will be like and Ester is just a fictional figure, this story is an attempt to describe the best outcome of the sustainable development goals which the world’s leaders adopted in 2015 and which mean meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Ester’s life may be idealistic, but it’s also a kind of vision, even though several of the planet’s limits have already been crossed.

We need narratives that make sustainability more concrete.

Now let’s return to our own time to meet Alexandra Nikoleris, associate senior lecturer, environmental and energy systems studies at Lund University, who has studied transition narratives, among other things. She believes that visions like the one about Ester have great value. “We need narratives that make sustainability more concrete so that we can write ourselves into narratives like these,” says Alexandra and adds: “A lot of research shows that most people today take climate change seriously and want something to be done about it but don’t know what, or what role they should play.”

That fact that we live in a narrative doesn’t have to mean that we can’t change it. The power of change lies in the narratives we choose to activate, believes author Mary Alice Arthur, who calls herself a story activist.

Another believer in the power of storytelling is Christiana Figueres, the lead architect of the Paris Agreement who now runs an organisation called Global Optimism. In her book, titled The future we choose: Surviving the climate crisis, she writes a story similar to the one about Ester, and in her most recent article she likens Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels to a smoking lung cancer patient who starts up his own tobacco plantation rather than quit smoking.

The pace of transition is too slow

To reduce the cognitive dissonance, the inner conflict between what we know and how we act; that is where these stories fulfil a purpose. But she also realises that many will push back if the narratives are expected to result in restrictions on our freedom of speech.

“That’s why collective narratives often work best. That people share their experiences on trains and when cycling together, for example,” she says.
In an ideal world, Sweden’s vision is to become the world’s first fossil-free welfare nation, but a lot still needs to be done to achieve its climate goals and realise this vision.

The overall aim is to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by the year 2045 and thereafter negative emissions. To have a chance to experience at least some of what Ester can enjoy after 2050, there needs to be an annual reduction in emissions of 6-10%.

“The pace of climate transition remains too slow, and current policy is insufficient for achieving the climate goals,” writes the Swedish Climate Policy Council in its 2021 report.

At slightly lower rate

But wait a minute – Sweden’s domestic emissions amounted to 46.3 million tonnes CO2 equivalents in 2020, representing a record reduction of 8.9% compared with 2019, which is well inside the government’s stipulated reduction range. The decreasing emission levels depend on lower generation of emissions from industry, domestic transport and electricity and district heating sectors, though, according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, they also result from less activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emission reductions in any one year do not diminish the greenhouse effect, either; the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere simply increases temporarily at a slightly lower rate than it otherwise would have. It is not until net emissions reach zero or are negative that the conditions will be in place to stop global warming. And to reach that point, global emissions would need halve every decade from 2020 in order to reach net zero by the middle of the century, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The real world isn’t even close to Ester’s. There is no point in time when all the problems disappear, but despite the problems there are some possible solutions, a sustainable development, that is highlighted by the IPCC and the global sustainable development goals, among others things, such as:

  • Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and carbon capture and storage.
  • Protect and expand the biosphere. Restore wetlands, forests and transition to sustainable regenerative agriculture and forestry practices.
  • Transition from a linear to a circular economy. Complete the cycle. Reduce wastage and waste. Reuse and sharing economies.
  • More equitable distribution of resources, energy and environmental space.

In a changed world like Ester’s, you can imagine that it’s easier to do the right thing. Ester knows that you can’t buy your way to happiness, just as no one would be happy if they just wore broadcloth and ate porridge all day.

According to researchers, the transition must result in maintained or improved quality of life if a sustainable lifestyle is to appeal to enough people and remain as sustainable over time. Other stories and realities must of course be taken into account, such as those of indigenous peoples and other groups of people and of places that are severely impacted by the exploitation or extraction of natural resources. A resilient future that can handle disruptions and still be further developed involves ecological, social and economic sustainability.

After the summer of 2022, when Europe was on fire, when temperature records were broken one after the other and when drought spread across almost half the EU – what are we supposed to think? And is this a result of the climate crisis?

Researchers, meteorologists and the media have long insisted that an individual weather event could not be linked to climate change, and sceptical voices have insisted that weather always varies.

Strong evidence of human influence

But in recent years a new research field has emerged: extreme event attribution. Using vast amounts of data, researchers can with greater certainty attribute individual weather events to global warming, or to put it another way, they can say how much a weather event can be attributed to human-induced climate change and how much to natural variations. And when it comes to extreme rain and heat waves, there is strong evidence to indicate that they are caused by human influence. The European Commission, acknowledging the seriousness of the situation, last year adopted a new strategy for adapting to climate change, since the impacts were already noticeable and adaptation to a warmer climate therefore had to happen sooner and be more comprehensive.

Resilience must be enhanced, and according to the IPCC, that is best achieved by countries meeting the emission targets they have set, but enhancing the resilience of cities and societies comes neither easily nor cheaply. The insurance industry in a number of countries has begun murmuring that while its business is to protect against disasters, it will be a totally different situation if the unexpected becomes the expected. “We cannot insure what we already know will occur,” says Staffan Moberg, a lawyer from the industry organisation Insurance Sweden and an expert in climate-related damage.

Now back to the future. Ester doesn’t think about commonplace things like sustainability and adaptation. She knows that the climate threat was considerable during the first decades of the 2000s, but it’s something she no longer gives much thought to because she’s busy enough living her own life. One day at a time. One step at a time. She runs her fingers through her hair, pulls down her sunglasses and hurries off.

Erica Treijs

Erica Treijs
Reporter SvD
Years in Schibsted: 21