Chapter 4: Outlook: 2002–32

Driving forces
A tale of four futures
Environmental implications
Lessons from the future
Technical annex

The record of the past three decades shows how tricky it can be to foresee the future course of events on such a time scale. Enormous social, economic and political changes have shaped and transformed present-day realities over that period, not least the oil crises of the 1970s, the end of China’s isolation and the collapse of the Soviet system, that were not — and perhaps could not have been — predicted.

‘The record of the past three decades shows how tricky it can be to foresee the future course of events on such a time scale.’

Some aspects of modern life might have been foreseen in general terms, by extending such longterm trends as reduction in trade barriers, continual technological innovation and the growing role of the service sector. Following the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the emergence of a worldwide environmental movement might have been anticipated and hoped for. But few, if any, recognized the major regional and global issues such as acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion and climate change, which have driven much of the action in recent years.

Moving into the future means travelling into uncharted waters. Some of the way ahead is clear but there is much that cannot be mapped out, even with advanced technologies. As before, there will be challenges that can be prepared for but others that will seem to materialize from out of the blue.

How shall we proceed as a society? By placing faith in further globalization and liberalization, trusting primarily in the market economy to solve wider social and environmental concerns? Or by putting policy first, whereby coordinated action to solve social and environmental problems balances the drive for economic development? If and when troubles arise, will everyone work together to address these threats, or will groups that are better off focus on self-protection, creating fortress conditions that increasingly exclude the ‘havenots’? Or could a more visionary state of affairs emerge, where radical shifts in the way people interact with one another and with the world around them stimulate and support sustainable policy measures?

Narratives or numbers?

Scenarios can be told in many ways. The two most common methods used in scenario analysis have been descriptive, written narratives (qualitative scenarios) and tables and figures incorporating numerical data, often generated by sophisticated computer models (quantitative scenarios). Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses and their relative worth has been much debated.

  • Qualitative scenarios can explore relationships and trends for which few or no numerical data are available, including shocks and discontinuities. They can more easily incorporate human motivations, values and behaviour and create images that capture the imagination of those for whom they are intended.
  • Quantitative scenarios can provide greater rigour, precision and consistency. Their assumptions are explicit and their conclusions can be traced back to the assumptions. The effects of changes in assumptions can be easily checked, pointing to important uncertainties. They can provide order-of-magnitude estimates of past, present and future trends in, for example, population growth, economic growth or resource use.

In GEO-3, qualitative narratives take centre stage with the quantitative tools playing a supporting role.

There is no knowing which of these — or other — possible futures will actually unfold over the next 30 years. Much of what will happen has already been set in motion by policy decisions and actions that have already been taken. Uncontrolled forces, both human and natural, will contribute to the course of events. But informed decision-making also has a real and vital role to play in the process of shaping the future.

Scenario analysis can make a difference to this process. By exploring an array of possible future scenarios, today’s decision-makers can get a clearer picture of what tomorrow might bring in terms of human well-being and environmental security and what the impact of their decisions is likely to be. And they can determine more accurately what it would take — and what they can do — to create a more desirable future.

Scenarios are descriptions of journeys to possible futures. They reflect different assumptions about how current trends will unfold, how critical uncertainties will play out and what new factors will come into play. Since it emerged as a formal methodology in the middle of the past century, scenario analysis has evolved swiftly as a tool for anticipating the future. It is now generally accepted that scenarios do not predict. Rather, they paint pictures of possible futures and explore the differing outcomes that might result if basic assumptions are changed. Hence the relevant question that scenarios can answer is not what will happen but what might happen and how people could act to encourage or counteract particular events and trends. As a way of exploring the unknown, scenario analysis can result in surprising and innovative insights.

The scenarios developed for GEO-3 have an environmental focus but recognize that the environment cannot be discussed without also considering what may be happening in the social and economic spheres. The scenarios therefore span eventualities in many overlapping areas, including population, economics, technology and governance. Moreover, though many issues are of global concern, some take on special relevance or sharper focus when viewed at a regional or smaller scale. To take account of this effect — and so that each can enrich the others — this chapter presents both global and regional perspectives. In addition, the role of policy choices in shaping the future is highlighted in the scenarios wherever possible, although this influence can be hard to judge because other policies and independent developments may cloud the effects of any single policy. Drawing on the experience and work of other scenario initiatives, including those of the Global Scenario Group (Raskin and Kemp-Benedict 2002), a set of four scenarios has been developed for GEO-3.

  The Markets First scenario envisages a world in which market-driven developments converge on the values and expectations that prevail in industrialized countries;
  In a Policy First world, strong actions are undertaken by governments in an attempt to reach specific social and environmental goals;
  The Security First scenario assumes a world of great disparities, where inequality and conflict prevail, brought about by socio-economic and environmental stresses; and
  Sustainability First pictures a world in which a new development paradigm emerges in response to the challenge of sustainability, supported by new, more equitable values and institutions.

For each of these scenarios, an overall narrative — ‘A tale of four futures’ — describes the future in the next 30 years in a predominantly qualitative manner, providing both regional and global perspectives.

The stories of the four scenarios are followed by a more detailed examination of their environmental implications, drawing on quantitative data derived from a number of analytical tools — and with a regional focus intended to highlight particular concerns in the different regions. A brief comparison of qualitative and quantitative approaches is provided in the box. For more details of the GEO-3 scenario analysis, see the technical annex to this chapter.

The chapter concludes with ‘Lessons from the future’, a discussion of important lessons arising from the scenario analysis for future environmentally relevant policy development. Before embarking on the journey through these four possible futures, however, it is useful to know the key assumptions made in constructing them and how these act as driving forces behind the scenarios. These assumptions are therefore outlined in the next section.