PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is an international accountancy and management consultancy that has published a series of reports about how the world might look, economically, in 2050. They make interesting reading.
According to their latest updates Britain and other developed countries may spend the next four decades in the slow lane of the global economy unless their businessmen can break into the fast-growing markets of Asia and Latin America. The consultancy group believes that if the developed economies continue with over-reliance on customers in Europe and North America they will gradually slide down the international economic league table between now and 2050. By then even the mighty US will have lost its crown as the world’s biggest economy, not only to China but will also have been surpassed by India. The UK will have slumped from 7th to 10th largest while Brazil will move from 9th to 4th. Mexico and Indonesia will all also have claimed a spot in the top 10.
Political leaders from the UK have led high-profile trade missions to Asia in recent years in an attempt to emulate the success Germany has had in breaking into the markets of the leading emerging economies. UK companies are encouraged to take advantage of the fall in the value of the pound to seize the opportunities provided by rapid industrialisation and increasing consumer spending power in China and India in particular. But John Hawksworth, PwC’s chief economist, says there is little evidence they are being successful, even though the leading emerging economies have bounced back quickly from the deep downturn caused by the collapse of western banks in the financial crisis of 2008 and are currently growing three or four times as fast as the US, Japan or the leading eurozone nations. The latest forecasts from the International Monetary Fund suggest that China will grow by 10.5% this year, India by 9.7%, Brazil by 7.5% and Russia by 4.0% – yet the four economies combined account for 7% of UK exports, the same as for crisis-ridden Ireland.
Britain suffered its longest and deepest recession of the post-second world war era in 2008 and 2009, but is still ranked as the world’s sixth biggest economy. International comparisons between economies can either be made using market exchange rates or “purchase power parity”, which takes account of the relative buying power of the currency in its home market. Using either measure, China will be the biggest economy in the world by mid-century, the report says.
If we look beyond the aggregate numbers to look at what it might mean for individual people, it paints a very different picture. Using the GDP data from the report and combining it with UN World Population Prospects 2008 edition, it is possible to calculate the Purchase Power Parity GDP per head of the main countries for 2010 and 2050. This changes the way the top 20 economies look quiet dramatically. Australia, which wouldn’t feature in the top 10 by total economy size, is revealed as the second richest country, a position it manages to retain by 2050. The UK, which is the 4th richest per capita slips to 6th while the progress of the developing countries is less spectacular with China stepping up just one place from 18th to 17th although South Korea does jump from 10th to 4th.
The most spectacular changes take place in the spread of GDP per capita with the number of countries at half or less of the US per capita number falling from 11 to 7 with Vietnam’s relative wealth per head jumping from 7 to 38% of the US level while China goes from 15 to 45%. This narrowing of the wealth spread does give some support to the idea that economic growth is good for everyone but somehow I suspect that we will see few of these projections come to pass.
The tendency for humans is to predict the future as much the same as the past but with growing or decline influences from predictable impacts e.g. large numbers of women entering the workforce. Thus PwC look at growth in the labour force of working age, average education levels across the adult population, growth in the physical capital stock and total factor productivity growth, all pretty much standard current economic levers. Much of human behaviour (and hence economies), is driven by what it perceived to be “normal”, so today’s paradigm of energy intensive economies with country specialisation and free flows of international capital is probably the underlying thinking. What is considered to be “normal”, however, is more difficult to predict; just a year after Roger Bannister achieved the “impossible” 4 minute mile, three men ran sub 4 minutes in the same race, before Milgram’s electric shock experiments he asked colleagues what percentage they thought would administer the “fatal” shock level and they predicted 1% when in fact two third went all-the-way.
Over the next 40 years of idea of what are “normal” conditions is going to be challenged in the extreme. The current course of carbon emissions means that we will be well on our way to a 4 degree Celsius increase in average temperatures, a level that Rachel Warren points out in a Royal Society paper “The role of interactions in a world implementing adaptation and mitigation solutions to climate change,” means,
In such a 4 degree world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world. Hence, the ecosystem services upon which human livelihoods depend would not be preserved.
In a companion paper to the one in your report, PwC have a report titled “Can rapid global growth be reconciled with moving to a low-carbon economy?” which envisages a situation where global warming is avoided by reducing current emissions levels to about half their present level through increased efficiency in energy use, greater use of renewable and carbon capture and storage, and reduced deforestation. The cost of their projections is just one year of global GDP growth i.e. the world reaches the same level of GDP in 2051 as might otherwise have happened in 2050. What they have not calculated is how much wealth destruction, like the estimated $13 billion cost of damage in the Australian floods of earlier 2011, will be caused if steps are not taken.
A 50% reduction is not quite as far as the climate scientist are currently saying is needed but this report suggests the world has a bright future. To put that at risk by further prevarication on taking meaningful, global action borders on being criminal activity. The solutions to climate change are available and eminently affordable; it just needs the political will to implement them.