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Futures of using nature in rural and marine Europe in 2050: Scenarios

Author

Totti Könnölä

Aug 14, 2023

The immense social and technological evolution of the Anthropocene continues transforming the Earth’s surface and its dynamics through extensive (mis-)use of its resources, both on the land and in the sea. These challenges were addressed in the Deep Dive on rural and marine areas in Europe in 2050. We present here the four scenarios developed.

Please also take note of the related blog post on policy implications derived from the scenarios. 


In Scenario A, European Civic Ecovillages pursue self-sufficiency and contribute to establishing a cooperative, locally oriented, caring economy restoring the ecosystem carrying capacities in land and sea. In Scenario B on Sustainable High-tech Europe, European businesses enjoy global leadership in regenerative and multi-functional high-tech solutions for energy, aquaculture and agriculture. In Scenario C on the United States of Europe, centrally planned Europe is divided between intensive use of land and sea and large conservation areas. Scenario D on European Permacrisis portrays Europe in a post-growth and politically scattered context that leads to low rates of innovation and fragmented use of land and sea. Each scenario considers i) Economy and technology, ii) Demographics, lifestyles and values, iii) Governance and iv) Environment.

 

Scenario A – European Civic Ecovillages

It is 2050. In the face of the intensifying climate emergency and the concomitant frequent crises, ensuring survival for current and future generations has become the prime policy goal in Europe. Europe strives to achieve self-sufficiency in terms of essential products, food, materials and energy. The economy is predominantly characterised by cooperative prosumption patterns. The locally oriented caring economy is nurturing quality of life across the whole territory. The health of ecosystems has become a top priority across all policy fields. Spatial planning is looking at land and marine areas in an integrated manner. It is focused on restoring ecosystems through multifunctional regenerative production practices that nourish biodiversity both on land and at sea. Extractive practices that are harming ecosystems are abandoned or at least limited to absolute necessity and a multitude of regenerative agroecology practices are tested and implemented across Europe. Many ecosystems have gradually recovered. The shift towards an inclusive well-being economy has come with the widespread adoption of deliberative democracy approaches across the EU. Citizen councils and assemblies are widely established to develop and implement bespoke well-being policies in each local context. People trust each other and their governments.

 

Scenario B – Sustainable High-tech Europe

It is 2050, and the European Union does not exist anymore. The cause for the disintegration was the failure of “soft” democracy in the mitigation of all environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity erosion, the increase of pollution, and in autonomy in all

vital goods and resources. Therefore, EU citizens became aware of the necessity for a rapid and radical change and turned their trust to strong national and local leaders, resulting in the high trust society coupled with autocratic regimes. End of EU meant the end of Common Policies such as Agriculture, Fisheries and Trade & other EU programmes and funds, end of financial transfers for solidarity, cohesion, CAP etc. ap in economic growth across and within countries widened. Regimes of weak or pseudo democracies, specialised to compete in global markets, are heavily dependent on global trade of key commodities such as food, energy and raw materials such as minerals and metals. Other major geopolitical blocks have also vanished, and countries have looked for the UN system as well as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to provide common guidance, though major tensions remain on regulating global trade and the balance between developed and developing countries. In Europe, the management of rural, coastal and marine areas is aligned with national plans under the guidance of the UN bodies promoting sustainable use of resources, conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In Europe, countries have their national specialisation strategies, some with global leadership in regenerative and multi-functional high-tech solutions for energy, aquaculture and agriculture, but others struggle to well position themselves in the global markets.

 

Scenario C – United States of Europe

By 2050 the citizens and governments of Europe have collectively agreed that an ever-closer union keeps Europe competitive in a world dominated by geo-political power blocks. Centrally coordinated planned interventions based on geographical orographic systems rather than the tyranny of national boundaries help also manage the needs of European citizens and critical environmental infrastructure. A strong ‘United States of Europe’ can shape rural and marine environments to meet the needs of wider society. The marine and rural areas are, especially, places of primary production and consumption. Intensive vertical farming, for example, takes place within the urban environment where the facilities to manage pollution more effectively are more concentrated and consumption is near. The rural and marine environments are managed as a collective integrated space delivering not just food but many of the ecosystem services valued and required by urban society. Certain shocks to the system, war, and famine, have highlighted the need for greater cooperation and a more unified decision-making structure to meet the needs and aspirations of European citizens. The ability of Europe to recover from the shock has emphasised the need for more autocratic, rational and centralised decision making which has widespread support and trust from the citizens. Isolationist and independent nation-states were too small to compete on a global stage. Therefore, Europe as an entity has evolved to exercise a high degree of power and trust through top-down decision-making within Europe. Europe is an active and powerful global player in trade and sustainability agenda (ecoefficient land use, carbon offsetting and spaces for renewal energy and intensive areas for food production), thanks to the leadership of ‘Brussels’ through centralised decision-making widely accepted by society.

 

Scenario D – European Permacrisis

This scenario sketches Europe with a history of economic turmoil, with a population and political system fraught with distrust and a lack of firm decisions to solve the pattern of crises. People connect to and trust their peers and others in their ‘bubble’; others are distrusted. The economic degrowth leads to self-sufficiency efforts for energy, materials and food. To support local industries, tariffs are applied for most imports, especially carbon-intensive products.

The political arena is scattered and characterized by many small single-issue protest parties. National governments feel they have no mandate to take firm decisions. Laws are issued, but their quality and resources to implement them vary. Due to the weak position of politicians, companies influence political decisions. The weak economy leads to low rates of innovation, and the R&I that takes place is applied and financed by the companies to ensure their market position. For agriculture, it has resulted in more precision agriculture and other ways to reduce losses of nutrients and water use. The lack of competition with food providers from other parts of the world allows to use more sustainable inputs.

 

Conclusions

None of the scenarios features a decisive solution to the global climate and biodiversity crises. Scenario A forcefully targets the resolution of the biodiversity crisis in Europe, by aligning human practices with nature, but provides little support to global climate and biodiversity crises. Scenario B proactively tackles the biodiversity crisis both in Europe and internationally but struggles with the fragmentation of efforts and with scaling up good practices and wider impact to curb the crisis. Scenarios C and D with intensive use of nature reduce biodiversity. Thanks to European-wide coordination Scenario C can protect vast areas with positive impacts to biodiversity, whereas Scenario D also struggles with the major fragmentation of conservation efforts and its detrimental impact on biodiversity. Such challenges illustrate the importance of balanced approaches in developing both local and global solutions to climate and biodiversity crises.

All scenarios depict a future of rural and marine areas in the context of extreme weather events and ecological crises, all be it with different intensities. Social developments, instead, range from major social confrontations to more collaborative and inclusive practices.

 

Final remarks

This brief is the result of one of eight Deep Dive Foresight Studies in the project ‘European R&I Foresight and Public Engagement for Horizon Europe’ conducted by the Foresight on Demand consortium for the European Commission. During the spring of 2023, an expert team identified factors of change and organised two scenario and one policy implications workshops also engaging experts from academia, business and public administration around Europe. The process was also supported by discussions in the Horizon Europe Foresight Network. The complete policy brief and further information about the project are available here.

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