By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post
If you’re like me, you were probably flooded with jubilant messages and memes about the end of 2020. Our black swan year of crisis and calamity, plague and polarization, is over. And in 2021, there are reasons for optimism, not least as countries around the world roll out the first phases of coronavirus vaccine plans.
But the broader picture could yet be quite grim. This past week marked the formal start of a new decade. To kick it off, Today’s WorldView spotlights three trendlines that could define the years to come.
According to a 2015 U.N. study, the world is expected to have a population of about 8.5 billion people in 2030 — about a 15 percent increase in the size of humanity in just 15 years. India will have surpassed China to become the world’s most populous nation, while demographers forecast a pronounced population surge in sub-Saharan Africa, which will soon be home to the world’s most youthful societies. The number of megacities may double by the end of the decade, with close to two-thirds of humanity living in urban centers.
In addition, by 2030, more than a billion people on the planet will be over the age of 65, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. That’s due to longer life expectancies and improving living standards around the world. But the maturing of the world population — not just in the West, but throughout Asia and Latin America, too — carries real policy conundrums.
European governments are already grappling with a future shaped by rising costs for elder care, the consequences of declining populations and a shrinking workforce. The political solutions to these long-term challenges may include encouraging more immigration to fill jobs and weakening social protections to drive worker productivity. Demographic anxieties will almost certainly take up greater space in Western politics: On both sides of the Atlantic, far-right movements increasingly see anti-feminism as a rallying cry at a time of declining birthrates.
China’s authoritarian leadership is all too aware of the need to pivot given its aging population and has set about trying to reorient the Chinese economy to cater more to a domestic market after years of export-driven boom. In a decade’s time, we may also know whether India’s youth glut — more than half of its population is under 25 — has turned into either a demographic boon or a curse. The world’s largest democracy is already struggling to support its vast population of young people with adequate education, health care and jobs.
The deepening toll of climate change
2030 represents a major milestone for the international organizations and climate scientists that have been climate change’s doleful town criers. Two years ago, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without huge, unprecedented cuts to carbon emissions over the next decade, the world would place itself on the brink of climate disaster. Subsequent studies suggested that, even if the demands of climate activists were met, it would take decades to measure any discernible effects.
There are reasons for hope. Myriad governments have embraced ambitious plans to transition their economies toward being carbon neutral. The incoming Biden administration intends to add momentum to global climate efforts abandoned by President Trump, while Chinese President Xi Jinping said last month that China plans to decrease its carbon footprint to at least 65 percent of where it was in 2005 by 2030. The World Economic Forum — a bastion of optimism — foresees a future in 2030 in which urban centers are transformed into zones shaped by pedestrian activity, technology increasingly obviates the need to own cars, fewer people eat meat, people breathe cleaner air and renewable, clean energy dominates the energy sector.
That’s the rosy view. The demands of a rising middle class in the developing world may prove a challenge to decarbonization efforts, while climate skepticism may further drive a host of right-wing movements in the West as their opponents go green. Rather than a warning to the world, melting ice caps in the Arctic are already opening new trade lanes and avenues for exploration, stoking a new era of geopolitical competition. All the while, scientists predict an increasing number of extreme weather events wracking the world and destabilizing vulnerable communities.
The mess of global governance
The past decade shifted our view of global politics. Long gone is any certainty in the inexorability of liberal democracy — single-party states still flourish, while demagogic populism and far-right nationalism are powerful forces within many of the world’s major democracies. Rights groups warn of the erosion of once-healthy democracies and new threats to freedom and privacy posed by government cyber surveillance.
Visions of a robust liberal world order have given way to white papers on the return of great-power competition. That includes the new race over research and the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence, which is predicted to add some $16 trillion to the global economy by 2030. China has poured vast resources into its tech sector and is arguably the global pacesetter in the development and implementation of AI technologies, an advantage that has huge political implications. “Whoever leads in artificial intelligence in 2030 will rule the world till 2100,” declared a recent policy briefing from the Brookings Institution.
Liberals in the West hope the serious challenges of the next decade — all of which require expanded international cooperation and coordination — will eventually dispel the angry nationalism of the present.
But we may see even more disruption: The current polarization in the United States, exemplified by Trump and his allies’ refusal to accept the verdict of the November election, could prefigure an even worse constitutional crisis in coming years. The European Union’s project of integration could stall or collapse, buffeted both by fiscal crises and populist passions. And in Africa, the continent’s much-touted (and much-needed) plan for an integrated free trade zone is still struggling to get off the ground.
With Ruby Mellen, Assistant Editor, Foreign desk, The Washington Post.
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor