Club of Rome, foretelling the future 50 years ago

Published on Monday, 22 October 2018

Foretelling the future is the work of prophets, visionaries and scientists. But despite being the head of a Turin-based company, Aurelio Peccei had a brilliant idea for which he is still remembered today. 50 years ago, he and Scottish scientist Alexander King founded the Club of Rome, a farsighted international association that raised the alarm about a now undeniable fact: that unlimited growth cannot be sustained in a world with limited resources.  

The Limits to Growth” was the title of the first report published by the Club of Rome and it proved a real game-changer as it hailed a whole new approach that embraced elements such as: population growth, availability of food, raw materials reserves and consumption, industrial development and pollution.  

Five decades later, an Enel-sponsored international conference was held in Rome on 17 and 18 October to celebrate the foundation of the Club of Rome with the publishing of a new report that also focuses on the planet’s future. Its title is “Come On!” According to the Club, if we don’t intensify the fight against climate change, the world will see temperatures rise by three degrees by the end of the century with devastating consequences for life on the planet. If we are to succeed in limiting the global average temperature increase to below 2°C above preindustrial levels (the long-term minimum goal of the Paris Agreement), CO2 emissions will have to be slashed by at least 6.2% per year. In 2017, emissions actually increased by 1.4% in 2017 after a three-year hiatus. It is difficult to reverse the trend when subsidies for fossil fuels remain at 600 billion dollars.  

The prophetic report published by Peccei and the Club of Rome was acknowledged by Enel CEO Francesco Starace, who took part in the “Debate: Energy for the Future - Turning a Solution into Collective Action!” panel discussion. In his address Starace underscored how the evolution of technology (“we can’t stop it” and “it would be arrogant to think of changing its direction”) is making energy generation from renewable sources increasingly affordable, in addition to cutting electricity generation and distribution costs. Good examples include the digital transformation of grids and innovations in the materials science field which touch on a diverse array of sectors and, for example,have made materials lighter, tougher and cheaper. The advance of renewables is now unstoppable and there is no alternative either, as Starace pointed out. This will also stabilise the cost of electricity by reducing exposure to the variations in the price of fossil fuels, thereby allowing the use of electricity to be extended to other sectors. The Enel CEO concluded his address to the Club of Rome assembly by declaring that: “Ultimately, decarbonisation will be faster than we think” and that “an exciting future for an electrified world” awaits us all.

But Starace was not the only speaker with an optimistic message. Jeremy Leggett, Chairman of Solar Aid, a charity which promotes the use of solar energy in the poorest parts of the planet, and Thorhild Widvey, former Norwegian Minister for Energy and now Chair of Statkraft, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, reminded those present of the incredible progress made over the last 50 years. Today investment in renewables exceeds that in oil and coal, more than 100 cities and 120 multinationals have committed to full decarbonisation by 2050, and Europe is leading the world in the drive towards clean energy with China also making a very decisive effort. By 2040, Widvey says, 60% of our energy will come from renewable sources while CO2 emissions will have been reduced by 30% compared to today’s figure.  

But will all that be enough? It’s a case of too little, too late according to American economist Bill Rees, who says “We have created a world that’s now out of our control.” World population has more than doubled in half a century and greenhouse gas concentrations have increased to the point that the least three years are the hottest on record. The number of city dwellers has burgeoned from 1.3 billion to 4 billion and the number of megalopolises (i.e. cities with more than 10 million inhabitants) has risen from three (New York, Shanghai and Tokyo) to 22.

1968 may have become the year of change but 2018 needs to become the year when the planet changed direction in order to survive. The Club of Rome gave us ample warning 50 years ago. Long live the Club of Rome!  

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