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Visions of Scotland 2050

Flooding, rationing, refugees, power failures ... but we'll all be happier. Experts were asked to imagine our country in 42 years ... Environment Editor Rob Edwards looks at their predictions.

By 2050 Scotland will be mostly vegetarian, look after half a million climate refugees and put its old and young in "community domes" to protect them from floods and heat waves.

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The country will have experienced rationing, hurricanes and lost large low-lying areas to the sea. People will be growing more of their own food, but flying, driving and buying far less - and they could be much happier.

These are among the visions for the future conjured up by 16 experts assembled by the David Hume Institute, an Edinburgh think tank. Backed by the Scottish government, it is this week publishing a collection of essays imagining what Scotland might be like in 42 years' time.

The authors, who include leading academics, environmentalists, businessmen and civil servants, were asked to write as if they were looking back from 2050. They were told to assume that the government had succeeded in its aim of cutting climate pollution by 80%.

The result is a huge variety of personal predictions. "Today, the planet is a much sadder place than it was in the noughties'," wrote Campbell Gemmell, the chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Scotland would have a "hurricane season," many species would have disappeared, fresh water would be in short supply and the air would be polluted, he imagined. Stale air would be recycled in weatherproofed domes "where the old folks live with the kiddies".

Geoffrey Boulton, the vice principal of Edinburgh University, painted a similarly bleak picture. In his scenario, polar ice caps melted much fasted than expected, causing "the potential demise of the Netherlands, Bangladesh and Kuwait, flooding of large areas of the US Gulf of Mexico, Florida and east coasts, of Myanmar, Thailand and northeast China".

In the UK "large parts of south eastern England and in Scotland, the Forth, Clyde, Moray and Solway lowlands were at risk, with the prospect of major frequent inland flooding along most river valleys," he said. There would be a "massive impact on the populations and economies of most states".

Boulton predicted that food and water shortages would trigger riots in developing countries and Scotland would have "severe power failures" from 2013 because of "increasingly unreliable nuclear stations".

Governments were guilty of "misplaced optimism", he argued, and for being "too preoccupied by the credit crunch".

Jan Bebbington, vice-chair of the government's Sustainable Development Commission in Scotland, mourned the loss of many coastal sites to the sea. "Many of you will remember the sorrow at the last British Open played in St Andrews," she wrote.

By 2050 Scotland would have taken in 580,000 refugees from the World Climate Change Migration Programme, Bebbington forecast. And the nation's diet would be "largely vegetarian", thanks partly to a campaign in which Rangers and Celtic had adopted "healthy low-carbon eating".

Simon Pepper, the rector of St Andrews University and the former head of WWF Scotland, foretold rationing. "Storm, flood and drought set off the deadly dominoes of hunger, migration and political unrest throughout the developing world," he said. "Europe and the US, and prosperous enclaves in other countries worldwide, began to bar their fortress gates, fearing the hordes."

But Pepper's vision is not all so gloomy. By 2050 he thought that Scotland would have made a successful transition from the hedonism and greed of the "age of excess" to a society founded on "community well-being, measured by indices of health, happiness and security".

Michael Northcott, a professor of ethics from Edinburgh University, speculated on a new age of "eco-spiritualism" with a renewed appreciation of ancient festivals of light. The Celtic cross would be "the defining symbol of the post-carbon revolution in Scotland," he said.

He envisaged that electricity would come via an international grid from a huge solar array in the Sahara to heat Scottish homes.

In 2050, Northcott wrote, "every Scottish city and town is now surrounded by a green belt of between one and 15 miles' width constituted of allotments and huts where urban residents grow much of their own food, keep chickens and pigs in free-range common areas, and camp out on long summer evenings and enjoy communal eating and ceilidhs."

Martyn Evans, the director of the Scottish Consumer Council, imagined the growth of "electro-cycling", combining discarded lithium batteries and bicycles. This was started by the "Easterhouse riders", a group of unemployed people who started cycling for fun to the Highlands and then all over Europe.

In Evans's future, battery farms would be banned and vines would be grown on Tayside. The "Vegan Party" would win key seats in the Scottish Parliament.

There would be a scandal over the introduction of a carbon credit card scheme designed to reduce individual pollution, Evans said. "The CarbCard Bubble, as it came to be known, collapsed in acrimony within five years of its launch in 2025, accusations of fraud, scamming, manipulation, freeloading, speculation, and elitism all taking their toll."

The idea for the series of futuristic essays came from Richard Wakeford, the Scottish government's environment director general. In his contribution, he criticised the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy as "perverse" because it prevented poor quality agricultural land being used for growing timber.

He suggested: "With hindsight, we were driven too long by a failure to reconcile the twin goals of GDP growth and green progress in an increasingly turbulent world," he wrote.

The David Hume Institute is holding a seminar in Edinburgh on Tuesday to discuss the issues raised by the essays. On display will be a video and mural made by children with the help of WWF Scotland.

"The seminar and report offer an exciting opportunity to look into the future at how Scotland could respond to the challenge of climate change," said Stewart Stevenson, the Scottish climate change minister. "These contributions show the wide range of ideas which can add to future thinking on action."

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