Scenarios for a sustainable Luxembourg

July 2021

How climate change and the need for more sustainable use of water and land can be addressed depends on a place’s social model, governance approach and spatial structure. The current approaches will not manage to sustain global warming below 1.5°C, hence alternatives are needed. To stimulate thinking about possible alternatives, the NEXUS Futures project has developed three thought provoking scenarios. They showcase radical ideas on possible adaptions to climate change by 2045. Each of them presents a coherent, plausible, but also challenging future, and depicts challenges and controversial issues, possible solutions and their potential consequences.

The scenarios focus on the question how to address the expected population growth (from about 630,000 in 2020) in a sustainable Luxembourg, including different governance ideas and their implications for the spatial structure of Luxembourg. Water consumption serves as a common indicator across the three scenarios to illustrate the use of natural resources. Below a few spotlights on the scenarios. The full versions will be published in due time.

Smart sustainability scenario

By 2045 it seems that mankind’s threats to the global ecosystem can be fixed through innovation. The alignment of economic, technological, political and environmental interests has led to the emergence of a highly regulated, interconnected, circular economy. Luxembourg’s economy has developed into a holistic, networked circular economy. Artificial intelligence and virtual technology have become part of every aspect of society and decision making is based on information from sensors and algorithms. In consequence, behavioural patterns did not have to change. People and administrations continue to act as they do in the 2020s.

In short, this scenario is characterised by increased economic and demographic growth with a focus on technological developments and global competitiveness. By 2045, Luxembourg will have around 1.3 million inhabitants, which is about twice as much as today in 2021. They will consume 155 litres of drinking water per day (2017: 200 litres). This corresponds to an average reduction per inhabitant of 29%. Overall, due to population growth, water consumption will increase by 42% by 2045, compared to 2017.

To moderate traffic flows and reduce the use of natural resources, the focus is on avoiding urban sprawl and pushing for a polycentric settlement pattern. Luxembourg city and a number of small and medium sized towns continue to grow and represent the backbone of economic and population development in Luxembourg and they are well integrated in national networks. The main points of attraction are the five smart development centres. They are complemented by another 10 development centres. Rural areas experience much more moderate developments than the centres and take on increasing tasks for the delivery of ecosystem services.

Despite the substantial technological solutions and a focus on polycentric development to combat urban sprawl, the state of nature deteriorates. Ensuring increasing demands in terms of water consumption and eco-services becomes a challenge, not at least due to the substantial population growth.

Web of life scenario

By 2045, substantial investments in biosphere integrity and biodiversity regeneration have become an existential necessity and gained primacy over all other concerns in public and private decision making. Decision makers in the EU and Luxembourg put the regeneration of the environment above the right to free decisions about private property and personal development – despite the resulting tensions in society. This leads to a more purist lifestyle geared towards understanding and securing human existence as part of the web of life.

This scenario is characterised by efforts to guarantee the best possible environmental protection and function of ecosystems, whatever it takes. By 2045, Luxembourg is a green oasis in the middle of Europe, and has about 850,000 inhabitants, which is a third more than today in 2021. On average, each of the citizens consumed only 125 litres of drinking water per day (2017: 200 litres). This corresponds to an average reduction per inhabitant of 38% compared to 2017. Overall, due to population growth, the total water consumption will only increase by 20% by 2045.

To guarantee the best possible environmental protection outside the settlement areas, the population will be encouraged to move into the central settlement corridor between Nordstad, Luxembourg City and Südstadt. By 2045, around 750,000 people live there, i.e. 88% of the population, or 38% more than today. The relatively high density offers a good quality of life, good transport options and proximity to nature.

The remaining areas are almost no longer inhabited and show good environmental conditions. Indeed, the main settlement axis is surrounded by a permaculture belt with areas for agriculture and allotment gardens (e.g. for self-sufficiency). Beyond the permaculture belt, the natural spaces begin, which, in addition to preserving ecosystems, also serve ecotourism and the generation of renewable energies. Although these areas make up most of the country, only about 12% of the population live there. That corresponds to approx. 100,000 people or 55% less than live there today. In rural areas soil sealing could be reduced substantially due the demolition of buildings and infrastructure.

Common goods and knowledge scenario

By 2045, ‘governance of the commons’ is the mantra in Luxembourg. Innovative governance arrangement led by Luxembourg’s regions manage the common goods of the country, with a particular emphasis on water. This does not mean an abolishment of the state, but a power shift to the regional level. Concerned with the potential for discontent and populism, or even independence movements, similar to those at global and EU levels, the government of Luxembourg granted to emerging regions – or rather regional municipalities – the power to manage their own natural resources.

This scenario is characterised by efforts to maintain and improve the quality of life of the population by pushing the common goods as the highest good for all decision-making processes. By 2045, Luxembourg has 930,000 inhabitants, which is about 50% more than today in 2021. Water consumption is down to 110 litres of drinking water per day (2017: 200 litres). This corresponds to an average reduction per inhabitant of 45%. Overall, therefore, due to population growth, water consumption will increase by 25% by 2045 compared to 2017.

The devolution of decision making led to the rise of five self-governed regions in Luxembourg. They emerged along natural and socio-cultural boundaries , which largely follow river catchment areas and drinking water regions. The delimitation of the regions is not always clear and in some cases the regions also extend beyond the national borders. The urban centres of the regions accommodate the majority of the population and are the economic centres of the regional circular economy. They have sufficient critical mass and offer an economic basis for regional recycling and recycling companies, repair centres and centres for additive manufacturing. The centres are also the starting point for economic and social exchange with other regions in Luxembourg, the Greater Region, Europe and the world. The rural areas of the individual regions are important for regional ecosystem services, including drinking water, renewable energies, biodiversity, food, local recreation.

Overall, the decline in rural areas and the growth of the regional centres, allow to accommodate a growing population without increasing the total soil sealing. No-net land can be achieved. Still the provision of drinking water and services of general interest are challenging.

As for the future

Certainly, Luxembourg is not likely to develop as portrayed in the three scenarios. Still they offer interesting starting points to think about alternative governance models and land use patterns to address climate change challenges differently. The scenarios have been elaborated in the context of the Luxembourg Nexus Futures study, managed by Ariane König, University of Luxembourg.

by Kai Böhme & Sebastian Hans

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