Blog: Using Nature to Help Build a Green Economy - RSA

Blog: Using Nature to Help Build a Green Economy

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In Lewis Carroll’s wonderful book Through the Looking Glass, Tweedledee emphatically declares to Alice: ‘Contrariwise: if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.’ It’s always a struggle to move beyond ‘contrariwise’. There’s a remarkable inertia in large institutions and industry to get the order of things right. Even when the need is a pressing one.

Our planet is experiencing a frightening number of environmental crises. Extreme and abrupt climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, ocean acidification and deteriorating water quality are just a few of the many important challenges we face on a worryingly large list.  But all are interconnected. Several years ago the United Nations Environment Program launched an ambitious target: for the world to develop a ‘Green Economy’, one which is low in carbon, efficient with resources and socially inclusive. By making the shift to a green economy and move towards a more sustainably-run planet, the UN argue, we can slow and ultimately reverse the collapse in our planet’s ecosystems. With intense international negotiations now happening behind the scenes in the run up to the Paris climate change summit in December, governments are grappling with how to rapidly decarbonize their industries while growing their economies for all.

Perhaps surprisingly, the green economy is actually worth a fortune. In Britain alone, business is booming, with an estimated value of more than £120 billion and employing over a million people. For the period we have statistics (2011-2012), the green economy was outpacing global growth. It’s an extraordinary statistic that is mirrored around the world but easily overlooked. The question is how to continue this trajectory.

There’s no doubt technology has a major role to play in greening of the world’s economy. As recently highlighted by Sir David King, the UK’s former head scientist and chief negotiator at the Paris meeting: ‘Technology is moving ahead very rapidly. I think we need to focus not only on the details of the negotiations, but also on what the technological revolution is going to bring to us.’ The good news is we now have an arsenal of green technologies, both old and new, that can be brought to bear on helping the world decarbonise its economy.

My own involvement in supporting this ambition began with the modest potato. At thirteen years old, I was left at home on one of the rare occasions my parents went out and decided to use the recently arrived microwave for dinner. Not understanding the difference with a conventional oven, I set the timer to cook on high power for a shocking 40 minutes. The inevitable result was a house filled with smoke, one dead microwave and a glowing black lump where the potato had once been. It was one of those painful life experiences one tries to forget but it held the nugget of an idea: to use microwave energy to make green products. The resulting New Zealand company is called CarbonScape and flourishing. Moving beyond potatoes, we are designing and building tailor made microwave devices that can turn forestry waste and other biomass into a host of carbon-neutral products, including activated carbon, green coke and other fuels, chemicals, and even biochar for locking carbon out of the atmosphere. Since its formation, the team has gone from strength to strength, becoming the Judges Top Choice in the Financial Times Climate Change Challenge and runner up in the 2012 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. This year we raised over $860,000 through crowdsourcing, the largest raise to date in New Zealand.

Like many green tech companies CarbonScape is cost competitive. But replacing old industries is a challenge. This year the International Monetary Fund reported the shockingly high global fossil fuel subsidies that total some £3.4 trillion ($5.3 trillion) a year, equivalent to an eye-catching $600 million an hour. These subsidies artificially keep fossil fuel products relatively cheap, holding back the adoption of green technologies. It’s not a level playing field.

If we really want to get away from being contrariwise and help the green economy take off, we can only hope Paris does away with the fossil fuel subsidies. 

Professor Chris Turney is an ARC Laureate Fellow in Climate Change and Earth Sciences at the University of New South Wales, and Director of CarbonScape Holdings. Join in the debate by posting your views below. 

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  • Dear Chris, I suggest you write an article that provides other members examples of technologies that do and can generate change and energy from waste. You might consider writing about Tetronics and APP-UK Gas Plasma that National Grid has engaged. BIS has given it a £15m subsidy and the DfT has short-listed it for a £25m award, yet the rest of Government are oblivious to its merits could be the lead for your next article? If you have the need please do not hesitate making contact?