In the course of travelling through life, I occasionally intersect with others as passionate as I am about our world’s climate and energy crisis. I love to pick people’s brains and most of the time I can’t stop myself from asking them, “If you had one silver bullet policy in your pocket that you could implement today, what would it be?”
I have received responses ranging from “sign the Kyoto Protocol” (which I perceive as small beer) to “remove corporate money from politics” (which, while probably the correct answer, is wholly unrealistic).
Through these discussions, I believe I have settled (at least for today) on an answer of my own: “promote international development through green growth.” At a time when economic concerns drown out calls for foreign aid, I’m reminded of the saying, “The cleanest power plant is the one you never have to build.” And nowhere is the need for new power as acute as in the developing world.
For some, a Third World green intervention seems like a misallocation of limited resources. Why not just let them build a bunch of coal plants? For others (me included), this need provides real opportunity. In locations where firewood is the the primary sustainable resource, intelligent green investment can be sustainable in its own way - through profitability.
But with hundreds of international initiatives underway to support green growth, it’s easy to suffer from paralysis of too many options. What are the key strategies? Who’s doing what well? Where is there room for improvement?
In the United States, we look to Silicon Valley as the model of an innovation ecosystem. It is there that raw talent, research capability, and venture capital’s business-building power converge to create the planet’s premier environment for the generation of new products and wealth. While Silicon Valley itself has shown little interest in the developing world, their model remains a gold standard and its strategies are easily transferable.
Nurturing talent must start with education. The status quo of having one professor teaching standard courses to 1000 students will not get the job done. Training students in the basics is key, but education needs to become less abstract and more vocational. Let brewing beer be a study in chemistry. Let cows be a study in biology. If HP cannot offer copying equipment to parts of Africa due to a lack of qualified technicians, as was recently the case, teach technology to match the need.
Then, for research to be effective the world must work together. China and the United States are behemoths, and science agencies like the US’s National Science Foundation offer much in the way of support. Africa, however, is challenged by having 45 separate, smaller science foundations. Regional agencies must be formed to bring these groups together. If Rwanda relies solely upon its own scientists, it’s going to miss 99% of knowledge generated elsewhere.
Consider General Electric’s ecoimagination, an enterprise they describe on their website as “GE’s commitment to imagine and build innovative solutions to today's environmental challenges while driving economic growth.” Thus far, their research has proven capable of meeting global needs like lowering carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, developing/deploying wind and solar, and maximizing water conservation. GE possesses massive resources, benefits from economies of scale and has a global presence. There's still plenty of room for improvement, from geothermal investments in Indonesia to new public transport systems in Central America and Asia.
But while technology is the glue between green and growth, solving the R&D problem alone doesn’t mean you have a competitive product. It certainly doesn’t guarantee a valid business model, nor is it necessarily scalable. For instance, a company the size of GE is not optimized to sell solar panels to villages one at a time.
So while nations like Burundi will seldom outperform the science team of a company like GE, that shouldn’t be their role. Developing nations are much better positioned to understand their own needs, constraints and goals. Perhaps they can host franchises that spin-off First World tech to deploy on village-sized scales. Then, the smaller region’s needs can spur local innovations of First World “big box” technologies.
For example, to process coffee, beans must be washed, hulled, polished, sorted, etc. A developing nation relying on its own technology will be priced out of the market by big box technology that scales. But since the final coffee product depends keenly on the details of the processing method, innovations of big tech at local sites can provide an end product neither the First nor Third Worlds could have achieved entirely on their own.
However, research and business can only do so much. If conditions on the ground are not fertile for green growth, roots won’t take hold. Electricity cannot be transported if the government fails to maintain electrical wires. If the state heavily subsidizes coal or oil, green technologies competitive in a free market won’t survive in a rigged one. Without patent protection and sharing of intellectual property, tech transfer will not occur. Agencies like the World Bank can be coaxed into giving their assistance, but they rarely lead. The bed must first be set by gathering global support for investment, e.g. by connecting principle investigators in neighboring countries or by getting the World Bank to fund distributed solar (perhaps by crowdsourcing) in developing markets.
Many of these issues will be discussed in June at the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. If representatives can figure out how to link regional science foundations, introduce researchers to businesses (venture capital-style) and direct First World technology to Third World innovations, this might be the silver bullet most worth firing.