Capitalism - the mother of green invention?
Looking around our homes and offices, there have been some great inventions to reduce the amount of power we use. The low energy lightbulb is a prime example.
While helpful, the lightbulb, and indeed broader policy initiatives like the carbon tax, are just incremental changes towards a true low carbon world say Dr Adam Bumpus from the Melbourne School of Land and Environment.
“If we are still relying on fossil fuels, we are still running towards the cliff, just a bit more slowly,” says Dr Bumpus.
“To deal with the climate change problem, the carbon price provides a signal, but not the support and structure that enables innovation leading to transformation. New clean technologies can be scaled-up using competition and profit in capitalism, but they need policy and societal support to counteract the inertia of the fossil fuel status quo.”
Because climate change policy is often uncertain (for example US federal climate policy between 2008-11 and the effect of a potential government change in Australia), Dr Bumpus and collaborators at Oxford University, UC Berkeley and the University of British Columbia are looking at how low-carbon transformation through government-business-society relationships can be achieved.
Dr Bumpus leads the ‘Carbon Governance Project’, a series of international workshops with leading industry experts, scholars and government representatives to gain a better understanding of how to get the transformation needed.
One of their main findings is that central to the use of capitalism in the low carbon transformation is a shift in what is ‘valued’ and not just priced. The low carbon transformation will come from a positive vision of the future, and out of new industries that generate financial value by making, selling and exchanging goods that re-invest the value of the climate system in everyday transactions.
“The manufacturing and distribution of products that deal with low carbon concerns and provide services people want will help accomplish this, for example the use of biochar as a fertiliser and form of carbon sequestration, or information systems that integrate smart houses with smart grids.
“We need to incorporate ecological and societal value, and not just the price of climate regulation, into the creation of new cultures of innovation.”
Information systems on energy usage are important to support consumers with their low carbon purchases. Examples are EnergyStar appliances or the recently launched Greeenstar.org initiative, which is a tool for consumers to rank products like-for-like on carbon footprint. The tool was co-developed by Dr Bumpus before he joined the University of Melbourne.
“Such an approach is based on the idea that there is no ‘silver bullet’ for climate change: we need policies that help innovators create discoveries that allow a ‘silver buckshot’ approach to low carbon transformation, a concept developed by Steve Rayner at Oxford University.”
“We need to foster multi-stakeholder processes and networks that disrupt current thinking and produce ideas that can grow in the space opened up by collaborative government-business-society engagement.”
Dr Bumpus adds that as a case in point, Exxon made US$30bn in profits in 2010 by doing what it has always done, really well.
“Genuine transformation means we will make it possible for companies to save the climate simply by making this much profit.”