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The Clean Industrial Revolution

The problem with cutting greenhouse gas emissions is that it will harm economic growth. Right? No, quite the opposite, says Ben McNeil in his book The Clean Industrial Revolution. It’s an age-old myth that doing good for the environment is bad for the economy. He’s addressing Australians, but what he has to say will arrest readers from many countries.

McNeil is a senior research fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at Clean_industrial_revolutionthe University of New South Wales. Besides a PhD in climate science he also holds a Master of Economics degree. The two worlds are bridged in this energetic book. Australia is very vulnerable to climate change through sea-level rise, rainfall changes, storms, and a decrease in food production. It is also highly carbon-intensive in its economy and its export industries will suffer as a consequence when the world starts to move heavily to reduce carbon emissions and impose carbon tariffs.

Such consequences can be pre-empted by a clean-energy revolution, one for which Australia is well-endowed. That hot arid interior is the potential source of vast quantities of high capacity solar power. The use of mirrors to concentrate sunlight so perfectly that the ultra-high temperatures convert water to steam is one way. Another, already under construction in north-west Victoria, uses mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to high-performance photovoltaic panels. Solar power could replace the need for coal-fired power stations.

A massive underground “hot rock” heat source can be tapped to create steam for power generation, a technique already being worked on by a number of companies at several sites throughout Australia. Wind power in the south could supply 20 percent of the country’s needs. Advanced biofuels that do not impact on food can be produced. Biomass-fuelled electricity is already produced in some parts of rural Australia. Carbon capture and storage may hold some hope for the continuing use of coal, though not while coal companies put a miserly 0.3 percent of their production value into research, apparently believing that governments will do the work for them.

McNeil argues that Australia must take up a forefront position in the low-carbon economic future if it wants to remain prosperous. At the time of writing in 2009 he expected the emissions trading scheme to kick in, putting a price on carbon and pointing the economy towards investment in clean energy. This has been delayed, but even without it there is ample reason for the change of focus away from the carbon-intensive economy (carbon obesity he calls it). The world will soon be crying out for clean energy technology. Australia will continue to prosper in the future if it has used research and development to drive down the cost of renewable energy technologies, and investment to commercialise them and prepare them for export.

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