Column jonas-welander

Published on July 2nd, 2012 | by Jonas Velander

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What is cleantech and why is it important?

Most people agree that it’s important not to disturb the environment they live in to the extent that their own lives become clearly affected. Increasingly, as the expected results of our trial and error approach to nature and a growing population, people are seeing more of these manmade environmental effects in their daily lives and from news reports from all over the globe. People are even starting to extrapolate and ask themselves what life will be like when these effects pile up. The usual doomsday prophets are obviously present but what affects people more is probably the sense that they might have to fundamentally change the way they live at some point in the future. Hence, it’s starting to make sense to be environmentally cautious, as long as that in itself doesn’t imply major changes in daily life.

This poses each of us with a fundamental dilemma: How can we in a globalised world,with minimum impact on our own lives, avoid negative effects on the environment that are relevant to us so that we don’t have to change our lives dramatically in the future.

Cleantech (greentech, environmental technologies and the rest of green-clean-environment-technologies combinations) is often hailed as the solution to this dilemma. If we just invent the right technologies we can all go on doing what ever we are doing and the current negative environmental impact of our daily activities will simply disappear. We will not be on the brink of extinction, forced to choose between dramatic change or death.

But this is not what cleantech meant from the beginning. The term was originally coined to describe investment opportunities attempting to capitalise on the changes in the business landscape that follow environmental problems and growing environmental awareness.

Combing these two meanings results in an attractive prospect of inventions that will save us from being forced to fundamentally change the way we organise our lives while making good ROIs for investors. If the term cleantech is to have any relevance these two perspectives should be at the core of its meaning.

What is puzzling is that the EU, amongst others, use a definition of cleantech that more or less means technologies that are better for the environment than the technologies dominating the market today. This includes sustainable technologies like solar energy or green chemistry but also clearly unsustainable solutions like more efficient use of fossil fuels or nuclear power. For sure, they all do some good at the end of the day, but they are not sustainable in the long term and will just prolong our deeply rooted habits for another cup of unsustainability.

Is a widely used definition of cleantech including both sustainable and unsustainable solutions a problem? The answer is yes, and the reason is that these definitions are used to allocate vast amounts of public and private resources, lined up in national cleantech strategies, corporate R&D funding and cleantech equity funds. If resources are allocated according to a definition that doesn’t match our fundamental dilemma we are wasting them. At best, this definition implies kicking the can along the road and at worst transferring a negative environmental impact from one area to another. For example, lowering the fuel consumption in a car by 50% might sound like cleantech, but with the expected doubling in the amount of cars over the next 25 years the total consumption will still be the same.

If we are to have a go at resolving our fundamental dilemmas we need to define cleantech as something along the lines of “commercial solutions with significant impact on the transformation towards a sustainable society.” The solutions we need for the future are commercial because otherwise they will not attract the right kind of investments and will not be used widely enough to have an impact. And they need to be sustainable rather than somewhat less harmful or their positive impact will not be as high as it could have been.

It is not very hard or costly to assess whether a technology is sustainable or not. The tools are there for anyone to use. What is costly is to spend the limited resources we have on this planet on non-sustainable solutions branded as cleantech and hope that this will do the trick. It won’t.

Jonas Velander, Director at Cleantech Inn Sweden

Jonas Welander – Photo Teknopol

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