Beijing now looks quite a bit like a giant ashtray when seen from outer space. Residents of Beijing, for the past week, have been dealing with catastrophically high air pollution levels in which the entire city has been wrapped in a thick, dangerous, hazy smog that’s forcing residents to stay inside and prompting trips to hospital emergency rooms for others who venture outside. The smog is literally so bad that it’s “beyond index,” with Beijing reporting all-time-high smog levels. It’s easy to isolate the reasons for the smog: government corruption, a failure to adopt emission standards, horrendous urban gridlock and out-of-control industrial growth made possible by the reckless burning of cheap fossil fuels.
But wasn’t the whole “clean tech revolution” supposed to solve all of these problems?
We’re spending money on new Clean Tech, but even the most optimistic experts agree that most of the gains in air quality and environmental cleanliness from clean tech are decades away at best. In 2012, the world spent a staggering $268 billion on the sector, according to numbers compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The Chinese actually chipped in a staggering $67.7 billion in 2012. That’s beyond surprising, given the ghastly pcitures we have been seeing from Beijing these days. Mostly, this investment has gone into renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biofuels. And that seems to be a major focus of both the Obama Administration and Silicon Valley venture capitalists — at least back in 2011. However, initial enthusiasm for these clean technologies has cooled. The “dirty” little secret is that it’s tough to make a buck from expensive, new “clean” technologies.
So, when it comes to avoiding “beyond index” scenarios in the future, maybe we need to change the way we think about clean tech. Maybe, just maybe, we need to think about ways to transform “clean tech” into “clean-up tech.” Over the past two years, there have actually been some interesting innovations in clean-up tech such as Alcoa's self-cleaning, smog-eating building panels that the company claims cleans itself and pollutants out of the air. And, just last year, CNN reported on new smog-eating roof tiles from a U.S. company that works much like Alcoa’s aluminum building panels, absorbing harmful pollutants from the air. Instead of merely adding solar panels to your roof (the clean tech solution), you can add smog-eating roof tiles (the clean-up tech solution).
These innovations can be made all the more powerful by taking what we know from other hot area — such as the development of the smart grid — to leverage the network effects of technologies. Keep in mind that it was a Twitter feed (@BeijingAir) hooked up to an air quality monitor on top of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that keeps tweeting out alerts about Beijing’s horrendous air quality. And Beijing residents are now using smart phones to keep track of which areas of the city have the worst smog levels. If the Chinese government ever gets on board, this seems like a way to manage clean-up-tech initiatives most effectively.
The global urban smog problem isn’t going away on its own, so someone has to clean up the mess. According to the State of the Air 2012 report from the American Lung Association, 41 percent of the U.S. population faces the prospect of dangerous air quality conditions in the future. Beijing, as one of the first mega-cities of Asia, is just the harbinger of what’s to come as other mega-cities sprout up around the world. So here’s some advice to budding entrepreneurs in places such as Los Angeles and London: Give us smog-busting innovations with immediate results. Let’s focus on clean-up tech, not clean tech. If the regulatory and bureaucratic hurdles are too high in the U.S. to make this a reality, try China. There’s a billion Chinese right now who would appreciate a little help cleaning out what basically amounts to a giant ashtray.
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