One of the most common observations you will hear from people in the green business movement is that there is "no silver bullet" to solve our environmental problems.
When you think about it, this is less a piece of sage advice than a blatant truism. There will no more be a single solution for solving climate change, water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and air pollution than there is a single product for broadcasting music and keeping your shoes clean. The challenges are far too distinct and varied for a single technology or policy to overcome them.
However, it also needs to be noted that just because no one solution will solve environmental problems that is categorically not the same thing as every different clean technology having an equal role to play.
One thing I've noticed is that the more someone says there is "no silver bullet" to combat climate change the more likely it is that the technology they are touting has a pretty niche role to play.
The clean technology sector is undoubtedly booming, but it is also highly fragmented, which brings with it huge risks for both customers and investors.
I was speaking recently with an analyst at McKinsey who agreed that while huge sums were now being invested in clean technologies the sector was still being hampered by a "Betamax syndrome" – the fear that inevitably plenty of people are going to back the wrong horse.
Given the scale of the problems climate change presents it is entirely right and proper that every avenue that could lead to a decarbonised economy is explored and all of these different approaches require financial backing.
So investors could and should continue to invest in the many wild and wonderful projects emanating from the cleantech sector. From manure fuelled power plants to gas powered fuel cells, electric cars to wood-based biofuels, and electricity generating bacteria to whisky based clean up operations there is a solid case for investment. But there also needs to be a realistic expectation that some cleantech investments will not pay off, that some technologies will do a Betamax and fall by the way side.
The flip side to this gamble is that where they are winners they will be huge winners. For example, the idea that there is no silver bullet to the emissions problem posed by cars is a patent nonsense. We do not have countless different alternatives to the internal combustion engine because for decades it made economic and technical sense for to become the standard. Now, no country is going to build a network to support electric cars, fuel cell powered cars and biofuel powered cars. In the long run there must be one winner, one silver bullet, and the firms that develop the technology that allows that winner to emerge will become global powerhouses.
What I am trying to get at is that the temptation to interpret the "no silver bullets" argument as an endorsement of every wild and wacky green technology out there needs to be resisted, and while there is a need to fund a wide assortment of different clean tech projects proper due diligence must still be applied to every single investment.
Anyone doubting this needs only look at the problems the biofuel industry, and by extension everyone else on the planet, is now facing as people fast wake up to the fact that a little bit of common sense and proper due diligence was all that was needed to avoid what is beginning to look like a global food crisis.
Have a good weekend.
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