Become a Cleantech Nation – Just Don’t Forget the Sustainable Part

There’s a compelling and thought-provoking book making the rounds called Clean Tech Nation that should make its way to your must-read list this Fall.

Authored by Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, the thrust of the book is that the U.S.—long a leader in various technological revolutions—is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to clean technology leadership.

To wit: the UK is the world’s number one generator of offshore wind power. China has become the world leader in wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing. And Germany added more new grid-connected solar PV and produced more biodiesel in 2010 than any other country in the world.

Obviously, Pernick and Wilder weren’t interested in strapping on a pair of rose-colored glasses before examining the global cleantech landscape to see who’s taking a leadership role. But that’s part of the appeal of the book: it doesn’t pat the U.S. on the back for what it has accomplished; it explores how much further the country can—should, and needs—to go.

The book outlines a seven-point action plan, a mixture of policy prescriptions, investment strategies, and government recommendations, to help the U.S. regain its leadership position and truly become a “Clean Tech Nation.”

I concur with the authors’ position that a sustainable future depends on the transition to a clean global economy, and that the U.S. needs more committed leadership and action in this direction.

But in becoming a cleantech nation, the United States—and China, and Germany, and all other countries—must also aim to be a sustainable clean tech nation. We’ve seen what can happen when cleaner technologies aren’t designed with full consideration of sustainability throughout the product lifecycle: toxic and difficult-to-recycle mercury in compact florescent light bulbs is just one example. Renewable energy, electric vehicles, advanced materials: any advancements in clean tech need to be part of a whole systems approach. Otherwise, we end up substituting one set of problems for another.

Since as much as 80 percent of a product’s environmental footprint is determined during the design phase, design has a crucial role to play here, and the right software—such as the tools provided through the Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program—can help ensure that the environmental footprint of a clean technology is actually sustainable.

Getting clean tech “right” is of vital importance because of the urgent nature of environmental challenges that the globe is facing. Witness the recent attempts by Peruvian citizens to save their critically important glacier water-supply by covering the glaciers in sawdust. While environmental challenges might not affect other countries as visibly or obviously, they are just as crucial, ultimately, to security and safety.

Pernick & Wilder’s book went to press in January 2012, so understandably they weren’t able to fully capture and comment upon the latest ups and downs of the clean tech industry, of which there have been plenty. But the silver lining is that amongst the volatility, costs are increasingly being driven down for clean tech, making it easier for countries to adopt new technologies as they become available.

Now more than ever, the world can benefit if the U.S. moves quickly and regains a leadership position when it comes to development and deployment of clean technology. But let’s all be sure that its quest to reclaim the crown is done in the most intelligent—and sustainable—way possible.

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