|Book Review: New Technologies and Environmental Innovation|
New Technologies and Environmental Innovation
Written by: Joseph Huber. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004. 335+xxiv pages.
This book is about new technologies and a new approach to policy that would result in better long-term protection of the environment than the current emphasis on “end of pipe” approaches, such as sewage treatment and automotive catalytic converters that clean up pollution after it occurs. Joseph Huber refers to such technological environmental innovations (TEIs) as “upstream approaches” and underscores their technical benefits of enhanced efficiency, operational safety, and reliability. Examples of such upstream approaches include fuel cells and photovoltaics that, unlike producing electricity from fossil fuels, do not pollute the environment in use.
Largely academic and government-policy focused, this book will be most useful to research and development (R&D) professionals and inventors looking over the horizon for new opportunities. Businesspeople willing to slog through a fairly technical tome will be rewarded with an eye-opening discussion of global environmental problems and the extensive changes in society and business that are necessary to solve them. In addition, they can expect a well-written description of the pros and cons of many emerging environmental technologies that will likely reshape our lives and businesses in the coming decades.
The book includes four sections. The first, an introduction, lays out a convincing case for developing TEIs as the most efficacious strategy for environmental protection. According to Huber, supporting TEIs is more fundamental to environmental protection than many activities that are the focus of much current activity—for example, changes in consumer behavior, product or process design, financial policy, or how businesses manage themselves environmentally. The author calls for a new paradigm for environmental protection termed “coordinated innovation”—supporting the development of promising new technologies in the early stages of their lifecycle, with a corresponding shift in environmental policy away from “command and control” regulation of older, more mature technologies. If Huber had his way, government and business would focus jointly on developing clean car technology, or even better, new land-use policies that reduce the need for cars altogether, rather than require car owners to maintain catalytic converters on existing (combustion engine) vehicles.
The second section provides an extremely impressive technical discussion of the pros and cons (environmental and economic) of an encyclopedic array of TEIs from a variety of diverse fields that Huber believes require the greatest attention. These fields include energy, agriculture, chemistry, biotech, materials, construction, vehicles, and consumer goods. From the energy section, for example, the reader learns
why fossil fuels are unsustainable
why, surprisingly, biofuels, such as methanol and ethanol, may not be much better—Huber calls them “quite ‘dirty’ in every respect” (p. 75)
why hydrogen, which can be burned in industrial furnaces and in internal-combustion engines (like gasoline) as well as used in fuel cells, is the “obvious” alternative.
A short chapter follows this on the need for policy interventions. The book ends with a comprehensive synopsis of generic innovation theory (S-curves and the like).
Given the emphasis on policy interventions in the book's introduction, one might have expected more attention to the subject than Huber offers, including case examples of successful interventions from the past. Also, the discussion of generic innovation theory seems out of place in this book, as it does not clarify how such theories might apply to environmental technologies in particular.
The book provides noticeably few examples of in-market successes of technologies in specific commercial applications (e.g., Toyota's Prius hybrid engine car; BP's photovoltaic business), thus potentially limiting its appeal among product developers looking to build a business case. For businesspeople trapped in fear or confusion-induced inertia about which technologies to invest in, Huber's discussion provides well-written and thoughtful guidance on how to prioritize environmentally sound technologies according to future environmental protection and investment worthiness. Of particular usefulness may be an 11-page appendix of extant TEIs and an extensive bibliography.
Readers familiar with McDonough and Braungart (2002) will notice a similar macro-orientation and call for development of a new industrial age to preserve the environment. Both books underscore the need for “eco-effective” strategies consistent with nature's ability to metabolize wastes. Huber's book, however, is eminently more practical, with an emphasis on concrete technological solutions to environmental problems, in contrast to McDonough and Braungart's more philosophically oriented discussion, with its focus on product and process design.