Book review: Hot, Flat and Crowded

Can clean technology help heal the economy as well as the planet? Tait Simpson investigates.

In the midst of one of the coldest winters on record in Europe, it's useful to keep in the mind that despite the 'deep freeze', our atmosphere is trending not colder but warmer. In fact, the world that The New York Times' 3-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman sketches out in his new book is one that is getting far too hot for an increasingly crowded planet. In a year where nations from the United Kingdom to United States are trying desperately to bail-out their economies, Friedman usefully steps back and argues that only by moving rapidly towards a greener future can any economy lead the way out of the recession towards long-run prosperity.

Looking past the economic contraction, Friedman sees a world that is nearing a point where it's time to call 'Code Red'. Friedman believes that calling a 'Code Green' is the only way this looming catastrophe of ailing economies, growing consumerism in the developing world, and climate change can be halted. The first country to adopt the principles of 'Code Green'; energy from clean sources (wind, solar, geothermal), energy efficiency, and energy conservation, will lead the way through the next economic boom, what Friedman calls the energy technology revolution.

Moving towards a true energy technology revolution will not be easy, argues Friedman. Too many guides outlining 'ten easy ways to make your home greener' describe going green as simply a matter of changing a few light bulbs. Energy technology can only succeed if governments cut through the overwhelming political pressure to avoid hard choices and play to existing interest groups who trumpet unproven green technologies such as corn-based ethanol and clean coal. Regulatory and tax systems across Western countries are overwhelmingly slanted towards supporting dirty fuels, oil and coal.

In a rather comic point illustrating the institutional resistance to moving to real clean energy solutions, Friedman attempts to put solar panels in his backyard in wealthy suburban neighbourhood. The local residents support clean energy, as long as it's done by other people out of their sight. In an update to the common political problem of NIMBYism (not in my backyard), Friedman finds that what is more common now is BANANAism, which stands for "build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything." After a two year fight with local zoning laws, Friedman finally gets his solar panels. But if it takes two years to put a few panels in a backyard, how are countries going move hundreds of thousands of homes to clean energy in time, he asks?

To make a real move to clean energy, consumers, utilities, and renewable energy/technology companies require two fundamental rules from national governments. First, pumping carbon into the atmosphere must have a price. The Kyoto Protocol and carbon trading system in Europe is a flawed but well-meaning attempt at this. Second, the only way to get developers building enough wind turbine farms and solar panels is to provide what are called feed-in tariffs for renewable energy; guarantees over ten to twenty years for a stable fixed prices for the green energy. So when the price of oil drops by 50% suddenly, the clean energy will continue to flow. Tax breaks, quotas, pats on the back and other government programs simply don't work for private companies.

Much of the book is aimed at explaining how renewable energy and the construction of energy efficient goods will be the next great growth industry. Friedman goes to the home of the 1990s information technology revolution, California's Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, and finds the same venture capitalists that financed Amazon, Netscape, and Google, now putting their money behind disruptive green technologies that can make energy production and storage efficient enough to be used on a mass-scale. Since each source of renewable energy has its drawbacks (solar doesn't produce when it's cloudy while wind turbines don't turn on a calm day), these green investors know that renewable energy sources will develop in tandem with each other. Each country will have a different strength; wind works in Denmark, geothermal works in Iceland, solar is popular in Germany, and offshore wind has huge potential in the UK.

Therefore the connection of renewable energy sources to national energy grids, and the movement of green energy from country to country when there are excess energy produced is critically important. Energy grids throughout Europe and North American are dangerously old. Investments in 'smart girds' that allow small renewable energy projects to sell power into the energy grid will be crucial step in the energy technology revolution.

In his own affable way, Friedman criss-crosses the globe to tell the story of climate change and the green movement. His global network of friends and contracts is never ending and he often turns the book over to them, quoting them verbatim for whole pages at a time. Friedman strives to make the complicated out to be comprehensible through his unique use of anecdotes and metaphors. For an understanding of what will undoubtedly be one of the next great growth industries, a read of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is well worth your time.