Could We Be at the Start of Industrial Revolution #4?

eiffel towerThe Eiffel Tower went green (as in trees) last week, honoring the two-week Paris World Summit of 195 countries focused on cutting planet-warming emissions. Bill Gates was one of the early presenters with a big announcement. He and 28 other billionaires and philanthropies are creating a multibillion dollar clean energy fund. The fund, along with commitments from the U.S., China and ten other nations, is expected to be the largest such effort in history and is designed to pay for research and development of new clean-energy technologies. If successful, the Paris meeting could spur a fundamental shift away from the use of oil, coal and gas to the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

As attendees at our seminars in October already know, there have been three industrial revolutions. The first, from 1750 to 1830, was started in the UK and Europe and featured steam and railroads. The second, from 1870 to 1970, was started in the U.S. and brought us planes, cars, electricity, communication and refrigeration. The third, from 1980 on, was computers, internet and e-commerce. This economic growth over the past 250 years has contributed greatly to many advances in global civilization, the reduction of poverty and improvements in the standard of living. However, it has been powered by the burning of carbon-based fuels-coal, oil and now gas. With U.S. and world economic growth now shrinking and our planet heating up, is it time for industrial revolution #4?

Research now shows that the accumulation of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing a massive disruption of our climate, water and food sources. While some dispute these facts, two-thirds of Americans, according to the most recent NYT/CBS poll, want the U.S. to join an international treaty to limit the impact of global warming.

Since 1880, our planet is 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. May not sound like much, but it is. Much of the land ice on the planet is starting to melt and oceans are rising. The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima bombs exploding across the planet every day. Certainly, the risks are much greater over the long-run than over the next few decades. Yet, if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are huge. As a result, the Paris summit is working on an agreement to limit the rise of global temperatures.

Let’s now bring the issue closer to home- Illinois’s neighbor to the West, Iowa. Recent polls show that 60% of Iowans, now facing flooding and erosion, believe global warming is happening. Iowa has embraced clean energy. The state’s first major solar farm is in rural Frytown supplying electrical power to the Farmers Electric Cooperative. Cornfields across the state have wind turbines, which are now providing 30% of Iowa’s electricity. Here’s the part I really like, as reported in the NYT: “Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the benefits of green jobs.”

Iowa’s new climate initiatives are a great example of what clean energy can mean. In addition to adding wind turbines, Iowa farmers are working to improve the organic matter content in the soil. One young farmer in Johnson County, Iowa planted more than 30,000 trees, introduced cover crops, composting and multispecies grazing and transformed a once degraded corn farm into a carbon capturing and storing ecosystem.

Iowa wants to be the clean energy leader. Their recent report, “The Economic Impact of Iowa’s Wind Potential to Meet Carbon Reduction Goals” highlights the expanded economic development and job creation they project.   The plan is to create 6,000 jobs building wind turbines each year and as many as 11,000 jobs for wind turbine installation. Iowa feels that clean energy could provide $3.5 billion in economic development by 2030. And, this is just one state in one country.

In a blog post in July, Mr. Gates wrote: “If we create the right environment for innovation, we can accelerate the pace of progress, develop and deploy new solutions and eventually provide everyone with reliable, affordable energy that is carbon free. We can avoid the worst climate-change scenarios while also lifting people out of poverty, growing food more efficiently and saving lives by reducing pollution.” And, we might even start Industrial Revolution #4, and give the world some much needed economic growth. We’re all for it.