For economic growth, tougher environmental laws?
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"It's not that our technologies were inferior, but we didn't have the public policy or patience to build the industry," says the SEIA's Colin Murchie. While Europeans subsidized solar and wind production, the US offered tax breaks for fossil fuels and has allowed its wind-production tax credit to lapse repeatedly.Skip to next paragraph
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When the US did lead on a global environmental issue, however, it translated into a substantial competitive advantage for a number of American manufacturers.
In the mid-1980s, when British scientists documented a huge hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, Dupont was a leading maker of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, a refrigerant and one of the chief causes of ozone depletion. But instead of fighting to block CFC regulation, the company joined the Reagan administration in leading the global community in a phaseout of CFCs. Dupont soon developed an alternative to CFCs it deployed ahead of competing products, developing a lucrative global market.
The development of new technology that could use one of Dupont's alternative cooling substances, dubbed HFC, helped spawn a new generation of more efficient compressors that have led to refrigerators that use only about a third of the energy they did in the 1970s. The result has been a huge energy savings worldwide.
Of course, green technology represents only a small part of the nation's economy. Gauging whether stricter environmental regulation helps - or hurts - the overall economy is tougher and more controversial.
"We find no evidence that improving environmental quality compromises economic progress," wrote Michael Porter of Harvard Business School and Daniel Esty of Yale University in a 2002 study of leading industrialized nations. That doesn't prove that one causes the other, Dr. Esty is quick to point out in a phone interview. But "there's good reason to believe that there's a connection."
Many economists disagree. "To suggest that there will be all of these savings as [businesses] comply with regulations is just silly," says Paul Portney, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan economic think tank. "It's wishful thinking. I would love it if, when regulating firms, we helped them see all these other opportunities, but it's a hopelessly naive view."
In any case, all of America's green technology isn't lost. For example: US firms, pioneering a nanotechnology that can print solar cells on fabric or plastic to make flexible solar power, could become world-beaters, Mr. Murchie says. But they may only have a few years to do it.
Many countries have tried to boost their competitiveness by supporting research in green technologies. But the results are mixed. For example:
• The United States in the '70s and the '90s increased research funds, but with few long-lasting effects.
• Japan launched its Research Institute of Innovative Technology in 1990 as a research hub. It regularly announces new initiatives, such as biodegradable plastics, that some Japanese corporations have picked up. Critics remain skeptical.
• The European Commission last year launched a plan to boost funding in research in fuel-saving engines, soil-cleaning techniques, and other Earth-friendly technologies. It's too soon to judge its lasting impact.